Recently, I was going through one of the first Architectural Digest issues that I was featured in. I found the most interesting article about The World’s 20 Greatest Designers of All Time!
There were many fantastic inspirations on the list, however I noticed that only one woman was listed. You mean to tell me, out of every designer in the entire world, throughout all of history, only one woman was influential enough to be considered? I simply don’t believe it. Let’s do better, Architectural Digest. It is so hard to succeed as a woman in this industry, but I am very proud of my peers and all the women before us who have made it possible.
So, I’ve decided to edit Architectural Digest’s list, and write my own list of 5 of the world’s greatest interior designers of all time. Here they are, in no particular order.
1. Naomi Leff (1939-2005)
Naomi Leff is the one singular woman who made it onto Architectural Digest’s “The 20 World’s Greatest Designers of All Time” list, and the first to make it onto mine. Best known as the creator of the Ralph Lauren flagship store in Manhattan, Naomi Leff leaned on defined shapes, simple forms, and opulent materials to produce a sense of understated luxury and timeless elegance.
Here at Donna Livingston Design, we are big fans of luxury, timelessness, and elegance. Naomi once said “there is nothing I love more than a client with a dream” and she really did make dreams come true.
2. Dorothy Draper (1889-1969)
The first woman to professionalise interior design as a full fledged career and one of the earliest interior designers, Dorothy Draper is nothing short of iconic. Her outrageous color combinations and revolutionary style led her to design for some very high-profile public spaces, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs. She is the inventor of Modern Baroque, her own style that took a spin on classical aesthetics and incorporated her love of color (turquoise, coral, and chartreuse were not unusual for Draper, though they greatly contradicted the typically dark palettes of the time).
We love a woman who is not afraid to be bold, trust her instincts, and go after what she wants. Dorothy Draper is that woman.
3. Elsie De Wolfe (1865-1950)
Given the title of “the mother of interior decoration” Elsie De Wolfe is legendary in the design world. She got her first break decorating The Colony Club: the first women’s clubhouse in America. Subsequently, she built up a distinguished book of clients, including industrialist and art collector Henry Clay Frick. Inspired by French 18th Century elegance, the De Wolfe distanced herself from dark, heavy Victorian styles, opting for light, cozy feminine spaces, often utilizing soft upholstery, animal print and antiques.
As a fellow lover of antiques and warm, inviting spaces, I find Elsie to be an undeniable talent and inspiration. She really changed the game for the design world in the 30’s and we still see her influence today!
4. Syrie Maugham (1879-1955)
Known as the ‘Princess of Pale’ Syrie Maugham advocated glamorous interiors decorated mostly in shades of white. This London-based designer didn’t grow up high-society but grew a very considerable following among the demographic. After learning how to make curtains and upholster furniture at an apprenticeship, she borrowed £400 and started her interior design shop.
At the time, white walls were associated with humble cottage interiors. Syrie Maugham changed that forever. Her infamous drawing room, clad only in white, was an unforgettable sight to anyone who laid eyes upon it. Unrelieved white was a revolutionary approach to interior design, and the world soon could not get enough. Typical Syrie features included mirrored screens, indirect and concealed lighting, and very plumped up sofas and chairs. She continued to make her style anew throughout the years of her career, adding in baroque elements and not shying away from color, though it was white that made her famous.
5. Candace Wheeler (1827-1923)
Candace Wheeler was one of the first American women to produce designs for American manufacturers and paved the way for thousands of female designers who followed.
In 1877, together with Louis Comfort Tiffany, John LaFarge, and Elizabeth Custer, she founded the Society of Decorative Art in New York. The goal of the society was to help women support themselves through handicrafts and artisan skills. In 1878, she helped launch the New York Exchange for Women’s Work. These are just two of the many ventures she took on. Wheeler championed promoting art and design as paying careers for women, rather than hobbies.
Additionally, she promoted a uniquely American style of textile and wallpaper design, with colors and patterns modeled on American flowers and responding to the qualities of American light. But it is her work inspiring women an equal place in the workforce that she is truly remembered for.
We are so grateful for Candace Wheeler and all the women like her who took a stand for women’s rights and pushed the interior design industry forward.