The most influential interior designers of the 20th century and what we can learn from them
Here be titans (of taste): we take a break from celebrating currently working interior designers to pick the biggest creative names to have worked in the last century, and ask what we can learn from them
The House & Garden Top 100 list has become a benchmark not only of success, but of an era. With that said, its 1998 beginnings means it missed almost the entire 20th century. So here is our round up of the most influential interior designers working during that period. There is something to learn from each of them, whether it’s reminding yourself that you are not Marie-Antoinette (thank you Madeleine Castaing), seeing the possibility of using fabric on a floor (as Roger Banks-Pye did) or simply remembering that a room must be designed for use and comfort rather than Instagram (one of Alidad’s tips – his career has spanned centuries, so he knows). Pay close attention…
Elsie de Wolfe, 1859-1950
According to legend, it was the American-born Elsie de Wolfe who invented interior design; in 1903 she printed business cards and told people that was what she did. Let loose, she threw out the gloomily ornate Victoriana that had been so prevalent in her childhood, and replaced it with light, clutter-free room layouts, and even made beige fashionable decades before Kelly Hoppen.
Among her clients were Vanderbilts, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and Henry Frick. The latter’s house in New York is now home to the Frick Collection and the Boucher room – Mrs. Frick’s boudoir designed by Elsie with panels originally painted for Madame de Pompadour – is visitable. She made her name with Manhattan’s Colony Club which opened in 1907, and which she decorated in an unequivocally feminine manner with glazed chintz, pale walls, and, most famously, the Trellis Room, bringing the outside in. Her first of many such rooms, it has entered the pantheon of ‘most famous rooms in interior design history’, spawning a thousand imitations.
Elsie wasn’t afraid to break with convention (in more ways than one; her partner through life was the theatrical and literary agent Elisabeth Marbury and when she married at 61, to the British attaché to Paris, it was for ‘convenience’. She became Lady Mendl and her husband got an allowance). Nor was she afraid to trust her own vision. We shouldn’t be, either.
Syrie Maugham, 1879-1955
Twenty years younger than Elsie de Wolfe, Syrie Maugham – sometime wife of novelist and playwright William Somerset Maugham and known as the ‘Princess of Pale’ – took Elsie’s simplicity yet further. Her drawing room on the Kings Road, also up there in that aforementioned pantheon, was entirely white (at the time, only a humble cottage would have white walls).
Filled with matching white arrangements of flowers by Constance Spry, it was by no means restrained in line (Syrie loved a fringe), but it was certainly trendsetting, hugely admired by Cecil Beaton who often shot his society portraits there, and was arguably the very beginning of minimalism (compare it to the great Axel Vervoordt’s monochrome LA mansion for Kim Kardashian and Kanye West).
But Syrie was far from a one-trick pony; Nicky Haslam described her design for Bright Young Thing Stephen Tennant. “The hall always takes one’s breath. Pink velvet swags cover what walls aren’t painted with gold stars on powder blue, a gleaming silver ceiling, turquoise fur rugs over white fur rugs over fraying Aubusson. White and gilt carved rope furniture with white leather upholstery draped with vivid Chinese shawls and red Indian blankets. Light struggles out from crystal brackets.”
Syrie also designed the Chanel shop on the rue Cambon – Coco was a great friend – and took on projects in Palm Beach and California. By 1930 she had shops in London, New York and Chicago, and by 1935 was using emerald green, red, and Schiaparelli’s shocking pink. We can all learn from her unapologetic attitude to glamour, and her embracing of her changing taste.
Madeleine Castaing, 1894-1992
Few decorators have given their name to a look; Le Style Castaing is still used as a reference today and describes a blend of neo-Classicism and Proustian romanticism, accompanied by a certain shade of blue, and often, leopard-print – do look up images of her own home, the Maison de Lèves. Castaing was emphatic that a room should suit you, rather than the other way around. “If a client wants a boudouir a la Marie Antoinette, I simply say, ‘But my dear, you are not Marie Antoinette,’” she once said – a point always good to bear in mind!
She wanted to know what books her clients read, and what art they loved (even now Sophie Ashby’s motto is “start with the art”), was one of Chaim Soutine’s most important patrons. She also decorated a villa in the South of France with Jean Cocteau. Grounding the visual dreaminess of her creations was a practicality that is worth heeding; a leopard print carpet is both attractive and forgiving, particularly in a room with doors that lead in and out of the garden.
