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Inside 1930s Designer Dorothy Draper's Riotously Colorful World

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Dorothy Draper's signature black and white floor, shown here at the Greenbrier. All Greenbrier images courtesy of the Greenbrier.
Dorothy Draper's signature black and white floor, shown here at the Greenbrier. All Greenbrier images courtesy of the Greenbrier.

A century ago, your average Upper East Side society matron was not expected to do a great deal more with her day—or her life—than entertain other society matrons, support the odd artist or charity, and in a hands-off sort of way, raise a few heirs. Dorothy Tuckerman Draper was far from the average Upper East Side society matron. Tall, beautiful and unflaggingly confident, she set up her own interior design business in 1925 and a decade later was on her way to being the most famous decorator, if not the most famous businesswoman, in America. Driven purely by her own idiosyncratic taste—she was famous for the dictum "if it looks right, it is right"—she transformed down-at-heel apartment buildings into the most desirable addresses in town, and established the resort hotel as the quintessential 1930s space of leisure and see-and-be-seen glamour. Moreover, she did it all alone, after her husband made off with another woman in the same week as the Wall Street Crash.

The lounge of the Carlyle Hotel in September 1937. Photo by Gottscho-Schleisner, Inc., courtesy of The Museum of the City of New York.

That one-two punch did not slow her down for long. During the Depression, Draper honed her signature style at hotels, resorts, restaurants, and nightclubs across the country, transforming them into stylish, slightly surreal stage sets. In New York, she put her stamp on the cafeteria at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Coty salon in Rockefeller Center, and the Carlyle and Hampshire House Hotels; in Chicago, she made over the Camellia House restaurant; and in West Virginia and southern California, the Greenbrier and Arrowhead Springs resorts were all-inclusive Draper worlds. Her signatures, or "Draperisms," included massive black-and-white checkerboard floors, elaborate plaster moldings, and stripes so wide they had to be painted by hand, while her trademark cabbage rose chintz, with its clusters of overblown blooms, sold by the mile. She hated milquetoast pastels and muddy neutrals: they were the chromatic equivalent of what she called the "Will to Be Dreary," a "morose little imp" that tells us not to spend time or money on things we know would be frivolous and fun. Dorothy Draper's exuberant, saturated color schemes, a riot of chartreuse, crimson, sky blue, and shiny black, were quite the opposite: they were optimism incarnate.

Dorothy Draper's signature self-confidence was born, not built. She was a Tuckerman; the branches of her family tree were entangled with Roosevelts, Wolcotts, and Astors; born in 1889, she grew up in the prototypical gated community of Tuxedo Park, New York, a rustic old-money utopia where staff wore uniforms topped with Tyrolean hats and children like Dorothy believed they roamed free, until they banged up against the high hidden fence ringing their kingdom. For the first nine years of her life she was an only child, and her family nicknamed her "Star." She was educated only so far as was absolutely necessary, and although later in life she would sometimes regret her lack of culture, in her chosen profession it hardly mattered. Schools could not teach a girl to have the vision and chutzpah to saw the legs off an antique dining table, slap black lacquer on a mahogany dresser (Dorothy hated wood), or line a blue velvet curtain with lime-green silk and edge it with crimson piping.

Before she became a business and a brand of her own, Dorothy trod the expected debutante path. In September 1912, she married George "Dan" Draper, a doctor from a family of doctors, as well-born as Dorothy but uninterested in high society for its own sake. Instead of chasing the wealthy patients who might cement his social position, Dr. Draper devoted himself to research and became a specialist in the treatment of polio, a mysterious and crippling disease. A decade after his wedding, the doctor's childhood friend Franklin Roosevelt was struck with its symptoms. Draper became FDR's personal physician, treating him in secrecy so as not to damage his political ambitions. The Drapers, who had three children, were the Roosevelts' neighbors in an Upper East Side enclave almost as exclusive as Tuxedo Park. But both Dorothy Draper and Eleanor Roosevelt chafed against its conventions and restrictions.

The Virginia Room at the Greenbrier.

Both women wanted to make the world a better place, but for Dorothy that was a tangible, physical task: a matter of walls and furniture, not laws and rights. "Your home is the backdrop of your life, whether it is a palace or a one-room apartment," she would later write. "It should honestly be your own—an expression of your personality." Decorating sounded frivolous, but it had a direct effect on your mood and outlook—a point she proved early in her marriage, in the renovation of her tall, narrow, typically gloomy brownstone at the eastern end of 64th street. By pushing the ground floor out to the back of the property (swallowing up the dank backyard), she created space inside for a couple hundred party guests—and simply lifted the garden above the shadows, to the roof of the extension. Her friends and neighbors marveled at the "Upside-Down House," and clamored for her help. Being who they were, their interest and their influence counted. Dorothy saw the opportunity to make the money and the name her husband was reluctant to chase. In 1925, she set up a business from her home, the "Architectural Clearing House," a kind of matchmaking agency between architects and society women who wanted to renovate their homes and bring in light and color.

