The Great Lady Decorators — Books

What’s best about producing The friendships I’ve made with creative, colorful people, and the motivation we share on a daily basis.

Some of the people I’ve become closest to are “designing women.” Not those from that comfy old TV show (RIP Dixie Carter), but real, design and decorating professionals who do incredible work; and talented DIY’ers that turn their homes into striking expressions of the unique people they are.

The Great Lady Decorators

Yet my newest designing-women friends I haven’t met, talked with, or even chatted with online. I’ve gotten chummy with them through the pages of Adam Lewis’s new book,
The Great Lady Decorators: The Women Who Defined Interior Design, 1870-1955 (Rizzoli, 2010).

I admit my love of history runs warm and cold. My husband can recall the players, dates and locations for important world events and when asked, can recite a synopsis. For me? Touring a historic estate or an exhibit of ancient artifacts–I’m in. Reading about historic figures–not so much. But this book grabbed me from the get-go.

Design + Trailblazing Career Women + History = Captivating.
Ruby Ross WoodLewis profiles thirteen pioneering women decorators:

  • Elsie de Wolfe
  • Ruby Ross Wood (at right)
  • Elsie Cobb Wilson
  • Dorothy Draper
  • Frances Elkins
  • Rose Cumming
  • Thedlow (a designing trio)
    and Marian Hall
  • Syrie Maugham
  • Nancy Lancaster
  • Madeleine Castaing
  • Eleanor Brown
  • Sister Parish

These women were instrumental in shaping what we know as the Interior Design trade. I was entranced by Lewis’s accounts of the world and times in which each woman lived, and how her interest in decorating (as it was called then) came about.

Solarium Entrance Apartment of Conde Nast by  Elsie de Wolfe

I could feel the influences and pressures on each woman, and could see how her talent and signature look developed. Lewis weaves in other key women and men who crossed paths with the Decorators and covers how Candace Wheeler made way for them all.

Swan House Entrance Hall by Ruby Ross Wood

As Lewis explains, much of these ladies’ work–including images of it– was not well-documented, but I found fascinating the ample photographs he was able to include. I kept spotting vignettes that could be snipped out of the past and woven effortlessly into today’s eclectic spaces. A few times I gasped audibly, thinking ‘Wish I could have been in that room, at that party.’

Speaking of parties — Oh my! The personal lives these women led! Most of them came from money and traveled in high society. But the stories of their marriages, affairs and divorces would give the Desperate Housewives writers excellent material. Here I thought those proper women in their beautiful dresses lived proper–if hum-drum–lives. Not so.

Back to the images. Celebrated painter of “Room Portraits,” Jeremiah Goodman, contributed about a dozen of his sumptuous impressions of the lady decorators’ work.
The book is worth purchasing solely for these design confections — but there is much
more here.

Jeremiah Goodman Painting Room of the Edward G. Robinsons by Frances Elkins

I’ve enjoyed getting to know my new designing-women friends. I’ve felt the feminine guile by which some, and the steamrolling will by which others lived their lives, and produced their sitting rooms, ballrooms and drawing rooms. The resilience that after the war brought Elsie de Wolfe back to Versailles to restore her beloved Villa Trianon, the independence that drove Dorothy Draper to orchestrate her theatrical resorts.

I admire the optimism of Nancy Lancaster who–after losing her grand Haseley Court home to fire–created a hug of a sanctuary in the coach house. And I adore the confidence with which Rose Cumming saturated her bedroom in sparkling blue.

Rose Cumming Bedroom by Rose Cumming

The Great Lady Decorators have become good friends that will continue to inspire.
Pay them a visit — you’ll enjoy their company.

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4 Comments for “The Great Lady Decorators — Books”

Thanks for the review! I’ve been looking forward to this one.

Thanks Tracy! I so enjoyed learning more about these women.

I’ve got to check out some of the books you recently recommended.

I’m drooling over this one…going to buy it RIGHT NOW! Thanks for sharing!

Hey Sherri,

Fabulous! I know you will enjoy reading about these ladies lives and designs. I was fascinated — they led the way for so many today.

If you think of it, report back later and let us know which woman’s story (and designs) most inspire you….

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