Decorating legend's advice stands

Dorothy Draper's interior design ideas still provide a solid foundation for today's homes

August 06, 2006|By CLAIRE WHITCOMB | CLAIRE WHITCOMB,UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE

If you want decorating ideas that won't lose their sparkle over time, simply go back 50 years. In the work of legendary decorator Dorothy Draper, you'll find pure champagne.

Born to upper-crust New York society in 1889, Draper used her social connections to launch a decorating business that got the city's attention.

She decorated floors with overscaled black-and-white checks, covered sofas with oversized cabbage roses and hung huge chandeliers for aerial drama.

She was modern. She was traditional.

And she designed everything from the restaurant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia to the dream house at the 1964 World's Fair.

Until her death in 1969, Draper was one of the most famous women in America. The subject of a retrospective exhibit at the Museum of the City of New York, Draper and her creative genius also can be seen in a glamorous new coffee-table book, In the Pink: Dorothy Draper - America's Most Fabulous Decorator (Pointed Leaf Press, $95).

Written by her protege, Carleton Varney, who still presides over Dorothy Draper and Co., it offers a fabulous lesson in how to use bold scale and dramatic colors with eye-catching results.

Here are some of Draper's favorite ways to add imagination to life, culled from Varney's book and her own 365 Shortcuts to Home Decorating, copies of which can be found at libraries and on amazon.com.

Don't lack black. Draper considered black and white the ultimate modern color combination. Though she often treated her floors to oversized black and white stripes or checks, she loved the way small doses of these two colors eliminated "the look of the ordinary."

To layer black into a room, she advocated using black lampshades, black hardware on cabinet doors, ebony-colored clocks - anything that gave a room flashes of black. She even advised using black oilcloth as valance for kitchen windows.

"It looks like patent leather used over crisp gingham check or bandana print cafe curtains," she wrote.

White is a delight. Draper didn't have any patience with housewives who considered white a hard-to-care-for hue.

"One swish of a damp sponge and gone are the telltale fingerprints sticky with jam," she wrote.

To indulge in the delights of white, she suggested white narcissi in a white bowl, white corduroy pillows on a black tweed sofa and white picture frames on plum or dark-colored walls. Draper liked the way white floors set furniture afloat - and how smaller touches of white gave rooms "that snow-capped top-of-the-mountain freshness."

Color should be clear and bright. Draper had no use for dusty blues and "namby-pamby cream." She liked daffodil yellow, tangerine, hyacinth, raspberry, allspice and purple iris. Mix any of these colors with white "and your room will kick up its heels with joy," she wrote.

To figure out what colors work for you, experiment with pillows or vases in bright hues.

"See how these color exclamation points can help punctuate the everyday look of your rooms," she wrote.

Don't be afraid to paint wood. If you've inherited a carved four-poster Italian bed, as did a friend of Draper's, don't feel depressed by the dark and ominous wood. Paint it with flat white paint. And while you're at it, paint the bricks around your fireplace or anything that distracts from the clean, clear spirit of a room.

"There is no correct," insisted Draper.

Have fun with felt. Simple-to-sew (no hemming needed), felt is as chic today as it was in the 1960s. Draper advised using it to cover pillows, mat pictures, transform cornices and even slipcover wastebaskets.

Know what you're about. In Draper's opinion, "no one makes a worse hodgepodge out of a house than a trend-follower. You have to know what you are about."

And that's where Draper was at her best. In her syndicated columns, she fearlessly advised women to trust their instincts, to unlock their creativity and do the very thing Draper had learned to do, without an iota of formal training: Create rooms that sparkle with personality and imagination.

"I believe in doing the thing you feel is right," she wrote. "If it looks right, it is right."

And after half a century, it still is.

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