de Wolfe & Draper’s Touch to the Victorian Americans

Villa Trianon, Elsie de Wolfe  (from unknown publication)
Figure 1. Bofferding, L. (1936) Villa Trianon, Elsie de Wolfe’s French residence.


Elsie de Wolfe born to Victorian interior and lost nation brought upon by World War One and the Great Depression. De Wolfe (1913) devoted to “make everything around her beautiful” for the 20th century Americans, inspiring the women of prescribed social roles to revive the architectural flavour in social emergences.

“What Elsie did become the foundation for all to follow: she purged the darkness of Victorian homes of their stuffiness” and its undesirable décor that littered the room; “rid them of bad pictures and furniture.” (Baldwin)

She redefined houses as places for comfort for practicality and suitability in the new aesthetic for “light, air and simplicity.” (de Wolfe, 1913) Walls were painted soft, neutral whites or pastel, other times it was chinoiserie or treillage resembling imagery of gardens. Mirror panels lengthened the rooms, matching chintz curtains and upholstery accessorised the floor, sometimes accompanied by leopard velvet.

De Wolfe, along with Dorothy Draper, had a great interest in the country life; away from the dreariness of the city, and the inspiring colours of nature. (Turpin 2008)

Image result for Greenbrier Hotels interior
Figure 2. Greenbrier Hotel 

Both dedicated to flourish interiors to reflect the needs and wants of American public of “hope and optimism” (Draper) through rich colours and its regenerative power in invigorating the spirit to the muted city.

Escapism and surrealism became Draper’s style; transporting interiors to a distant time or exotic place through illusions of leaves and flowers that blossomed on the façade of the walls and furniture, creating atmospheres of fantasies for imagination and comfort for the Americans to follow. (Owens, 2005) Organic forms, soft textures, flourishing colours encompassed spatial environments in romanticising about life in the country. Homes and public spaces became central to its people, inspiring the Americans to invest love and care for the interiors as places that reflected the people’s aspirations.



Figure 3. Steichen, E. (1924) Elsie de Wolfe, (Lady Mendl) Versailles, France.

De Wolfe, born to a working-class family took a career in theatre to assist her family, however, it was deemed that her outfits were better talked about than her acting career beyond the stage and was even crowned the “the most beautiful woman on stage.” Influenced from stages she had worked in, she translated her interest in self presentation to interior decorating that later became a revolutionising movement for the Americans to look up as role model.

Figure 4. Karsh, Y. (1948) Dorothy Draper portrait.

Whilst, Draper was born to an upper-class family that lived in the richness of the country life, away from the desolation of the cities of America.

De Wolfe and Draper introduced the garden to the interior; de Wolfe used soft, pale neutral colours creating the room a place abundant in light, enabling a place for life and uplifts the Victorian that cluttered in its unnecessity décor of the room. Whilst Draper tend to use highly contrasting rich colours that illuminate the room of life and fertility of the isolation of the forest.

Light colours illuminated the backgrounds of the room as a place of shelter from the outdoor, a safe and enlarged room through the mirror panelling, enabling the viewer to take focus of the harmonious chintz upholstery and curtains. The floral pattern that embodied the interiors of the homes has greatly affected how people viewed their homes, the imagery of flowers indulges one in a place of fantasy that we cannot experience in the true flowers. Everyday furniture in beautiful colours and illustrations, bringing the interior garden – enveloping this appraisal and the beauty nature offers, but inability to live in our homes as we take away its natural habitat in our selfish desires and thus withers in the wake of the absence of sunlight. The design advocated evident desire to change the perception of and how we visualise our homes, in departure of wanting to look like the upper class, she influenced the women of the home, the designers of the interior décor to aspire for the image of nature’s beauty, an imagery that present fertility and sensations of abandonment of the demands of the industrious times of the American cities. Prospects of turning intimacies to our interior provided a delicate care for de Wolfe to shape, and colour the enlightened rooms she had painted, informing the Americans through her book The House in Good Taste of the need for us to rethink our décor in our houses as a place of home and comfort, practicality, and suitability. (1913)

The new aesthetic of light, air and simplicity became de Wolfe’s signature in reviving the Victorian homes in living in harmony with the natural environment, and enabling our love for the organic forms, and showing the physical imagery of the natural being along with its rich colours inhabiting our home also comes with an improvement of psychology in how we feel a house should feel like, reflecting life. De Wolfe recognised how colours affect us and thus its corresponding emotions, her earlier work, she borrowed the beauty of the sky and its clouds afloat and applied this in the ceilings of the homes, recreating a sensation that give the home a sense of spaciousness whist also to frame her love for chintz fabrication.

