Decades of Design: Revolutionary Designers of the 20th-21st Century
1910s: Elsie Dewolf (aka Lady Mendl)
Lady Mendl (a.k.a. Elsie Dewolf) is sometimes called the first interior designer, but that’s not quite true. She was, however the first celebrity interior designer, with cameos in popular songs by Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, and a name so often in headlines in New York and Paris that she might best be referred to, in 2010s speak, as a social media star.
Beyond being idolized by women for her famous sense of style, she was an (admittedly bad) actress, known for morning routines that included spinning on her head, a sham marriage that hid her lesbianism, and a penchant for drama when clients didn’t see things her way.
Elsie’s interior design taste was both influential to, and influenced by, the times. With a war on in Europe, women like Elsie were put in charge of their households, and per her orders started throwing out the dark and cave-like Victorian styles they’d been living with.
Dewolf and crew ditched stodgy drapes, cramped arrangements and William Morris for light florals, open plans and natural light. And as their husbands and brothers were off at war, often on foreign fronts, Elsie and her pack of fashionable ladies started requesting they bring back with them trinkets and décor from the exotic lands they trode upon. Thank Elsie and her peers for chinoiserie, exotic animal prints and North African influences (particularly Moroccan and Egyptian.)
1920s: Syrie Maugham
By the time Syrie Maugham started designing sets for Hollywood movies like “Dinner at Eight,” she was already a household name with offices in London, Palm Beach, New York and Chicago.
Her rooms, like her stage sets, dripped with Hollywood glam, with rich, sumptuous textiles in shades of white set against chrome and mirrors – a sultry take on Le Corbusier and Eileen Grey’s visions of modernism.
The variations of white seemed particularly well-suited to films and photographs in black and white, but as Maugham’s fame grew and she no longer relied on photography to boost her success, her color palette broadened, blooming with lettuce green and “Schiaparelli Pink.”
Can’t you just picture someone swimming in money in one of her mirrored bathrooms, or throwing silk shirts across the bedroom a la Great Gatsby? It was Syrie’s resplendent vision that created those stereotypes; her idea of rich and beautiful interiors came to define a new post-war aesthetic for those who (often suddenly) were able to afford it.
1930s: Jean-Michel Frank
A cousin of Anne Frank forced out of France during the Second World War, the great furniture and interior designer Jean-Michel Frank was forced to remake his fortune in New York and Argentina.
Frank’s visionary, hyper-modern aesthetic was buffeted by his relationships with many of the other great artists of his time - Alberto Giacometti, Fernand Leger, Elsa Schiaparelli, Jean Cocteau.
His genius was in bringing these artist’s work into the homes he designed – asking Leger to design sculptural ceilings and Giacometti to sculpt furniture and light fixtures. Their collaboration came to a head in Frank’s last project, the Fifth Avenue apartment of Nelson Rockefeller, where the absolute best examples of modern art and furniture design come together in one of my favorite rooms of all time.
1940s: Dorothy Draper
As a designer who came-of-age during the Great Depression, Dorothy Draper’s style and legacy was born on the notion of more for less. Her column “Ask Dorothy Draper,” which ran in more than 70 newspapers during the 1930s, was canonized in her 1939 book “Decorating is Fun!” which taught struggling housewives tips for decorating homes on a budget.
Draper never shied away from color – she was known for recreating baroque and rococo furniture in shocking teal, fuscia, and red, saying “If it looks right, it is right!”
After having been to her wacked-out Alice-in-Wonderland-esque Greenbriar Hotel in West Virginia, I’m not quite sure I agree that Miss Draper was always right, but she sure knew how to make a statement.
1950s: Sister Parish
A cousin of Dorothy Draper’s, Sister Parish was equally daring in her designs, despite a somewhat more refined sensibility. (To give Miss Draper credit - it helped that Sister Parish’s work was primarily for private homes with higher budgets per square foot than Dorothy Draper’s large hotel projects.)
