Designer Profile: Dorothy Draper

I’m in awe of this woman, who only came to my attention in 2008 when I visited The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. (How is it possible that my short stint at New England School of Art and Design in the Interiors program back in the mid-90’s neglected to mention her?  A crime!)


Does she not just ooze style?

I can assure you it was an adventure getting there, and I can still remember vividly my ride back to the airport through winding mountain passes, rabid dogs chained to fence posts, snarling and straining, I assumed in an attempt to rip me to shreds.  The Beware of Dog – No Trespassing Signs need not have been posted.  I owed a little of the adrenaline rush and racing heart to my introduction to Dorothy Draper.

The first professional interior designer in the United States – Draper was a trend setter, a path finder, a titan of industry.  Yes, she was a socialite too, from an incredibly wealthy family, for which she certainly deserves additional credit for foregoing a life of ballroom dancing, and delicate needlework.  Born in 1889 she opened – by herself – her interior design company in 1923.  She focused her efforts initially on public spaces. -Later she included among her astounding accomplishments:

  • Columnist for Good Housekeeping Magazine
  • Fabric and Wallpaper Designer – Schumacher and others
  • Furniture Designer:  Ficks Reed
  • Automobile Designer:  Packard and Chrysler ( featuring a pink polka dot truck none-the-less)
  • Airplane Interior Designer

She believed that one could be elevated in the presence of beauty.  She aimed to engage the senses, inspire and enrich the quality of life through her designs.

Credited with creating a whole new bold style known as Modern Baroque, her design was characterized by the use of wild colors in a time when color wasn’t used at all.  She threw combinations together that were jaw-dropping:  aubergine and pink, chartreuse and turquoise blue, dull white and shiny black.  She loved the bold stripe, plaster moldings, the use of Cabbage Rose Chintz, for which she was famous.  It sounds awful, and this statement will perhaps surprise you – it’s not what I consider my style.  And yet, I am mesmerized by it.  It takes your breath away and fills you up all at the same time.  How is that even possible.


The Metropolitan Museum of Art . NYC – “The Dorotheum”

She wasn’t exclusionary either, attempting to block others with a carefully constructed veil of secrecy around design.  She said:

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.

I appreciate that, and know too that she had talent.  Like an eternal fountain it just kept bubbling over.  She was fun, and ambitious, and successful beyond reason.  If she was told to mind her place, to check her pretentions, she clearly did not listen.

Draper stair

I love a splash of color, the impact of black and white, high gloss and matte, now and again I’m tempted to introduce a little chintz in the form of a pillow.  DD most definitely has influenced me.  She joked about how it all began, saying:

I started this career because I loved doing houses.  I’d done three of my own and I couldn’t keep moving my family all the time, so I decided to decorate other people’s homes…”

Perhaps we have more in common than I’d thought.  I am on number three.  While I don’t have a family, I have asked myself the question:  Can I keep moving myself in pursuit of design?……  Time will tell.

black and white

It’s pretty black and white to me.  She wasn’t just the first, she remains a legendary influence on designers today.

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