Elsie de Wolfe advocated “function follows form” in search for the subtracting the décor of the Victorian era in redefining houses as places of home, de Wolfe took ownership in the constituent precedent of a room of four walls and enabled limitation of ornamentation in modesty. The influence de Wolfe had to the women, of prescribed social roles of the American emergencies, had it been to enable interior décor of expression of one’s identity, and to take image of one’s needs and wants of a single harmonious design statement of simplicity, suitability, comfort and proportion. Furthermore, de Wolfe’s use of natural embodiment of leopard and zebra that lie asleep on couches or on the floors. While white paint of walls became the backdrop to simplify the vertical boundaries while also expanding the room as it is visible to see the corners of the room, while mirrors were used to multiply the room while also offering a space of no secrets.

Decorator Elsie de Wolfe Took L.A. by Storm in the 1940s Photos | Architectural Digest. A Charles Baskerville mural enlivens Di Frasso’s home. Photo: Simon Watson
Figure 8. Countess Dorothy di Frasso’s home

Lightening the 20th century through the social aspiration in the time of loss and desperately from the industrious times and the image of cities formulating a muted city, populated by working class, expression of identity was unapparent. The works of de Wolfe and Draper presented the regenerative power that colour scheme in decorating with colours with the fertile seasons of Celsius afflicted by the sensory aspects. Aware of the importance of visual aspect of a home, she filled the house of visual language that allow the life of the outdoor to flow inside and preferred soft pastels that was kind and gentle to the eyes to narrate the room of its imagery and through colour utilising analogous scheme that “subtly faded into the other” to allow a house of playground of delicate transitions of entrance to the rooms. Unity and sync style assure one’s identity and confidence in a woman’s home.

Elsie de Wolfe and Dorothy Draper shared interest of the natural forms, away from the linear and industrious imagery of the city.

What defined Draper as the woman that professionalised interior designing for all to aspire, her style was more distinctive. Owens (2005) described her works of escapism and surrealism in awakening the stationary walls of the interior to portray facades of the aspirations of the colours of the future. Other times it was illustrations of exaggerated large leaves and flowers that had blossomed on the face of the furniture enabling one’s fantasies for imagination through the intense colours that followed from room to room. Such atmospheres embedded itself in the life of each rooms in the use of dimensional plasterwork on the walls or the bold colours that highly contrasted each other. Draper’s touch “roots of traditional,” concepts of décor that “branches and blossom to reflect the needs and wants of American public,” of which the nationwide of erosion brought upon by the World War I and the Great Depression to “hope and optimism.” Draper’s choice of complimentary choice of colours proposed a “risk” and was viewed a vision of idealism and “distraction to the muted city.” (Varney, 1989)

Draper’s use of psychology of colour to uplift the spirits of the people to romanticise of the rational reality the American’s lived in. This enabled the middle class to find their identity, that too, was necessity to enable an expression of home in the means of their desires of the family name, as oppose to aspiring to have of similar luxuriance of the upper class through her advocacy of “full colour and style coordination.” Draper prefaced to work for public spaces, enabling her designs to be of large scales that will have a better outreach and influence the public. Homes were too intimate for Draper, such small spaces and narrowed to a singular family was not a style she abided with, instead she worked on changing the normality we now know of the hotels, its presentation in imagery and spaciousness, its allocation and informality to activate a public space to be of a welcoming estate that greets its people of the wonders of colours to “announce personality to the world; inviting the Draper touch.” (Varney, 1988)

Dorothy Draper Interior Designs

Colour use of Draper is the predominant aspect of her style amongst the oversize plasterwork, she utilised colour to promote emotion through scale and the value of colour it had, whilst the undesirable felts of system were painted to melt to the walls of the interior; in the time of expansion and the development of the cost efficient methods, furniture and amenities were redefined as entities that awaken the interior in the colours that invigorate the subject; categorising the objects to families of the room in the reformation of arrangement of the room.


Works of de Wolfe and Draper has a very powerful aesthetic that even a century after their works, it still stand in magnificence. In the more accepting use of colour of the contemporary fashion, the images of their work remains works of confidence and that neglects the societal acceptance of muted colours that simply fumes all that follow this rule. de Wolf and Draper advocated their love for the organic forms and its beauty that express these forms that freely exist that inspired its people of consumption of implementing colours to interiors.


Watercolour by the author. Tropical Leaves, 2018.


Enabling the natural colours, natural forms and the natural essence of being inspire the interior in more way than enabling decor to be considered as a entity that help bring life to the interior in allowing our objects to take shape of things we already love. Opposing conviction of the technology that enables in the images of life among the lifeless.

Watercolour by the author. Zebra Pattern, 2018.

The orchid complexion that we bring into our personal homes, also in expression of our individuality through the decisive acceptance of allowing outdoor images to reside our homes, indulging our spirits and souls in gardens truly influence into a route of fantasy.

A fantasy that citizens of the muted city needs that truly allows us to call our houses, our own.

Our home.

A place of comfort.

A place for love.

A place for life to nourish.

Watercolour by the author. Blossomed Floral Accompanied by Fronds, 2018.