Dorothy Draper has been called the original Martha Stewart. Not only did she start the first interior design company in the United States, she was a celebrity in her own right—her name was synonymous with all things interior design in the 1940s and 50s.
Draper was a glamorous woman with fine taste. She designed hotels, theaters, department stores, corporate offices and the homes of a lucky few who could afford her; she dreamed up the interiors of private jets, cars for Packard and Chrysler including a pink polka dot truck (a pattern she became known for), cosmetics packaging and her own line of exclusive fabrics. She published a book, "Entertaining is Fun! How to Be a Popular Hostess," and gave decorating advice in a regular column that ran in Hearst Newspapers and Good Housekeeping Magazine, she even appeared on the cover of both Life and Time.
Draper, neé Tuckerman, was born into an aristocratic family in 1889 in Tuxedo Park, an exclusive enclave in New York that certainly lived up to its name—it was one of the first gated communities in America. Being a part of the upper echelon of society helped Draper get her business off the ground and heavily influenced her anti-minimalistic style, but her talent spoke for itself. After decorating a few of her own homes, despite it being very uncommon for a woman to do so, in 1925 Draper opened her own business. Architectural Clearing House (which eventually became Dorothy Draper & Company) was the first interior design company in America. It paved the way for women like Sister Parish, her cousin.
Draper worked on a few private homes, but her sites were set on bigger projects. She enjoyed designing public spaces where people could come and feel elevated by the beauty that surrounded by them—she was a true artist.
Her first big commission was to decorate the lobby of the Hotel Carlyle, where she began to hone the “Modern Baroque” style that she coined. The black and white-checkered floors became her signature, along with bright colors in unexpected combinations, ornate moldings and chintz printed with large cabbage roses. She also loved to paint the doors of buildings a bright red or greed encouraged others to do so in her columns. “"The color of your front door announces your personality to the world," she said. Everything was dramatic, yet inviting, what some people called the “Draper touch.”
Draper was an extremely confident woman (“If I like it, it's right. If I don't, it isn't,” she has said) and took control of her projects down to every last detail, from hotel matchbooks, to the uniforms, to the menus. Draper worked on landmark hotels across the country from the Fairmont in San Francisco to the Greenbrier in West Virginia, where she earned the highest pay ever given to a decorator. The project, full of her beloved red and greens and large plaster elements, was considered the pinnacle of her career. Each room had a different theme—the Victorian Writing Room was once called the most photographed space in the United States. The hotel opened with a lavish three-day party attended by the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Bing Crosby.
Draper continued her work on iconic spaces like the cafeteria at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, which featured a nine foot tall birdcage chandelier. One of her last projects was the International Hotel at Idlewild Airport, which is now New York’s JFK. Draper passed away in 1969, and in 2006 she became the first interior designer to be honored with a retrospective exhibition of her work. The “The High Style of Dorothy Draper” at the Museum of the City of New York was a grand success, just like her projects, with hundreds of thousands of people coming to see her fabulous work.