by Meaghan Branham
We all have style icons; from Coco Chanel to Bianca Jagger, nearly everyone can find themselves admiring signature looks from decades or even centuries before. These kindred spirits serve as sources of strength on days when we’re feeling in need of a little guidance. Luckily, using the trailblazers of the past to shape our style today is not limited to the realm of fashion. If you’re feeling like you’re in a bit of a design rut, these innovators in interior decor might give you the boost you need. Even if their styles aren’t exactly your taste, their originality might spark some ideas for your own space.
Elsie de Wolfe
Known both as “the mother of interior decoration” and “America’s first decorator,” Elsie de Wolfe was what you might call a trendsetter. In the early 20th century, de Wolfe created a name for herself by rebelling against the popular Victorian trends of the time. These were namely dark, heavy fabrics and furniture, as well as lots of ornamental and decorative furnishings that struck her as clutter. Choosing to take her inspiration from 18th century French decorating trends, de Wolfe gravitated toward lighter, airier colors and fabrics and fewer accessories creating a more comfortable and breathable atmosphere in her rooms. Her more feminine take was revolutionary at the time, making a statement that would have an impact on design trends for centuries to come.
After establishing her design firm in the 1920s, Dorothy Draper set about defining her unique brand with her love of color and pattern. Her signature black and white checkered floors and ornate accents, which she often used in the hotels and resorts she decorated, elevated even small transient spaces into works of art. When it came to decorating the everyday spaces of women across the country, her approach in the 20s and 30s is one most of us now are happy to embrace: a reflection of your own personal taste and lifestyle, and above all else, a source of inspiration and joy. She was unafraid to break the rules of convention, embracing a more DIY sensibility than many of her contemporaries, with an understanding of the sense of self and agency that could come from decorating a space in a way that reflected the individual.
Combining classic lines and room layouts with contemporary pops of color and inspirations from all over the world, Sheila Bridges carries on the tradition of innovation established by women before her. Her style is defined by incorporating twists on classical design, like mismatched upholstery on a formal dining set, or covering the walls of an otherwise traditionally decorated bedroom with quotes from her favorite book. Bridges’ work encourages a mix of the old and the new, the west and the east, to create rooms that find cohesion through juxtaposition — and allow the decorator to incorporate all their favorite styles, no matter the rules.
“I always put in one controversial item. It makes people talk.” – Dorothy Draper
These women are just three of the many innovative designers who have taken traditional design rules and restrictions and used them, either by incorporating new elements, restructuring them, or turning them completely on their heads, to demonstrate the endless possibilities. They each stamped their personalities on the rooms they created, unrestricted by the prevailing trends of their time, and embracing the fun of bending the rules. ◆