American Design Icons
Confession time: I have to admit that until I started working in the world of fine home furnishings, I knew very little of the history of interior design, let alone American interior design. I partially blame the traditional academic approach. In the canon of art history, the decorative arts are second class citizens at best and the discipline of interior design specifically is often entirely overlooked. However, thanks to a few passionate and generous mentors over the years, I have gotten to know a bit about the work of those who have shaped the American interior design landscape since the late 19th/early 20th century.
Elsie de Wolfe was a self-pronounced “rebel in an ugly world.” Born in New York in 1865, she grew up resenting the dark, brooding and heavily ornamented rooms of her family’s Victorian brownstone, despite the fact that such decor was then considered the height of fashion. She resolved to make it her life’s mission to surround herself – and others - with beauty instead. The dark woodwork, heavy curtains and clunky furniture of her clients' homes were replaced by de Wolfe with luminous ivory and pale gray walls, light muslin curtains, an abundance of mirrors, floral upholstery and pale painted Louis-style furniture. Her pioneering anti-Victorian style of brighter, airier, and more streamlined and refined rooms than the era dictated is still celebrated today.
Sister Parish (1910-1994), the grande dame of American decorators, is widely credited with originating the American Country look, with its mix of good English and French furniture, along with painted chairs and tables, overstuffed sofas with lush chintz slipcovers, and walls adorned with paintings of dogs and botanical prints. While much of it was borrowed much from the English Country House style developed by Nancy Lancaster and Colefax and Fowler, she made it her own through her penchant for folky hooked and needlepoint rugs, patchwork quilts, painted floors and baskets galore, all arranged in a way that was artful yet unstudied. In her own words: “Innovation is often the ability to reach into the past and bring back what is good, what is beautiful, what is useful, what is lasting.”
Dorothy Draper—a cousin of Sister Parish—opened her interior design business in 1925. She applied her elegant modern Baroque style to many public buildings, including the cafeteria at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Fairmont and Mark Hopkins hotels in San Francisco, and, most famously, a total redesign of the Greenbrier in West Virginia. Some of her rooms have a restrained color palette of classic black and white, while others showcase a wild Technicolor mash-up of pinks with greens, turquoise, and orange. In 1939, she wrote a book entitled Decorating Is Fun!. Here's a quote: “Almost everyone believes that there is something deep and mysterious about [interior decoration] 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.”
Tennessee-born Albert Hadley joined forces with Sister Parish in 1962. Parish-Hadley Associates styled the homes of America’s elite for decades, but is probably best known for redecorating the Kennedy White House, as well as the Kennedy family’s own homes. But Hadley didn’t slow down after Parish’s death, or with age. The dean of American decorators who died in 2012 at the age of 91, boasted high society names like Rockefeller, Astor, Getty, and Mellon on his client roster, but always honored a grounded decorating spirit: “Decorating is not about making stage sets, it’s not about making pretty pictures for the magazines; it’s really about creating a quality of life, a beauty that nourishes the soul.”
Billy Baldwin preferred to be called a decorator rather than an interior designer. Comfort and quality were Baldwin’s top tenets, but he considered a space’s “good bones” to be a higher priority: “I’ve always believed that architecture is more important than decoration. Scale and proportion give everlasting satisfaction that cannot be achieved by only icing the cake,” he said. Baldwin was named to the International Best-Dressed List in 1974, and his interiors were as immaculate and crisp as his perfectly tailored suits and polished ensembles. His 1972 book, Billy Baldwin Decorates, is still considered a must-read for practical decorating advice.
Consistently denouncing the cluttered and pretentious, California designer Michael Taylor had a simple ethos: "When you take things out, you must increase the size of what's left." This spawned the widely emulated California Look, which in the latter part of his career was characterized by oversize furniture and signature elements, including Yosemite slate and fossilized stone; plump geometric cushions; logs; wicker; and lots of mirrors, all against a muted backdrop of white on white or beige on beige. Taylor fans recognize his work to be pure and simple but by no means plain, an exquisite combination of rusticity and glamour.
Angelo Donghia enjoyed unprecedented success for an interior designer of the 1970s and 1980s. His private clients included such household names as Barbara Walters, Diana Ross, Mary Tyler Moore, Halston, Ralph Lauren and Neil Simon; his corporate clients were equally impressive. He decorated the Omni International Hotel in Miami, the Hotel InterContinental in New Orleans and PepsiCo's world headquarters in Purchase, New York. His companies produced furniture, textiles and wall coverings for the design trade. He was also one of the first to license his designs for sheets, towels, china, glassware and giftware produced for the general public. Among the hallmarks of his bold contemporary decorating style were silver-foil ceilings, lacquered walls, bleached floors and generously proportioned furniture, sometimes upholstered in grey flannel - a salute, no doubt, to his family's tailoring business.