Dubbed the 'Duchess of Decorating', American interior designer, Dorothy Draper, made waves with her wide-striped wallpapers, huge repeat chintzes and penchant for vast chessboard floors and oversized objects. Dramatic, irreverent and non-conformist, she was also a true leader and design heroine, finds Natasha Fraser.
BY NATASHA FRASER | SEPTEMBER 2022
‘Star’ was Dorothy Draper’s childhood nickname, aptly predicting her daring and dashing future. For Draper was a gilded age American heiress who, by the late 1920s, had been coined the ‘Duchess of Decorating.’
Horrified by beige and bland palettes - “show me nothing that looks like gravy!” the six-foot-tall, hat-wearing decorator would cry - she forged the 'Draper touch’, exemplified by bold color and her signature wide-striped wallpapers, huge repeat chintzes and vast chessboard floors. Her plaster relief flourishes and admiration for the oversized made her the doyenne of modern baroque.
“Always surprising, happy and original, she was exactly what a designer should be,” opines Suzy Sleslin, publisher of In The Pink: Dorothy Draper (2006), while Kathryn Ireland, the Los Angeles-based decorator, refers to her as, “a true leader and design heroine.” Ireland adds: “She was one of the most fabulous women that paved the way for all of us that don’t conform to the mundane.”
Supremely confident - “If it looks right, it is right”, she told Carleton Varney, her protege who acquired her company in the late 1960s – Draper was famously dramatic and irreverent. “Draper believed in over-scaled furniture and thought nothing of chopping up an antique cabinet or a valuable painting,” says Sleslin. Of equal note, Draper was also the first to introduce plastic into American home furnishings.
A pioneer of American decoration – her design company is one of the oldest – New York’s Carlyle Hotel became Draper’s first important client, quickly followed by Hampshire House, the Metropolitan Museum, the Palacio Quintandinha in Rio and the Greenbrier in Western Virginia, her crowning glory. Other projects ranged from state hospitals, make-up packaging, the interiors of jet planes, as well as a line for Packard and Chrysler automobiles in the '50s, charmed up by a pink polka dot truck. Naturally, Draper had private clients, but her unorthodox approach was not for the conventional. “It is so extreme – I fear it,” admitted one client.
Utterly self-taught, Draper began by advising her smart girlfriends before opening the clunky-sounding Architecture Clearing House in 1925 (later renamed, Dorothy Draper & Co). Having media presence helped her phenomenal talent. Hampshire House was praised for its “London townhouse atmosphere” and innovative “sliding glass doors rather than shower curtains”. The Met’s cafeteria was dubbed the 'Dorotheum' due to its nine-foot birdcage chandeliers, while the Palacio Quintandinha (1942), Brazil’s biggest hotel, led to her first large project.
Situated on 3000 acres, featuring 500 rooms and a domed casino that outsized St Peter’s Basilica, she was paid $30,500 (approximately $500K in today’s terms), an outlandish amount of money for the time. Though signature magnificent – read countless corridors of engaging plasterwork - Draper’s most iconic work remains the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia. An ambitious project, it required re-transforming a surgical and rehabilitation center, used by soldiers during WWII, back into an exclusive resort and spa (1948). Although Draper dubbed it, “a brobdingnagian monster of a bowling alley,” the Greenbrier proved tailor-made for the high society designer.
Walls were painted Jefferson blue, large comfortable sofas were covered in her favorite ‘cabbage rose’ chintz and there were black marble fireplaces and her ubiquitous checkered floors. Capturing the period’s language, it was hailed as “the most handsomest resort in the western hemisphere.” Reputed for its golfing, the Greenbrier managed to combine comfort, practicality and romance, as affirmed by the pink Cameo ballroom with its illustrious crystal chandelier and heavy damask curtains.
Throughout the 1950s, Draper continued to charge up the Greenbrier but her company gradually fell on hard times. True, she had become a syndicated columnist - and in her heyday designed fabric lines for Schumacher and furniture for Ficks Reed, as well as writing popular books - but by 1960, she sold out to Leon Hegwood, the Texan decorator. Fortunately, the exuberant Carleton Varney was hired as a draftsman and ended up running and owning Dorothy Draper Inc, continuing her legacy until his death in 2022.
Both 'maximalist' and prolific, Varney’s clients included President Jimmy Carter, Joan Crawford and Judy Garland. As keen on color and pattern as his mentor Dorothy Draper, Varney insisted: “I think children who grow up in rooms that are pretty and colorful and magical are better people.” Dorothy Draper might well have agreed.