May 29, 2010 12:30 am

The Great Lady Decorators

Book cover of The Great Lady Decorators – The Women Who Defined Interior Design 1870-1955 by Adam Lewis

The Great Lady Decorators – The Women Who Defined Interior Design 1870-1955, by Adam Lewis, Rizzoli International Publications

An illuminating round-up of the best known women designers of this period, The Great Lady Decorators is also entertaining – most especially in biographical detail.

Elsie de Wolfe began as a failed actress – upstaged by her understudy, later the screen star Ethel Barrymore – and ended as adviser to the Duchess of Windsor on everything from “how to dress to how to entertain ... She gave the duchess style”.

Ruby Ross Wood’s eclecticism combined bright, broad-checked swags and drapes with floral Chinoiserie wallpapers. Dorothy Draper’s typically 1930s-style dressed rooms with walls of mirrors and swathes of vast curvy sofas was, as one reviewer wrote: “like a Busby Berkeley movie set”. Another said: “She went right to town with a colour scheme of chartreuse and shocking pink that would knock your eyes out.”

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Photographs and delightful paintings of interiors by Jeremiah Goodman illustrate these women’s styles. Some seem to us now underwhelming but those who became the most influential were justifiably so. “Thanks to Nancy Lancaster,” writes Lewis, “rooms properly put together in [her] idiom are still the hallmark of comfort and elegance.”

Pictures of Lancaster’s gardens would have complemented those of her interiors: from loathing gardens as a child she became a brilliant gardenmaker. “The real fun is getting down on your stomach and weeding with your teeth.”

The creator of the English country house look, she believed that rooms should look undecorated: “Decoration sterilises houses. In England, people have had houses where things have accumulated for ages.” She made an art form of combining chintz, fresh flowers, open fires and “a gentle mixture of furniture”. The latter, she said, “expresses life and continuity but it must be a delicious mixture that flows and mixes well. It is a bit like mixing salads. I am better at rooms than salads”.

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