Dorothy Draper and I … How much we actually agree

Dorothy Draper

Dorothy Draper, late 1930s (Decorating is Fun!)

Dorothy Draper – for those of you who hear about her for the first time – was one of America’s most famous interior designers. Her style? Hollywood Regency (kind of). On Wikipedia, her decorations are described as “very anti-minimalistic”, owing to her generous use of bright, exuberant colours, and large prints. Her time? The eve of World War II to her death (at the ripe old age of 80), in 1969.

Tending towards a fairly modern, even minimalistic style myself, I was intrigued by the fact that more than fifty years after her death, Dorothy still seems to enjoy a rather large following. Of course, I reasoned, there will always be people out there who like bright colours, large patterns, and lots of clutter. Certainly, the combination has some charm. But this simple list of ingredients, common throughout her designs, did not seem to me at all reason enough to call Dorothy Draper one of the “greatest decorators ever”… so, what was it? To better come to terms with my conundrum, I decided to learn a tad more about her, and thus bought her book “Decorating is Fun!”.

Originally published in 1939, “Decorating is Fun! How to be your own decorator” was recently reissued by Shannongrove Press, complete with its original, gaily daubed, blue-white striped dust jacket, rather old-fashioned illustrations, and grainy black and white pictures. Classic. The book addresses women, and was written with the obvious intent of injecting a healthy dose of fun into the act of decorating one’s home. To illustrate this, allow me to quote the opening paragraph:

“This is a book about how to have a good time decorating. If you want to be grim and sour about it don’t read another word, for what I have to say is not for you. I don’t believe there is any rule in the game that can’t be broken.”

After reading this, I thought … well, you know what, this could be really interesting after all. (Still wasn’t convinced about her taste, though). Dorothy was obviously a fairly opinionated lady who did not care at all about what others said, but rather followed her own whims and ideas when it came to interior design. Just my kind of person. So, intrigued, I read on. Maybe I could find something between those bright flyleaves that we had in common after all…

And so I did.

Throughout the book, I came across a number of pieces of advice that could have been lifted from any one of today’s many excellent interior design magazines that vie for shoppers’ attention at every turn, from supermarket to popular newsstand shelves. They turned out to be not only practical, but absolutely timeless. Here are a few examples:

1. What are the “most powerful friends” of any interior designer to guide his/her decisions? Dorothy’s answer: “courage, color, balance, smart accessories and comfort.” I could not agree more.

2. Upon starting to decorate a home, she strongly advises to imagine the space “in the nude”. In other words, she recommends to remove all “superfluous fussiness” of a room before starting to redecorate it the way one likes it. Does it make sense? Yep, lots. When she lists a number of typical (for her time)  “doodads” (a.k.a. knickknacks, geegaw, bric-a-brac, foofaraw, frippery, frou-frou, bedizenment, tchotchke, &c. &c. &c.) that should be removed before any redesign is going to start (her examples include: old-fashioned picture holdings, chandeliers with plasterwork around it, too many wall lights (particularly those that are badly placed)), it got me thinking about all the clutter that people are advised to remove from their homes when they intend to sell it. In other words, “imagine a space in the nude” is Dorothy’s version of “staging a home”. Cool, eh?

(Let’s take apart Dorothy’s advice for a second, and look at why it still applies today. When a room ‘is in the nude’, its problems are easy to identify … it may be unbalanced, too high, too low, too narrow, feature a “bad fireplace”, ugly doors, weirdly shaped/placed windows, and so on and so forth.)

3. For each problem, she offers a matching solution, many of which are in line with what contemporary interior designers would do. Take her suggestion, for example, to use mirrors to make a room look larger or wider, a particularly favoured trick amongst modernists, and one which I myself have employed a number of times.

Mirror to broaden a narrow room

A narrow galley kitchen – the mirror backsplash visually doubles its width

Or: employ vertical lines (e.g. vertically striped wall paper) to visually increase a room’s height. Use paint to blend ugly features (e.g. those of a fireplace) into the background. These tips worked in Dorothy’s days, and still do today.

4. I am sure we all have come across many examples (e.g. in the form of remodelled basements or lofts, restaurants, coffee shops etc.) where structural defects such as openly visible pipes, cables, HVAC related equipment have been camouflaged by colouring the ugly items in the same color as the rest of the ceiling (see e.g. “Color – tricks of the trade – part 2“).

