Dorothy Draper's Design Legacy

The High Style of Dorothy Draper The Greenbrier, circa 1948 Courtesy Collection of Dorothy Draper & Co. Inc., The Carleton Varney Design Group Dorothy Draper & Co./mcny.org

It might not be immediately apparent, watching her 1957 TV appearance with Edward R. Murrow, but Dorothy Draper, the so-called, duchess of decorating, was her era's Martha Stewart.

"We always say in our organization that if it looks right, it is right," she said then.

Draper may look and sound like your grandmother, but there was nothing stodgy or old-fashioned about her. Draper is known for putting weird colors together, like red chairs next to purple walls. She loved bright striped wallpaper, bold black and white checkerboard floors and extravagant flower print fabrics. To see some examples of her work, go here.

"We have no respect whether the things are old or not, we just cut anything we want if it looks better," Draper told Murrow.

Donald Albrecht, curator of the Dorothy Draper exhibition currently at the Museum of the City of New York, said Draper avoided beige at all costs.

"Draper is, unlike Martha Stewart, is very, very exotic," he told Sunday Morning correspondent Martha Teichner. "In one interior you'll get Arabian nights, colonial revival, Chinese style, neo-classicism, all jumbled together to give you this eclectic, theatrical style."

"That's the draper style, the draper touch," Albrecht said as he showed off a Draper sofa. "It makes you want to laugh. This is a sofa that Dorothy Draper designed when she redid the cafeteria of the metropolitan museum of art in 1954."

Imagine lunch under one of Draper's giant birdcagey looking chandeliers, or looking up from your coffee at sprites and flying fish, dancing across a reflecting pool. The space was officially "the roman court," but everybody called it the dorotheum after draper.

She was a debutante, born into a life of old money and privilege. John Singer Sargent drew her. She married and divorced President Franklin Deleno Roosevelt's polio doctor.

She was born in 1888, twenty years before the model t came out and ended up the first woman ever to design the interior of a jet airliner

Noted decorator, Carleton Varney, went to work for Dorothy Draper when he was 22. He bought her company after draper died in 1969, and has just published "in the pink," about her life and work.

"She made interior decorating a profession," he said. "Generally she worked in large spaces, big hotels, restaurants, aircrafts, shopping centers, whatever it was that was a big, Herculean job."

The big. Showy objects she created to put in those spaces were often not what they seemed.
  • Caitlin Johnson

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