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The Duchess of Design- Dorothy Draper

All hail the Duchess of Decorating, the woman that (many would consider) the mother of interior design that helped established the profession- Dorothy Draper. Bright bold colors, fabulous patterns and the epitome of Hollywood Regency, these are just a few words synonymous with the woman that launched the first ever interior design firm, during a time when it was unheard of for women in business.


Dorothy was born into a wealthy and privileged family in 1889, New York. Her family would go on annual trips to Europe, the travels exposed her to different designs/cultures. The fabulous debutante married Dr. George Draper. She became a socialite and her high profile connections led to a cliente consisting of the elites.

How high are her ‘high-profile’ connections, you ask? Let’s just say almost every family member’s name is hyperlink on her wikipedia page (a sea of blue). From her great grandfather who (was 1 of 56) who signed the Declaration of Independence; to her husband who was the private physician of president Roosevelt (oh and she was cousins with the first lady). The list goes on and on, no big deal.


She started her career by simply decorating her home, the way she loved it. Her alluring eccentricity of miss-matching (well, everything) red doors and purple chairs (and why not throw in a bit of blue and orange walls) caught the attention of every guest that waltzed through the door. It was not long after that all her high society friends clambered to get her to decorate their homes. Dr. Draper and her soon became pros at buying and selling houses/apartments; sold completely furnished and fabulously decorated (obviously). She ditched the drap historical Victorian style period room of her times and adopted a daring,bold and innovative ‘look’. Soon she was known for ‘Modern Baroque’ , or so she called it. Her motto was “ if it looks right, it’s right”.

Her journey as an interior designer truly started when she established what is considered to be the first official interior design firm- ‘Architecture Clearing House’ (later renamed Dorothy Draper & Company in 1929, now headed by Carleton Varney).

Photo: Michael Arnaud | Courtesy of Dorothy Draper and Company inc

The very first large commission for Dorothy Draper and Company was the Carlyle Hotel, New York. This project unbeknownst to her became the introduction to her idiosyncrasy. The floors were decked out with black/white/grey marbles. For the space, she chose complementary colors (red and green) with oversized European inspired plaster scrolls/swirls details.

Dorothy's largest project commissioned was for the transformation of the Greenbrier Hotel , West Virginia. The assignment was to reimagine the hotel into a grand resort that defines American Style. And she did not disappoint. She did not stop at only the interiors, but also designed everything from menus covers to staff uniforms. Talk about executing a ‘vision’. The public rooms at the Greenbrier all have unique themes to each other. Here are some examples: the blushing pink ballroom (so the ladies face can appear as if they are blushing, get it?), the blue room (which was decorated with busts of the United States President’s heads). The bust of some presidents wasn’t, well how do I say this delicately? Handsome?, fortunately Dorothy gave some of the heads a little makeover and made sure they were all ‘attractive’. Now that's what I call the ‘American Style’.

Throughout numerous projects she had also developed unique patterns and textiles, which were utilized on wallpapers, upholstery, and even cars/planes seatings. He signature ‘cabbage rose’ fabric sold more than a million yards (for all of us non americans that's a sh*t ton). In the ‘50s Packards, a luxury automobile company, hired her to design the interior of their cars (harmonizing colors schemes and designing the interior fabrics). She was also the first ever woman to design the interior of a jetliner.

That's not all. We can also add Author/Writer to the long list of her accomplishments. Dorothy wrote a decorating advice column for Hearst newspapers. She was also on the covers of both Life and Time magazine. Lastly she penned books titled ‘ Decorating Is Fun!’ and ‘Entertaining Is Fun’, to great success.


“She’s got a point, she’s an icon, she’s a legend and she (was) the moment.” So much so that her iconic style is still admired, studied and often emulated to this day. For one, her interior design business is still open and thriving. Secondly, after her passing her book was republished and it still tops the charts. Thirdly, her style is influential to many celebrated designers; like, Jonathan Adler and Kelly Wearstler.


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