A new style, known as “Modern Baroque” was created by interior designer Dorothy Draper in the early years of the 20th Century. Dramatic color schemes of cherry red and acid green and black and white sprang from her belief that incorporating saturated hues and contrasting color schemes “have a vital effect on our mental happiness”. Large details, oversize mirrors, and combining stripes with florals, all elements in common use today, were offshoots of Dorothy’s imagination and her flair for the dramatic. Her vision, dubbed the “Draper touch” by Carleton Varney, was the antithesis of minimalism, and was quickly adopted into hotels, theaters, department stores, restaurants and the homes of suburban housewives. Schumaker sold more than a million yards of her signature “Cabbage rose” fabric in the 1930s and 1940s. “Ask Dorothy Draper”, a weekly column she penned, was carried by 70 newspapers. Now part of the collective zeitgeist, one of her most iconic looks was a bedroom scheme of pink and white striped wallpaper, organdy curtains and chenille bedspreads, adapted in homes across America and beyond.
Draper was born in 1888 to the aristocratic Tuckerman family in Tuxedo Park, NY, one of the first gated communities in the U.S. Her well-connected family included great grandfather Oliver Wolcott , one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and cousins Eleanor Roosevelt and Sister Parish, also an influential 20th century interior designer. Educated largely at home by a governess and tutor, Draper honed her eye for interpreting and transforming styles on a first-hand basis while on annual family trips to Europe. She made her debut in 1907, and five years later married Dr. George Draper, personal physician to president Franklin Roosevelt. Her background “provided Draper with a valuable network of clients and an innate sense of entitlement and authority” states Donald Albrecht, curator of the architecture and design department of the Museum of the City of New York.
Draper’s flair for decorating her own homes was so influential that her friends followed her lead and began to design theirs in her style. In 1925 she opened Architectural Clearing House, arguably “the first interior design business”, doing mostly apartment and hotel lobby restorations. In 1929 she changed its name to “Dorothy Draper and Company”, her first big break coming in 1930 with the commission of the Carlyle Hotel on Madison Avenue. Draper was an independent businesswoman, relatively unheard of in the era, who divorced her husband after he made off with another woman the week of the 1929 stock market crash. Other commissions followed the Carlyle: Sutton Homes–apartments which were slow to sell; she transformed the property after having painted the building all-black with white trim and colorful doors; the Sherry-Netherland in New York, the Coty salon in Rockefeller Center, the Drake Hotel in Chicago (which I lobbied for –and won–as the site of my senior prom), the Fairmont in San Francisco, as well as the $10 million Quitandinha in Rio de Janeiro during the Depression. In 1937 she decorated the lobby of the Hampshire House, an apartment hotel with a dramatic black and white checkerboard floor, a thick glass Art Deco mantelpiece surround, Victorian-style wing chairs, and neo-Baroque plaster decorations, and the first known use of sliding glass shower doors instead of curtains. Another famous commission was the Arrowhead Springs Resort in Southern California, playground of that bygone era’s film stars.
One of Dorothy’s most famous projects was the redecorating of the Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. During World War II it had been used as a military hospital, afterwards purchased by the railroad. The tip to toe remodel included such details as staff uniforms and matchbook covers, as well as the larger task of redoing over 600 guest rooms with 40,000 gallons of paint, 45,000 yards of fabric and 15,000 rolls of wallpaper. The $4.2 million dollar project took 16 months to complete and was unveiled at a party attended by such guests as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Bing Crosby. It is said that Draper’s commission was, at the time, the highest fee ever paid to a decorator. A few of Draper’s later projects were the 1954 café at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (which later became known as “the Dorotheum”, in her honor), Idlewild (today, John F. Kennedy) airport’s 1957 International Hotel, and the coordination of interior fabrics and colors for Packard’s automobiles.
Sofa for the “Dorotheum” café, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
A great deal of Draper’s work survives today in the lobbies of apartment buildings and hotels such as The Carlyle in New York, and the Greenbrier . Her Victorian Writing Room was once called “the most photographed room in the United States”. Kelly Wearstler and Jonathan Adler are both contemporary designers influenced by Draper.
“There seems to be within all of us an innate yearning to be lifted momentarily out of our own lives into the realm of charm and make believe”. Well said, Dorothy.