By Katy B. Olson
“‘American women are divided into two classes: the happily married and the decorators,’” early industry pioneer Dorothy Draper once quipped. While that categorization may not ring true today, the first female designers did find themselves part of a rare breed, with pathfinders like Elsie de Wolfe, named “the first interior decorator” by The New York Times, setting the standard for decorators, female and male, for decades to follow.
“Through a combination of taste, station, talent, intellect and status, women have shaped interior design through the ages,” explains designer Laura Kirar. “But it wasn’t until the 20th century that interior design was a possible profession. Until then, it was considered improper for women of any social status to go into business.”
Kirar is participating in “The Female Factor: Women in Design,” a panel at Modernism Week on February 20. That panel, which will include style experts Pamela Fiori and Steven Stolman in conversation with Kirar, Jamie Rummerfield, Jackie Thomas and DeeAnn McCoy, will tackle midcentury modern design and the women who helped pioneer the movement. Kirar shares with EAL a glimpse into the past as well as her own historical inspirations.
The field has changed over the last century, since de Wolfe began working in the early 1900s, and even more since the advent of modernism and e Wolfe’s death in 1950. “Since the 1950s, I believe the field changed inasmuch as more women were allowed to be interior designers as professionals,” shares Kirar. “In the last 20 years, the field has changed for all interior designers, not just women. Formal education and professional accreditation for true interior designers has become more important as more and more amateur decorators ‘work’ in the industry, thus damaging the high level of skill and professionalism that should be associated with interior design.”
A Gray-designed living room
Who are some of the early pioneers Kirar admires? Eileen Gray, for one, who Kirar says “has always been someone that I find inspiring because, like me, she was an artist who chose architecture and design as her medium. She delved deeply into both material and form to express her environments and furniture and through her exploration of Japanese lacquer techniques, she was a master craftswoman in her own right.” Gray was also a “strong woman in an era of dominant men,” explains Kirar. “She pioneered the Modern movement and her handsome, sculptural and conceptual interiors were ahead of their time.”
Another source of insight: Frances Adler Elkins, who, “In the 1930s,” shares Kirar, “developed an eclectic and bold style through the use of color and furnishings, mixing time periods and styles in nearly every room she completed.” (Learn more about Elkins in Frances Elkins Interior Design by Stephen M. Salny.)
Kirar also invokes Dorothy Draper, whose “dramatic, theatrical and memorable interiors literally and figuratively set the stage for an era.” Draper also created one of Kirar’s cherished moments in design history: “My favorite design moment is when Dorothy Draper redecorated Carlyle Hotel on Madison Avenue, being one of the first women to work in the commercial sphere in interior design.”