When thinking about your own decorating style, it's important (and delightful) to explore the history of interior design—from the birth of the "professional decorator" to the advent of the "Prince of Chintz" in the 80s and 90s. This list of legendary decorators is a great place to begin.
1. Elsie de Wolfe (1859-1950)
Rendering of The Colony Club, New York City
Courtesy of Gray Walker Interiors
Arguably the first "professional" decorator in the United States, Elsie de Wolfe had a penchant for mixing French antique furniture with animal print fabrics. In her famous interior design manual, The House in Good Taste, she articulated her design maxim: "Simplicity, suitability, and proportion." Her work at The Colony Club, a New York City women's club, featured her touchstones: indoor latticework, Neoclassical elements, French antiques, and an immaculate sense of proportion. She devoted her life to making everything she touched beautiful.
2. Madeleine Castaing (1894-1992)
Castaing's Lèves Country House
Photo: René Stoeltie
A legendary French decorator and antiques dealer, Madeleine Castaing is known for her unique and whimsical take on the interior. Her iconic style—"le style Castaing"—remains a decorating reference. Her country home (pictured above) featured her signature blue walls, a plush Napoleon III sofa, and 19th century antiques playfully arranged on the chicest ocelot carpet.
3. Jean-Michel Frank (1895-1941)
Born in Paris, Jean-Michel Frank is known for his modern, sumptuous interiors that featured exotic materials like shagreen, parchment, sheepskin, and bronze. His legacy resides in the iconic furniture he created, most notably his Parsons tables, club chairs, and sofas.
4. Dorothy Draper (1889-1969)
The Greenbrier Hotel
The American decorator who penned Decorating is Fun! became famous for her "anti-minimalist" attitude and exuberant environments. Draper hallmarks include black-and-white checkered floors, saturated colors, baroque plaster work, and overscaled florals. Her point of view paved the way for the Hollywood Regency style, and she popularized the Banana Palm motif.
5. Billy Baldwin (1903-1983)
Baldwin created his famous Arbre de Matisse Reverse pattern to match his client's Matisse painting.
In the United States, interior decorating was considered a female profession until Billy Baldwin arrived on the scene. Boasting designs that were rooted in classicism but thoroughly modern in spirit, Baldwin believed that one must be faithful to his/her own taste "because nothing you really like is ever out of style."
6. Sister Parish (1910-1994)
Sister Parish made her mark on the American interior design landscape when she was invited to decorate the Kennedy White House. A master of pattern mixing, Parish believed that her job was "to give permanence to a house, to bring out the experiences, the memories, the feelings that make it a home."
7. David Hicks (1929-1998)
David Hicks was an English interior decorator known for his use of bold colors and geometrics, as well as his ability to effortlessly combine modern and antique furnishings. He attracted attention in the 1960s when he convinced his mother to let him redecorate her home and publish the project. Talk about a dream first client.
8. Tony Duquette (1914-1999)
Duquette's Los Angeles house "Dawnridge"
Tony Duquette was a renaissance man. As an interior designer, set decorator, and sculptor, Duquette's unique vision brought him much fame throughout the 20th century. The king of maximalism, Duquette fabulously illustrated that more is more. The offices of Tony Duquette Studios are still in business and operate out of his famed Los Angeles home, Dawnridge.
9. Albert Hadley (1920-2012)
Born in Springfield, Tennessee, Albert Livingston Hadley Jr. attended Peabody College in Nashville and Parsons School of Design. He began his career working for Sister Parish, and ultimately he took over the firm. Like Parish, Hadley mastered pattern mixing. He stood out by injecting his spaces with a slightly modern edge.
10. Angelo Donghia (1935-1985)
The designer's living room
Courtesy of The Donghia Archives
Arguably the "it" designer of the 1970s and 80s, Angelo Donghia's client list included Mary Tyler Moore, Liza Minelli, Barbara Walters, and Ralph and Ricky Lauren. The above photo embodies his signature look: a relaxed yet sophisticated elegance with just the right amount of glamour.
11. Ettore Sottsass (1917-2007)
The designer's Milan apartment, 1958
Courtesy of the Archivio Ettore Sottsass
A visionary, Ettore Sottsass began his career as a multi-media designer. He founded the Memphis Group, a 1980s Italian design studio that challenged the tenets of modernism and laid the foundation for the postmodern design movement. Though his work remains polarizing, his mark on 20th century design is undeniable. Especially today.
12. Mario Buatta (1935-2018)
Mario Buatta, also known as "The Prince of Chintz," grew up on Staten Island and eventually became one of the most sought-after and influential interior decorators of the 1980s and 90s. His command of traditional furnishings and his selection of beautiful printed cottons resulted in some of the prettiest (but not overly precious) rooms.