5. When it comes to ugly or unbalanced windows, Dorothy recommends the use of (smartly chosen) window treatments to let your windows appear larger, placed more evenly, etc.

6. With regards to color schemes, Dorothy has some very, very contemporary ideas. For example: in small apartments she strongly advises against the use of different colors on the walls:

In a small house, or apartment, it is often a good idea to use exactly the same shade for all walls. It doesn’t chop up the final effect and make the whole space seem smaller, as varying colors are liable to do. It’s even a good idea, in a very small room, to paint the furniture the same color as the walls. It will seem to melt right back into them and take up much less space.

In other words, if you have a small space, refrain from adding accent walls or different color schemes in every room. Instead create “flow” by keeping everything in the same color (preferably white …!)

7. When it comes to choosing the actual hue, however, Dorothy is less restrained: Faithful to her reputation as being a big fan of exuberant colors, she strongly campaigns against dull color combinations:

“Chinese-red paint costs no more than mud-colored”.

Interestingly, she also mentions that the exposure of your room should NOT influence your choice of color. While people often feel it is necessary to warm up or brighten a ‘north room’ with warm colors, and “air-conditioning” a south room with cold ones, she does not believe in the split-up of colors into warm and cold. I, for my part, wouldn’t paint rooms differently depending on their exposure either. (I usually do all in white because I like it that way, which is pretty much in line with what the great old lady of design would have done as well:)

Don’t let the exposure of your room boss you around. Choose your colors because you like them!

Of course, having said this, I must admit that I do differentiate between warm and cold colors … just not when it comes to visually “warming up” or “cooling down” a room.

… and thus it goes on and on … one highly applicable piece of advice follows the next. But, realizing that I am about to write yet another overly long post, I will stop here with a particularly practical piece of advice, one that I wished I had read a bit earlier. It is about “better quarters for your better halves”! Men and women according to Dorothy have different tastes. I guess most of us will agree. My husband certainly does have different preferences although he is usually nice enough to accept my selections without too much resistance and grumbling. Dorothy observed smartly that

men love to be comfortable.

(Yes, I have learned that the hard way: My choice of Barcelona chairs for the living room is still a cause for complaints. They are simply not comfortable enough – for him that is).

Barcelona Chairs - comfortable

Barcelona chairs: Not exactly “his” cup of tea

Further, she continues that men don’t like anything too fragile:

Avoid chairs with legs that look as though they would snap off easily, table or lamps that look tippy…

Yes, true, too. How often did I have to fend off his suggestion to add a solid wooden dining table, or received a fairly disbelieving glance when I mentioned that I wanted to buy (fragile looking, but actually extremely stable, also gorgeous) Eames DSW chairs to serve as dining chairs?

DSW chairs

Too fragile looking?

Best of all, however, is Dorothy’s observation that

men are miserable if they aren’t allowed to litter the living room a bit with their possessions and toys. They hate having to tuck everything into some inconvenient hideaway the very minute they are through with it.

So true.

(Personally, I am still not used to the fact that all of Martin’s jackets have to find their (more or less permanent) resting place over my DSW chairs, that sunglasses, wallets, and other trinkets are generously sprinkled all over the place or the ugly charging stations of laptop and iPhone must be prominently displayed in the middle of the living (or bed room). My attempts to change this failed miserably.  Thus, I decided to rather follow Dorothy’s highly contemporary advice:

It’s all very well to feed the brute, but if you want him to stick around after dinner think of him when you plan your living room!

In summary,  this book’s title and looks weren’t a disappointment: It really is a fun read and highly informative to boot – despite its age! (Not something I would generally say of 20th Century literature). Of course, there is also a lot of stuff in there that does not really apply anymore (being written in 1939 gives reading it in 2016 its drawbacks). Nonetheless, in general, Dorothy shares a great many tips and a lot of wisdom to achieve what every designer and everyone decorating his/her own home desires: to put together a  place that we love, that is comfortable, and definitely not boring! … or to put it into her own words:

If it looks right, it is right!

She truly deserves to be called a legendary designer.



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