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March 2023 - Pioneers in Interior Design - The Women in the History of Design

Updated: May 30, 2023


In honor of Women's History Month, we're paying tribute to the female pioneers in interior design. Without the women who’ve paved the way, there would be no way to express ourselves so beautifully in our spaces. We’ll talk about these women and how they set the stage for the interior design industry. Who they are, what they did and how we still see their influence today!

Who started it all? Who is the matriarch of modern design? Candace Wheeler is often called the “mother” of interior design. Throughout her career, she was associated with Colonial Revival, Aesthetic Movement, and the Arts and Crafts Movement. In 1877, together with Louis Comfort Tiffany, John LaFarge, and Elizabeth Custer, she founded the Society of Decorative Arts in New York. The goal of society was to help women support themselves through handicrafts. She went on to establish a handful of other female focused associations. Associated Artists was a female only textile firm for tapestries and curtains. In current day trends, textiles have become a constant and major factor in the basis of any good design. For the Chicago World Fair, Candace was tasked as the interior decorator of the Woman’s Building. The building was filled with exhibitions of women's fine arts, crafts, industrial products and regional and ethnic specialties from around the world. Wheeler was considered a national authority on home decoration and for encouraging a new style of American design.

Dorothy Draper, the first to “professionalize” the interior design industry by establishing, in 1923, the first interior design company in the United States, Dorothy Draper & Company. Something that until then was unheard of, and also at a time when it was considered daring for a woman to go into business for herself. She extended her elegant “modern Baroque” style to many notable public buildings. She chose very dramatic and contrasting color schemes, such as black with white and adding in some bits of color. She combined different colors, fabrics, and patterns together, combining stripes with floral patterns. She often used large, oversized details and numerous mirrors. All of the colors and patterns contributed to her dramatic design now referred to as "the Draper touch."The opposite of minimalism, her designs were incorporated in homes, hotels, restaurants, theaters, and department stores. We see a resurgence of the “Draper Touch” today in what can be called Grnadmillenial Style, which has made a bold entrance into the designs trending in the past few years. A bold contrast and welcomed comeback against the neutral and minimal palettes and layouts that lead into the 2020’s.

Then there’s the iconic Elise De Wolfe, considered to be the trailblazer for how design would develop in the coming generations. Her theatrical designs gained public popularity in the early 1900s while her anti-Victorian style of personal design garnered interest from friends. This is how she secured her first large, impressionable interior design project, the Colony Club. This project would go on to change the landscape of decor from heavy woods, dark colors and intense window treatments to an open, airy ambience with soft colors and elegant elements. From here, she would work for an elite client list and open her own fully staffed design firm on Fifth Avenue. Throughout her career she would lecture on design and publish a popular book, “The House in Good Taste”.

Norma Harvey, became a respected interior designer who worked with her father on the interiors of high-profile projects. She lead the design of the infamous Frank Sinatra’s home. And while she worked alongside her father, architect Paul Williams and sometimes in his shadow, she still became a pioneer in the history of design. While there isn’t much information about Norma’s career, we do know that she paved a pathway for black interior designers to break into the field during a time that it was incredibly difficult to. Norma opened the doors for designers, such as Cecil Hayes to come in and break the glass ceiling.

Cecil Hayes laid the foundation for women of color in the design field. Beginning her career in the 1970s, she was the only African American female designer in the South Florida region. Cecil is also one of the first African American designers to manufacture furniture, case goods and upholstery; and the first African American designer to grace the pages of Architectural Digest. She is the first and only African American as well as the only designer from the South to be named to Architectural Digest’s Top 100 list of influential designers in the world. Hayes designed for high profile clientele in the entertainment, sports and business industries. She authored two interior design books, “9 Steps to Beautiful Living” and “The Art of Decorative Details”. Her elegant mix of hues and textures and her ability to choose the most stunning accessories give her style an easily identifiable branded focus, something many designers aspire to do today.

We all know the beautiful Scandinavian aesthetic that has held timeless and true. Greta Grossman is to thank for that! The Swedish furniture designer, interior designer and architect brought her style to the United States in the 1940s. Not only was she the first woman to win the Furniture Design Award from the Swedish Society of Industrial Design, but she was the only female architect to own an independent firm from the 1904s through the 1960s in L.A. Her furniture is characterized by its unique mixture of materials and slender proportions. Her iconic pieces are still well sought after to this day.

Sister Parish, a self-taught designer, originated what is known as the American Country Style. She is best known as the first practitioner brought into the Kennedy White House where her work and influence can still be seen today. In 1994, House Beautiful editor Lou Gropp said, "There is no question that Sister Parish was one of the biggest influences on decorating in the United States. She dominated the decorating of the 1970s and '80s, and many of her ideas that were fresh and new in the 1970s are now in the mainstream of American decorating." Her work influenced Ralph Lauren and Martha Stewart. Signature elements of the Parish look included painted floors, Anglo-Franco furniture, painted furniture, chintz, needlepoint pillows, mattress ticking, hooked rugs, rag rugs, starched organdy, botanical prints, painted lampshades, white wicker, quilts, and baskets. According to a 2000 New York Times article, "If you have a quilt, you probably owe it to Mrs. Parish."

Women from all walks of life, each contributing their creativity and skills and setting the stage for the next one to come along and build on it. The field of interior design is a direct result of women pushing the limits of society and creating an industry that thrives today. Bella Home Interiors carries that tradition and continues to be supporters of the up and coming designers who will follow in our footsteps!

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