Inspired By: Dorothy Draper

Posted by Phoebe Oldrey in Design Icons

Inspired By: Dorothy Draper

One of the things I really wanted to focus on this year, is the people and spaces that have personally inspired me as an interior designer and the legacy these people and spaces have left in the design community. To do this, I’ll be sharing an inspiration post once a month, and this month I’m going crazy for one of the matriarchs or our industry, Dorothy Draper. Not only does Dorothy tick my inspiration boxes with her style, she was also a woman who paved the way for all ladies who wanted to run their own business. As an interior designer with a business of my own, I am forever grateful.

Dorothy Draper was born in 1889 to the wealthy Tuckerman family in New York and married Dr. George Draper in 1912. At this time in history, her marriage could have dictated her path in life as society wife, however Dorothy had other ideas. She had style, she had a new way of thinking about interiors, and she was going to do something about it! In 1923 she established the interior design company Architectural Clearing House, which later became Dorothy Draper & Co. An interiors company was an unheard of at the time and the idea of a woman running a business, well in 1923 that was just crazy talk.

But this wasn’t to be the only first her career created in design history, she was also the first to establish the look which would become known as Modern Baroque. Modern Baroque pushed aside the heavy look of Victorian interiors and brought light colourful zing to spaces. It blended fresh, modern pastel pinks with zesty greens and powdery blues and combined this colour scheme with classical Baroque architectural features like heavy carved gilded mirrors, ornate fireplaces, and moulded architraves. She used the juxtaposition of these two styles so well it become commonplace to see the two styles combined.

The Modern Baroque style is shown to fantastic effect in her most famous project, The Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia . But Dorothy didn’t stop at decorating the rooms, she gave them the full Dorothy Draper package! At The Greenbrier, like with many of the hotels she worked with, she involve herself in all the design elements, from wallpaper to match boxes, menus, crockery and even the staff uniforms.

So what does a self-respecting successful interior designer do next? Release books and create their own line of fabrics, wallpapers and homewares, of course! Again, Dorothy was the first to introduce her style to the masses, which is now standard protocol for big-name designers. Once the respectable housewife had finished reading Dorothy’s two books, Decorating is Fun!: How to be Your Own Decorator and Entertaining is Fun!: How to be a Popular Hostess, they embraced Dorothy’s look and incorporated it into their own homes. With floral chintzes inspired by her design “Romance & Rhododendron” and patterned carpet. As Dorothy’s style was adopted by others, the Baroque element were left behind by housewives in favour for bent wooden furniture.

Her design domination didn’t stop there. Next she was designing car and aeroplane interiors and creating packaging for the cosmetic company Dorothy Gray. Surely another first where an interior designer was brought in to bring flare to an unrelated product line, commonplace in today’s world of cross-marketing. She even created a furniture line. There was no stopping her!

Sadly Dorothy died March 11, 1969, but her legacy in design still lives on. Through her hard work and entrepreneurial spirit, the existence of the multi-disciplinary designer was born and without her intrepidness, we wouldn’t see the same path walked by designers like Kelly Hoppen, Abigail Ahearn and many others today.

If you look at the photographs of her work and think the designs look dated to the modern eye, I would urge you to take a closer look.


We’re seeing many of Dorothy’s design elements making a resurgence at the moment. Her leafy Brazilliance wallpaper and fabric, which she used throughout The Greenbrier Hotel, is the perfect print for embracing the tropical greenery look that’s been popping up all over the place; it’s appearing on cushions, chairs, clothes and fabulous walls are being covered in it. Pattered carpet is coming back, too, and though we’re currently being quite tentative with it, I’m sure it won’t be long before bold carpets like those from The Greenbrier will be back. And let’s not forget to look up! Dorothy’s stunning light fittings would work in just about any home today.

Floral fabric is everywhere at the moment and I’m sure will opening the door for some of Dorothy’s signature chintzes to be added to the occasional chairs and bolsters. If you can’t find a Draper original have a look at House of Hackney’s fabrics, which has a very Dorothy Draper vibe. As for me, I’m really lusting after a Dorothy Draper chest which sits really well in a modern interior. She was famous for saying “if it looks right, it is right” and this definitely looks so right to me!

She is still with us and many probably don’t even realise that they have been influenced by her work. For someone so inspiring, I hope her legacy will always live on. It certainly will in my designs!

 Chest and Pictures photographed by Laurie Perez Bedroom Photographed by Robyn Arouty for Sally Wheat Interiors.

Smartstyle would especially like to thank Dorothy Draper & Co and Sally Wheat Interiors for kindly suppling and giving permission to use these incredible images to illustrate this blog post. I have been so touched by the lovely people across the pond who have been so generous with their support of this piece.  

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