The real difference, though was Sister’s nostalgia as compared with her cousin: she loved needlepoint, quilts, chintz and quality antiques, and couldn’t bear the sacrilege of Dorothy’s “upcycles.”
Sister’s innovations came from leaving the good old things as they were, just dropping them into entirely new situations – painting the floors and walls shocking colors and using textiles in entirely new ways (she popularized the use of ticking fabric – then just for mattresses – for upholstery and draperies).
Ultimately, both cousins made a lasting impact on aesthetics for generations to come – Sister Parish created the Americana aesthetic while Draper created Hollywood Regency.
1960s Verner Panton
The 1960s were a wild ride for everyone involved - especially designers. Verner Panton’s surreal environments, furniture, and lighting embraced and symbolized the cultural fluidity that defined the era, using plastics and new means of production to create shapes that felt psychedelic and modern.
In all his work, Panton layers color in ways that evoke Josef Albers; he was even known to wear the same color – blue - every day, noting its symbolism and effect on his mood.
Panton’s interest in affecting mood and thought through his environments seems particularly tied to LSD and drug culture, especially in his experimental work, which pulled people together in disorientingly trippy and sensual rooms.
1970s Billy Baldwin
A great lover of fashion and modern painting, Billy Baldwin designed rooms to match the crisply cut, cocktail-chic fashions of the time, even going on to design the home of Diana Vreeland, editor-in-Chief at Vogue.
He loved color, especially the clear, bright colors of Matisse. Parallels to Vreeland’s apartment, which she asked Baldwin to design like “a garden in hell” are obvious with Matisse’s gorgeous 1908 painting “The Dessert: Harmony in Red.”
Beyond his exquisite, timeless interiors for clients like Cole Porter, the Paul Mellons and Jackie Onassis, Baldwin’s classic Slipper Chair will never not be chic.
1980s Memphis Milano
By the time the 1980s rolled around, the consumerism and pop culture of the 1970s had set the country into a malaise that only the gaudy, ironic and brightly colored kitch of post-modernism could shake to life.
Designers like Ettore Sottsass, Michael Graves, and Peter Shire came together to form Memphis Milano, which went on to spark conversation in popular culture through more mainstream, televised outlets like Pee Wee’s Playhouse (1986) and Beetlejuice (1988), which pushed the already extreme aesthetic to the max.
1990s: Jed Johnson
Probably most famous for dating and living with Andy Warhol for many years, Jed Johnson’s interior design was just beginning to reach its height when he died tragically in a plane crash in 1996.
But beyond his celebrity and tragedy, Johnson had real talent – his rooms utilized the exaggerated, post-modern shaped of the 1980s but removed the excess glitziness that for most other 80’s and 90’s designers only cheapened with time. Johnson referenced classical motifs (like other post-modernists) but built upon the forms with quiet reverence – none of the irony of his forebears.
2000s: Rachel Ashwell
Ever since Oprah first started promoting Ashwell’s designs as “single-handedly turning shabby into chic” in 2006, Rachel Ashwell’s Shabby Chic has become the basis for a slew of wildly popular design trends like farmhouse and industrial and of course the trend of its own name.
Drawing inspiration from greats like Sister Parish and even earlier designers like Sibyl Colfax and John Fowler, Rachel’s pared-down aesthetic is more about wabi-sabi and minimalism than overloaded chintz (though she certainly doesn’t shy away from it.)
2010s: Marie Kondo
The minimalism trend sparked by Marie Kondo, paired with a rekindled love of all things mid-century, has gone on to influence a wide array of trends, many of them lasting only a year of two.
Some of those micro-trends are just versions of Kon-Mari minimalism with a regional spin - think Hygge and Scandi Modernism - while others are reactionary, like the more recent evolution of maximalism and even “Jungalow.”
While Kondo is not exactly a designer herself, her clean, pared down aesthetic has gone on to influence plenty of designers and bloggers like Emily Henderson.