"Dorothy Draper was to decorating what Chanel was to fashion," former protégé & Dorothy Draper & Co. President Carleton Varney says about the legendary decorator and author. "She took a world that was drab and dreary and made it colorful."
Colorful is an understatement. Big florals, bold stripes, bright hues, and ornate details are Draper's signature style. In a time where decorating was confined to "period rooms," she gave birth to the industry as we know it with her talent, flair, and social status. Through her famous interiors, fabrics, furniture, and books, she reminds us, even today, that decorating is fun.
"Have you ever considered how much pure stuff and nonsense surrounds this subject of interior decoration? Probably not. Almost everyone believes that there is something deep and mysterious about it or that you have to know all sorts of complicated details about periods before you can lift a finger. Well, you don't. Decorating is just sheer fun: a delight in color, an awareness of balance, a feeling for lighting, a sense of style, a zest for life and an amused enjoyment of the smart accessories of the moment." - Dorothy Draper, Decorating is Fun!
Born Dorothy Tuckerman in 1889 to an aristocratic family in Tuxedo Park, NY, she married Dr. George Draper in 1912. As the physician to Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Drapers lived in style and were close to the First Couple, as Eleanor was also Dorothy's cousin. Dorothy's homes attracted the attention of her social circle, and soon she turned it into a career.
Postcard from Chicago's Drake Hotel Camellia House Dining Room, 1960
She started Architectural Clearing House in the early 1920s, which is widely considered the first official interior design business. After her divorce to the doctor, her first big project was decorating the Manhattan's Carlyle Hotel in 1930. Other public spaces quickly followed once owners and hoteliers discovered that a Dorothy Draper interior meant positive marks amongst the wealthy and stylish. She had the magic touch: Sutton Place's sad tenement buildings became chic with her black and white paint job and Dublin-esque colorful front doors.
Perhaps her most enduring project is The Greenbrier in West Virginia. Commissioned for the complete redecoration in 1948, Draper was at the height of her popularity. Having published her how-to book Decorating is Fun! in 1939, she was already a household name. At one point, the resort's Victorian Writing Room was said to be the most photographed room in the United States. To this day, Varney remains The Greenbrier's design consultant, and offers decorating courses at the resort.
In 2006, Draper was honored with her own retrospective at the Museum of the City of New York, marking the first time a major museum has featured the works of a singular interior decorator. A true trailblazer, she had "the ability to take control of a hotel project in all aspects of design - right down to the designs for menus, matchbook covers and the staff uniforms." Though she died in 1969, the exuberance and confidence that permeates her work still inspires.
So take a page from Dorothy's book, embrace color, have fun, and trust that "if it looks right, it is right".
(Images: 1. David Burns Studio, Decorating is Fun via Etsy, 2. The Archives of Dorothy Draper & Company, Inc., The Carleton Varney Design Group via The Museum of the City of New York, 3. via Knibb Design, 4. The Archives of Dorothy Draper & Company, Inc., The Carleton Varney Design Group via Architectural Digest, 5. va eBay, via Hampshire House, 6. The Greenbrier, 7. Carleton Varney by the yard, 8. Kindel Furniture, 9. via Sensational Color)