Interior Design Pioneers

Elsie de Wolfe, Dorothy Draper, and James Decor

It’s easy to get caught up in the here and now, without regard for the past or future. Sometimes, though, it’s nice to slow down and reflect on times past. I’ve often found myself thinking about interior design and wondering, how did it all begin?

James Décor, born in 1946, was Springfield, Missouri’s first design firm. The forties were a notable time in history—World War II reached an end, Roosevelt was in office, and Casablanca was on the big screen. According to The People History, the average cost of a house was only $5,600.

Times have certainly changed since then, but the interior design field continues to have a big presence in Springfield.  This all leaves me wondering, when did the field of interior design itself originate, before it made it to Springfield?  

Rewind to 1904—just 42 years before James Décor was started.

A now complex and ever-changing field, which typically requires an education and plenty of experience to enter into, all began with the interior decorators of the early 1900s. According to the Interior Designers for Legislation in New York, the term “interior decorator” was first coined in 1904. A lady by the name of Elsie de Wolfe earned the first interior decorator commission ever the following year. Several years later, in 1923, the first professional design firm was started by the famous Dorothy Draper. It was the work of de Wolfe and Draper that helped establish the profession forever.

 Photo: Elsie de Wolfe, from  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elsie_de_Wolfe

According to the Architectural Digest, Elsie de Wolfe, a prominent member of New York society, was an actress in the 1890s. Her theater work established her reputation as a set designer and costume designer. In fact, she was more popular for the costumes she wore than her acting. It was rare for a performer to choose their own wardrobe, but de Wolfe earned the privilege with her growing design skills.

The Encyclopedia Britannica states that Stanford White, an architect, was the man who helped de Wolfe land her first design commission. The job? New York’s first social club for women, located on Madison and 31st Street.  After its opening, her design work was the talk of the town—bringing in a cascade of new clients for the aspiring designer.

She published her book, The House in Good Taste, a few years later. This book began setting some standards on interior design. De Wolfe’s light, airy style created a whole new trend. Her designs were in stark contrast to the dark, stuffy Victorian interiors popular in the day.

 Photo: A design by de Wolfe, from  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elsie_de_Wolfe

Photo: A design by de Wolfe, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elsie_de_Wolfe

Another designer popular for swimming against the current with her style soon entered the scene—Dorothy Draper.

Her website, simply called Dorothy Draper, reveals that she was the first to begin professionalizing the industry. In 1923, she started the Dorothy Draper and Company design firm. The work she did was groundbreaking, not only because the industry wasn’t organized at the time, but because it was so difficult for women to enter the business world.

Draper is known as the first recognized commercial interior decorator. She designed theaters, department stores, offices, and restaurants. She even designed planes and cars, introducing a pink polka dot truck to her line for Chrysler. One of her most popular projects was the restaurant of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, nicknamed the “Dorotheum.”

Her design firm stood the test of time—it is still around today, and accepting clients.

With their sophisticated tastes and lifestyles, de Wolfe and Draper formed the glamorous aura still surrounding the field of interior design today. What began as a couple of independent decorators has evolved into a complex industry with an endless variety of specialties. It was not without plenty of hard work that de Wolfe, Draper, and many others brought the field to what it is today.

James Décor gets to put its mark on the timeline of interior design history as the first to introduce Springfield, Missouri to the business in 1946.

Interior design is an industry that has stood the test of time thus far, and there is no doubt that it will continue to go down in history.

As we all know, good design is timeless.

 

Michaela Satterfield

James Décor Intern

Sources:

https://www.architecturaldigest.com/story/dewolfe-article-012000

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Elsie-de-Wolfe

https://www.dorothydraper.com/history/

https://www.idlny.org/history-of-interior-design/ 

http://www.thepeoplehistory.com/1946.html -- 1946