Dorothy Draper, 1889-1969
Others argue that Dorothy Draper, not Elsie de Wolfe, invented the business of interior design. After her marriage in 1912, she and her husband started buying and selling homes; Dorothy became known for her flair for decorating, and her New York high society friends started copying her. In 1925 she started the Architectural Clearing House (later the company was renamed after her) and in the early 1930s was contracted to redecorate the Carlyle Hotel.
Many more hotels followed. Her style defined ‘Hollywood Regency’: think glitz and glamour, lacquer, chrome and modern finishes. She favoured bright, exuberant colours, black and white tiling, rococo scrollwork and baroque plasterwork.
In 1939 she published Decorating is Fun! which is packed with helpful suggestions for curtains, colour and why you must never forget your door “which can contribute a great deal to your whole decorative scheme” via ornament and colour. There is also a slew of haunting cautionary tales, such as the one about the woman’s husband who spent all his evenings at his club because she didn’t make their home comfortable enough.
Nancy Lancaster, 1897-1994, and John Fowler, 1906-1977
Nancy Lancaster is the American who brought to fruition what is now universally recognised and referred to as English Country House Style; John Fowler was Nancy’s partner at Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler (Nancy bought out Sibyl in 1944). Lady Astor described Nancy and John as “the most unhappy unmarried couple in England,” and certainly there was an element of love/ hate, but it was also an intensely creative relationship.
They both believed in the combination of comfort and elegance – Nancy insisted that bathrooms were proper rooms – but they also favoured an aesthetic of ‘pleasing decay’. They made use of existing furniture and textiles (there was rationing; we all had to make do and mend, just as we should be doing again now), or to get the effect Nancy would ‘spoil’ new upholstery fabrics by exposing them to the weather, while John would re-dye old fabrics and add new trimmings. His inspiration was often academic, based on the collections at the V&A and 18th-century design books; Nancy imbued that intellectual rigour with life. Thus we are given a lesson in the importance of both those elements, and a couple more rooms for that pantheon: the yellow room at Avery Row, and the Gothic bedroom at Haseley Court.
Alfred Eisenstaedt/The LIFE Picture Collection/Shutterstock
Billy Baldwin, 1903-1983
In the 1960s Nicky Haslam was in New York, working at House & Garden’s sister magazine Vogue for its then editor, Diana Vreeland. He described it as a hugely influential period: “To see houses that had been done up by American designers of the 1940s and 1950s was eye opening. Unlike the English at that time, Americans didn’t mind modern in their rooms.”
One of those designers was Billy Baldwin – though he loathed the term ‘interior designer’ and was strictly a ‘decorator’ – who was responsible for Vreeland’s blood-red ‘garden in hell’ apartment. Scarlet chintz adorned the walls and dressed the windows, while piles of patterned cushions, a thick red carpet and a variety of vermillion accessories completed the monochromatic scene. Baldwin was a colourist who generally preferred modern lines to rococo swags and believed that comfort was the ultimate luxury – for which read deep, well-stuffed sofas and chairs. He was also a fan of the corner banquette, dark walls, cotton, geometrics, pattern on pattern, wicker and rattan, and he loathed fake books, false fireplaces, satin and damask. But perhaps his most valuable lesson is his famous adage: “Be faithful to your own taste, because nothing you really like is ever out of style.”
Renzo Mongiardino, 1916-1988
Lorenzo ‘Renzo’ Mongiardino was the original multi-hyphenate; an architect, interior designer and set designer, he was twice nominated for an Academy Award for his film work with legendary director Franco Zeffirelli (if you’ve never seen his Romeo & Juliet, schedule time for it.)
Mongiardino created interiors throughout Europe for Aristotle Onassis, Rudolph Nureyev, Gianni Agnelli, Lee Radziwell and many more. It was the heyday of the Italian modern design movement, and Giò Ponti (whom Mongiardino studied with) and Ettore Sottsass were revolutionising contemporary living, but Mongiardino’s work was completely different, being richly layered with historic allusion, and totally enchanting. He was often referred to as the ‘master of illusion’ for his trompe-l’oeil surfaces, which could transform any empty room into a fairy-tale chateau, and his extraordinary touch was the inspiration behind Ashley Hicks’s painting of the walls in Martina Mondadori’s Milan apartment (Mondadori grew up in a house decorated by Mongiardino).
