Dorothy Draper: American Visionary

In honor of Women’s History Month, I am highlighting Dorothy Draper, the first interior designer in the United States. The aesthetic she developed as a designer has defined perceptions of “classic Americana” and you can still find her designs at hotels such as The Beverly Hills Hotel, The Fairmont San Francisco, The Grand Hotel in Michigan (Mackinac Island), and The Greenbrier in West Virginia. Her interior design company Dorothy Draper & Co. is still in business to this day, led by Carleton Varney, Draper’s mentee.

One of the most enjoyable parts of her aesthetic is a direct and loud I am here and look at me aesthetic that embodies what being American is all about. Her aesthetic is both complicated and uncomplicated all at once, there are distinct patterns and colors she leaned into as a constant in all of her rooms: (pink!), thick stripes, distinct florals, blue ceilings etc. I don’t think there could be a more fitting national style to embody America. You simply cannot ignore Draper’s design, just like you cannot ignore America. Something uniquely American about this particular style is that it’s replicable at home for some rooms and Dorothy Draper wrote books about decorating, she was sharing her vision for you to adapt as your own!

Dorothy Draper was an anti-minimalist and the elements of her design are now considered definitive of Hollywood Regency interior design. She was born in New York in 1889 to an upper class family in one of the first gated communities in the country. Her family owned three homes at the time, one in Manhattan, one in Tuxedo Park (upstate New York), and another in Newport, Rhode Island. Her great-grandfather, Oliver Wolcott, signed the United States Declaration of Independence. Her upbringing enabled her to shape her interior vision because she was exposed to both history and design, as well as the upper class contacts that would become her client list. Draper’s designs have been a major influence on several modern interior designers, including Jonathan Adler. It is wonderful to learn about how American interior design has evolved through the years, but it’s evident that Draper played a major role in shaping it. Dorothy Draper set a standard for American style which has stayed contemporary despite all of the years in between. Dorothy Draper will always be America’s designer.

Carleton Varney, the leader of Dorothy Draper & Co., a mentee of Ms. Draper.

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