When I was very little I would occasionally spend a Saturday night at my grandmother Elsie’s two-story, impeccably styled home. Among the vivid memories I have of this time with her and of her home was the little room that I was tucked into at bedtime. On the black with gold thread shot slipcovered “studio” couch (daybed) that was my bed, I’d fall asleep across from a stunning black and gold chest of drawers. I can still remember describing the ridged outlines of the odd shaped squares that decorated the chest front with my finger, fascinated with the ring drawer pulls.
About ten years later at my grandparents’ new low slung, sprawling bungalow in a leafy suburb, that chest stood just inside the breezeway door with a large mirror above it. I loved entering that house seeing my old friend, impressed by the idea that my grandmother could magically transfer a piece of furniture to an entirely different room with such success. I realized at five that she and I shared a language and a passion for interior decor, sewing and fabrics, and furniture with history and style. Not to mention rearranging rooms often.
The chest was of course the iconic Dorothy Draper España black lacquer and gold accented three-drawer chest. Knowing my grandmother, it was original and purchased at a great price.
The classic España has been much copied and finished in a variety of colours over the years, but the original colour scheme revisits the glamour and style of 1950s Hollywood that so captivated my young mind. These little numbers will set you back quite a stack of coins today, but had I inherited my grandmother’s Draper you’d not see mine for sale.
Draper was born into wealth at Tuxedo Park, NY and went on during her lifetime to achieve success with her exuberant use of colour and oversize pattern, classically inspired furniture and decor design. I absolutely love her use of colour and celebration of line and scale. I also applaud her use of black and white harlequin floor tiles and wide striped panels of fabric with broad florals. She epitomized glamour and style personally and imbued these qualities on the spaces she created. Her company, Dorothy Draper & Co. continues to this day.
In 2006, the Museum of the City of New York (a worthy establishment often overlooked in that city of great museums) mounted a retrospective of Draper’s work that I somehow, regrettably, missed as I worked there often that year. Dorothy Draper died in Cleveland, the city in which I was born and introduced to her style.
Hollywood Regency flourished during the 1930-1950s, and is often associated with the work of architect Paul Revere Williams and designers Draper and Billy Haines. Adopting classical elements such as Greek urn shaped table lamps, key fabric patterns and Klismos chair style, and Rococo’s feminine ribbon and gold leaf rimmed mirrors and other ornamental pieces, Draper employed oversize floral fabric patterns in turquoise and pink as well as rich, saturated hues of deep reds and striking greens. Draper rooms are not soon forgotten. Another emblem of this style is the use of reflective and metallic materials to increase the impression of a space.
Considered America’s first interior designer, “Dorothy Draper was to decorating,” said interior designer Carleton Varney, “what Chanel was to fashion”. Most of Draper’s work was celebrated in resorts for the wealthy, she worked with scale. The most famous surviving example of her work can be found at Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. I’m not particularly captivated by oversize clocks and some colour pairings, but I can’t deny the vibrant energy she injects in massive spaces. I owe my appreciation for striking design and colour play to Draper and my grandmother. Is there an aspect of Hollywood Regency or Dorothy Draper’s designs that spark something in your imagination?