But Mongiardino would throw real craft in alongside the faux, and sent his artisans to train those at San Patrignano; today the community is one of the go-to places for major fashion houses and interior designers alike. What made Mondgiardino’s work so particularly enviable was his eye for balance and proportion that preceded any decoration, detailed in his design treatise, Roomscapes. Only then were treasures and fake objects placed in situ, each given equal weighting regardless of their value – a trick often used to great effect by the inimitable Nicky Haslam.
David Hicks, 1929-1998
David Hicks’s style was formed partly from fury; John Fowler refused to hire him, and so he made a conscious decision to do something different. He still wanted to use antiques and historic patterns, but he infused them clean lines and a strong, bold modernist vision that rejected any hint of chintz or prettiness, turning English interior design on its head and creating an alternative English style – one that has been extraordinarily far-reaching in its impact, and is still employed by other decorators.
Hicks would decorate around antique furniture, pictures and objects, so that “his bold modern gestures were set against their foil,” explains his son, Ashley Hicks. Clients included Vidal Sassoon (Hicks wrapped all his books in paper, telling Francis Bacon it was because his taste in literature was so abysmal), as well as the young Prince Charles and Princess Anne. He also created a nightclub on the QE2. His room schemes are studies in how to use colour, and his fabrics and wallpapers have been successfully reproduced by Ashley and GP&J Baker, should you wish to integrate his visionary geometrics, which were often inspired by Victorian tiling, or ancient Chinese floors.
Nicky Haslam, born 1939
Nicky Haslam, recipient of this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award, is one of the two designers on this list who is still alive – we therefore have the great fortune of still being to learn from him, his impact spanning the centuries. He dates his career back to 1972, when he returned to London following a spell at Vogue in New York. We’d say it started earlier; he decorated his study at Eton with faux-ocelot curtains, paper plumes and an artificial grass carpet, his cottage in Waterloo with red car paint “which gave the effect of lacquer”, and a ranch in Arizona according to a novel by Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop.
Since then he has amassed a devout following that runs the gamut from rock stars to royalty, has thrown numerous unforgettable parties, and through his many projects covered by this magazine, has given us all a masterclass in applying wit, elan and a sense of the ephemeral to our own interiors. His own homes are always worth studying, not least the 18th-century hunting lodge that, before Nicky, was home to John Fowler; it’s one of the most celebrated houses in the world of interior design, regardless of who is holding the lease (Francis Sultana has recently signed up, we’re on tenterhooks).
Roger Banks-Pye, 1948 – 1996
Roger Banks-Pye has been described as the closest a decorator ever got to being a couturier, and among his clients were couturiers, namely Valentino and Hardy Amies. Part of the rich tapestry of talent that Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler has become, his style is still revered by those at the helm now. For Roger eschewed academic correctness for original effect, and his interest in antiques ran less to the fine than to the strange. He used walls and floors as blank canvases, to the extent that he’d employ collage as a wallpaper technique and even stuck his favourite Colefax & Fowler Indian Fuchsia chintz to his bedroom floorboards rather than using it for, say, curtains, or anything else conventional. He tested the fabric’s durability first by wrapping a board in it at the top of the stairs in the Brook Street office, so it would be well walked on – and it survived. Another time he took the motif on a stair carpet and painted it on the surrounding stair treads. He had rigorous standards, and would stop at nothing in the pursuit of perfection – no detail was too small – but he also believed in the value of the objet trouvé and off-the-shelf items supposedly of little worth; his interiors did not depend on deep pockets, but rather on the application of a vision. We should all embrace his attitude of bold disregard of what is expected.
Alidad, born 1954
Our other living decorator on this list is Alidad (who has recently put together a course for Create Academy on assembling a timeless interior). Iranian-born, and formerly a specialist in Islamic Art at Sotheby’s, no other British interior designer has so successfully blended the best of East and West to create an aesthetic that is so singularly their own, and yet so aspired to. He launched his business in 1985, and his approach stood out in the sea of chintz, frills and bows that dominated the time.
Alidad’s red library was stencilled and hand-painted in seventeen different shades. “I never match fabrics and paint finishes,” he says. Indeed, the charm comes in his mixing of suzani needlework with Turkestan cushions, Georgian furniture with modern sculpture, the whole creating a richly layered environment. He loves modern damasks edged with old velvet, verre églomisé, and comfort; “a big mistake is when rooms are created to be seen and not used,” he says, which is a 20th-century lesson that is vital to take into the 21st century.