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  • Writer's pictureAnji Connell

"If I like it, it's right. If I don't, it isn't," Dorothy Draper.

The Draper Effect

"If I like it, it's right. If I don't, it isn't," Dorothy Draper.

Anji Connell I 13th May 2021

Iconic designers of the past left their imprint on the history of interior design and a rich legacy that continues to inspire us today. Among these legends, Dorothy Draper is synonymous with interior design.

A beautiful, six-foot tall debutante, from New York’s exclusive Tuxedo Parkand Dorothy Draper was superbly confident, and an autodidact decorator—a glamorous woman with refined taste born into an aristocratic family in 1889 in New York society's upper echelon in an exclusive enclave of New York, her family tree included the Roosevelts, Wolcott's, and Astors. Her niece became Jackie Kennedy's White House social secretary. Wellborn, well-bred, and well connected, a blue blood with every social credential. Draper grew up surrounded by the best of American upper-class WASP style.

Nevertheless, the patrician beauty wanted out—and achieved this by marrying George Draper, FDR's personal physician and brother to actress Ruth Draper. Her marriage allowed her to break out of the exclusive Tuxedo Park, which was ironically where most of her clients wanted to break into.

Dorothy Draper, or "DD," as she liked to be known, pioneered the interior design profession, seting up her interior design business, the "Architectural Clearing House," in 1925 — a time when an Upper East Side society matron was expected to do little more with their day than support the arts, worthy charities, and raise an heir. Draper was an entrepreneur working in a male-dominated world of commercial interiors.

It's said, "Dorothy Draper was to decorating what Chanel was to fashion." Her style was striking, bold, colorful, and elegant. She delighted in colour, had an acute awareness of balance, and an intuitive feeling for lighting, a sense of style, and a zest for life. Dorothy took a world that was drab and dreary and made it colourful.

She started decorating her own homes, much like our modern-day" house flipping," buying, decorating, and selling on homes. People clamoured for her stylish re-creations.

In 1930, in the same week, as the Wall Street Crash when both he and her father lost fortunes, her husband George Draper, FDR's personal physician and brother to actress Ruth Draper, made off with another woman and asked for a divorce, her ambition went into high gear, and Dorothy Draper Inc. began. Her first big commission was to decorate the lobby of the Hotel Carlyle, where she later lived, and it was here her coveted "Modern Baroque" style began.

Draper honed her style at Manhattan's most exclusive addresses, she transformed hotels, restaurants, and nightclubs, into stylish "Draper worlds." The Roman Court, the dining room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art became affectionately nicknamed "the Dorotheum." Private jets and automobiles for Packard and Chrysler followed—and included a pink polka dot truck.

Draper was instrumental in the invention of the "resort hotel." She was a modern-day celebrity in the true sense of the word. She licensed cosmetics, had a line of exclusive fabrics, which continues today under her protege, Carleton Varney, who took over DD inc in 1962. Her forte was reconceiving hotels' public places as decadent meeting and social spaces, the precursor of today's hotels as lifestyle hubs, where the hotel lobby is a vibrant social gathering place.

Her distinctive taste and signature style came to be known as "Draperism." Her dictum, "if it looks right, it is right." Draper took control of her projects down to every last detail, from hotel matchbooks to the uniforms, to the menus.

Draper was hired to renovate the Greenbrier resort in 1946— America‘s first Resort Hotel, a glamourous place to see and be seen, and remained the resort's decorator into the 1960s. The Greenbrier was and remains a riot of greens and pinks, broad stripes, and enormous floral chintz that has since been ascribed "Scarlett O'Hara on acid." It is the most complete surviving example of DD's style, which her protege Carleton Varney continues to uphold. Varney says the key lessons he learned from Dorothy Draper was the importance of scale and that it can be larger than life to avoid colours that look like gravy, and black and white are always right.

The elements of "Draperisms" are a bold, exuberant, eclectic mix of oversized floral chintz, large tropical leaves, broad stripes, and clashing colours—think aubergine with pink, chartreuse with a touch of turquoise blue, all strongly contrasted with black and white checkerboard floors. Classic furniture with a contemporary twist finished in luxurious materials, elaborate plaster moldings, flourishes of neo-baroque sconces, scrollwork, and extravagant doorways. With, in her own words, "At least one touch of whimsy per room."

Yet, despite the fame of her resorts, Draper never abandoned her early insight that a home's design had a profound impact on its inhabitants' happiness, mood, and outlook—her mantra, or one of them! 'Your home is the backdrop of your life, whether it is a palace or a one-room apartment it should be an expression of your personality.' In 1939, she published her design manual and self-help book, Decorating is Fun! for less fortunate homemakers who might also be single mothers, much like herself. Her first rule of d

ecorating was "COURAGE," always written in caps, followed by colour, balance, "smart accessories," and comfort." She encouraged developing a personal style, discouraged being a slave to tradition, and always prized light and brightness, practicality and fun over stifling formality. Draper published her follow-up, Entertaining is Fun! Two years later, just as the country was sliding into war. Fun was delayed a while.

DD operated at opposite ends of the wealth spectrum and the opposite ends of lifestyle changes between the wars, one where she dispensed decorating advice through her books, and in regular columns for Hearst Newspapers and Good Housekeeping Magazine, she transformed down-at-heel apartment buildings into desirable addresses with wealthy backers. DD made and lost fortunes many times over, and at the other end, she decorated glamourous high society hotels and resorts, gracing the covers of Life and Time Magazines.

Her iconic style, described as neo-baroque and Hollywood Regency, with its playful and contrasting patterns, and groundbreaking color combinations, is still admired, studied, and emulated. "Modern-Day Drapers" include celebrated decorators Jonathan Adler and The Queen of Hollywood Regency style Kelly Wearstler, were hugely influenced by her. "The sense of play in her interiors is infectious," Wearstler has said.

Dorothy Draper had Alzheimer's disease towards the end of her life. She died in Cleveland, Ohio, on March 11, 1969. However, her protege Carleton Varney has continued to bring the unique and loved Dorothy Draper style to the world.

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