But few people wanted to bring in quite as much color, and quite such color, as Dorothy Draper, or "DD" as she began to style herself. Not wanting to be restricted by a client's cautious taste, she began to pursue spaces that other private decorators weren't interested in, spaces that most people overlooked, spaces that would eventually make her famous: hotels and resorts. It helped that the commercial developers and architects in charge of these spaces were almost always men, generally those she met through her society connections, who were happy to throw up their hands at details like the depth of a closet or the position of a mirror, and defer to DD's feminine insights. In 1928, she took on the lobby of the Carlyle Hotel on 76th street through her friend, the real estate magnate Douglas Elliman, and laid a bold black-and-white marble floor, a look that would become a signature. With oversized mirrors, chandeliers, marble columns, and classical busts, softened with satin and velvet, the small, transient space became somewhere to linger. Even though the hotel went bust in the crash before it had even opened (it was sold and reopened later in the 1930s, when DD was hired to decorate the whole interior), it was the first step towards her real life's work—reconceiving the public spaces of hotels not as bland pass-throughs but eye-catching meeting and social spaces. (It's a version of the hotel as lifestyle that modern chains like the Ace have revived, creating lobbies where guests and visitors alike can play at belonging to a more perfectly curated world halfway between public and private.)

In the same year, Draper proved she had a knack for big results at low prices, when she took on the renovation of a block of tenements at the southern edge of Sutton Place on the far east side of Manhattan. The dirty brick exteriors were painted black, with contrasting white windowsills and doors in primary colors. The dingy hallways were brought to life with flowered carpets and wallpaper. Soon, the apartments that the owners had struggled to rent at $15 a month were fully occupied at more than four times that. And soon the decorator herself would, for a while, be a tenant, moving in with her youngest daughter and her Dalmation, sharing a "bandbox" one-bedroom apartment that she painted sky-blue from floor to ceiling.

It was not the first time she had had to paint a happy face on a crisis. After the dual shocks of the crash and her divorce, Dorothy decided that "Architectural Clearing House" was a dull sort of name, and she put her central asset out in front. Dorothy Draper Incorporated, with its logo of intertwined "Ds," was born. She started to see a psychiatrist and to absorb the optimism lessons of Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, the enormously popular preacher and radio guru who would later publish The Power of Positive Thinking, cementing his role as the man who helped America help itself. DD was so convinced of the power of thinking positively that after she sold her brownstone she sank $50,000 into creating her own self-help correspondence course. The venture was a financial disaster because it was too successful—nobody saw the need to subscribe beyond the first issue or two, since by then Dorothy had apparently solved all their problems.

At the Greenbrier.

DD and her firm made and lost eye-popping amounts of money, many times over. In the mid-30s she signed a contract for just shy of $400,000 (at a time when $1,500 was a good annual salary) to renovate Hampshire House, a white elephant of a hotel on Central Park South, 34 stories tall and no one to fill them. The Draper renovation gave the hotel an identity with a design scheme that ran from carpets to bedspreads to staff livery to matchbook covers. It was a legacy of Tuxedo Park, where the look was equally seamless, so that you always knew exactly where you were. DD was that rare member of the truly wealthy who understood exactly how aspiration worked—that people were not paying for the trappings of a lifestyle but for the feeling that it was theirs by divine right.

As DD and the economy—at least its upper echelons—rebounded in the mid-1930s, her style found more and more elaborate expression. Its apotheosis was the resort hotel, where the super-rich would spend weeks or months at a time, as a prestigious but cheaper alternative to maintaining one's own country house, or traveling to insecure, revolutionary Europe. Secluded at palaces like the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, a rambling Southern estate quite unselfconsciously nicknamed "Old White," life could carry on as a fantasy. The Greenbrier today is the most complete surviving example of DD's style, a riot of greens and pinks, wide stripes and giant rhododendron chintz, a look that's been described as "Scarlett O'Hara drops acid." There were projects in Arrowhead Springs, California, which became a playground and escape for the Hollywood elite in the late 1930s, and during the war, as American belts tightened, a lavish casino resort in the new capital of Brasilia. By then, DD left most of the details and execution to a growing, loyal staff; although she herself, now over fifty, remained the face of the brand and the wellspring of its ideas.

Despite the fame of her resorts, DD never abandoned her early insight that the design of the home had a profound impact on its inhabitants' happiness. In 1939, she published Decorating is Fun!, a design manual that was also a self-help book. As bluntly as it set out the rules of scale and symmetry, the book also took the nervous housewife by the shoulders and gave her a good shake. If it looks right, it is right. Don't be a slave to tradition or to your mother-in-law's taste. Paint the ceiling, hang your own curtains, and fill the space with what you love. The first rule of decorating, she wrote in all caps, was "COURAGE," followed by color, balance, "smart accessories" and comfort. Dorothy Draper was no modernist of the austere European school. But she did prize light and brightness, practicality and fun, over stifling formality. And she recognized that her reader might, like herself, be a single woman rather than a wife and mother, and she might have nobody to help her hang her curtains. Briskly, DD encouraged her to get up the ladder herself. Far better to live with the disapproval of a stuffy relative than the oppression of a dark and cluttered home. And throwing it open to others was essential—two years later, as the country was sliding into war, Draper published her follow-up, Entertaining is Fun! And it would be, eventually, once the war was over.

Dorothy Draper's books and her hotel designs belong to opposite ends of a broader spectrum of lifestyle changes between the wars. At one end, the period saw a general turning inward to the home, toward cheap domestic entertainment and the embrace of a frugal, do-it-yourself aesthetic. Far removed from the actual poverty of the Depression, this general downsizing nevertheless represented a common middle-class experience, and Dorothy Draper, in her books and Good Housekeeping decorating column, was one of several cultural authorities who insisted that it could be "fun!" as well as painful. At the other was a world of glamour and escapism, embodied in the fantasia of Hollywood and fed to the struggling masses through the cinema and through celebrity magazines. For those who had the means, a DD-styled resort was an opportunity to sample life at the high-style pinnacle, a sign that you had arrived. Unlike in her Tuckerman youth, you didn't have to have come over on the Mayflower to get into the club. You just had to have the money, and the confidence to step across the brilliant black-and-white floor.

· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]