March is Women’s History Month, and we’re celebrating by highlighting some of the most influential female interior designers in the history of design. But first, let’s do a brief dive into the history of interior design as a whole.
A Quick History of Interior Design
For the last century, interior design has been considered a profession. But, as a practice, interior design has been around since the earliest records of human history.
In addition to vibrant wall frescos, Ancient Egyptian homes featured mirrors, plants, and animal skins as textiles. The ancient Chinese invented wallpaper and hand-painted beautiful pastoral scenes. The ancient Greeks laid mosaic tile floors with intricate scenes and geometric designs.
During the Dark Ages, the Western culture shifted to a more minimalist style, with heavy use of wood and stone. Colors were muted, and the style was simple and sensible.
In sharp contrast, the French Renaissance returned to beauty for beauty’s sake. During this period and the periods that followed, the homes of the wealthy were furnished with realistic paintings, decorative finishes, and the finest materials, often brought from faraway lands. Consumers had access to goods such as cotton, wool, silk, fur, and porcelain, making it easier for the upper and middle classes to decorate their homes in unique ways.
The following Italian Baroque period incorporated colored marble, painted ceilings, and elaborate style to create drama. The Neoclassical style, which rose to prominence in the late 1700s, revitalized Ancient Roman design. In response to the exaggerated grandeur of Italian Baroque, Neoclassical preferred symmetry and simplicity and utilized fabrics like velvet and satin. The interior design shifted to Art Deco and Art Nouveau in the century that followed.
Art Nouveau was asymmetrical and focused on the organic world. Art Deco featured geometric shapes. Both used lines, but Art Nouveau preferred curves while Art Deco focused on straight lines.
Incidentally, during this time, in the 1930s, the term “interior designer” was first coined.
Art Nouveau and Art Deco gave way to Mid-Century Modern; a style focused on bringing the outdoors in and refused excessive ornamentation. It preferred function over beauty and used clear lines with geometric (and sometimes organic) shapes. By the middle of the 20th century, many homes had appliances, such as stoves and televisions. This evolution created additional considerations for interior designers to plan around.
Finally, we move into the 21st century, noted for its eclectic style. It borrows from all interior designs to create a unique story of texture, color, pattern, and personal style.
Worthy of note regarding Interior Design History is the first recognized interior designer, American actress, and author, Elsie de Wolfe. The New Yorker regards de Wolfe as the person who single-handedly invented interior design as we know it today.
Humans have been drawn to beauty throughout the ages and have used interior design to surround themselves with beauty and express their unique perspectives. Let’s look at 12 women who have helped shape the interior design industry.
1. Candace Wheeler
Although de Wolfe may be known as the first designer, Candace Wheeler has been recognized by many as the mother of interior design.
Wheeler was born in 1827 to abolitionist parents. Just as her father was concerned with the plight of enslaved people, Wheeler devoted herself to supporting women’s financial independence through the art of home decoration.
In 1877, she founded the Society of Decorative Arts as a means of helping women, especially those left widowed and impoverished after the American Civil War, to become self-sufficient through handicrafts, such as sewing.
Stencil for wallpaper with Japanese carp motif. Artist: Candace Wheeler. Design date c. 1885-1905
In the following year, Wheeler launched New York Exchange for Women’s Work, which enabled women to sell the products they created.
2. Elsie de Wolfe
Elsie de Wolfe
Born in New York City in 1859, Elsie de Wolfe, later known as Lady Mendl after marriage, was an American actress, author, and one of the first recognized female interior designers.
While de Wolfe’s first career was that of a stage actress, it was her personal style that won the attention of her audience. She was named the best-dressed woman in the world in 1935 and became a fashion icon. Moving from actor to designer was a natural shift for de Wolfe, who had designed her own home with a comfortable and often whimsical style that included animal prints, Chinoiserie, mirrors, florals, and French-style furniture. With her signature simplicity and airiness, de Wolfe introduced a more comfortable style to interior design, a significant departure from the then-popular Victorian style.
Artist rendering, Interior of Elsie De Wolfe’s music pavilion looking out onto the pool, The Villa Trianon, rendered by scot William Bruce Ellis Ranken
During her lifetime, de Wolfe worked with a list of illustrious clients, including the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
3. Syrie Maugham
Gwendoline Syrie Maud Wellcome (née Barnardo), Syrie Maugham. Photograph by Lafayette Ltd. Iconographic Collections Keywords: portrait photographs
British interior decorator Syrie Maugham is sometimes called the Queen of White. Born in 1879 and influential throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Maugham is credited with creating the first white room — a music room in her home decorated in various shades of white, using painted antiques, white peacock feathers, and floral arrangements.
Syrie Maugham Interior, Source: Derek Patmore’s 1934 book, Colour Schemes for the Modern Home
Although an interior designer by trade, Maugham was also a source for high-end furniture. She often commissioned her own custom-made furniture.
Maugham is remembered for her easy glamour, which included velvet fringed sofas.
4. Dorothy Draper
Dorothy Draper is one of the most recognized names in interior design. Born in New York in 1889, Draper made a name for herself in her 40s when she redecorated the Carlyle Hotel in New York City. She designed many hotels, including the Drake in Chicago, the Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, and the Fairmont in San Francisco. She also created a decorating advice column called Ask Dorothy Draper and had a call-in radio show.
Dorothy Draper Design, Source: Dorthy Draper & Company
Although Draper was certainly not the first female designer, she is noted as one of the first female designers to work in commercial interiors. She’s generally thought of as the first to “professionalize” interior design when she created Dorthy Draper & Company, the first interior design company in the United States.
Her signature style was the Modern Baroque, which included black and white with a surprising splash of color.
5. Charlotte Perriand
Charlotte Perriand, Source: Nemo Lighting
Born in France at the turn of the 20th century, Charlotte Perriand was both an architect and designer. She is perhaps most famous for building Le Bar sous le toit (“The bar beneath the roof”), a built-in bar made of aluminum, glass, chrome, and leather. She also refined the Chaise Lounge to fit a more modern aesthetic.
LC4 Chaise Lounge, designed by Le Corbusier and Charlotte Perriand, Source: Villa Savoye
Perriand is known for building edgy but comfortable pieces that reference each other.
6. Sister Parish
Sister Parish, Photo Courtesy of Sister Parish Design
Referred to as the grande dame of American interior decorating, Sister Parish is one of the icons in interior design. Parish was born Dorothy May Kinnicutt in 1910. Her brother gave her the nickname “Sister,” and she adopted the “Parish” after a newspaper erroneously reported her as a nun.
Although untrained and inexperienced, Parish opened her decorating business at 23 years of age. She was the first cousin of interior designer Dorothy Draper, and her family connection was her initial claim to fame. She started decorating her friends’ houses but eventually was hired to redecorate the White House by Jacqueline Kennedy. Remnants of her design are still in the Yellow Oval Room.
The Yellow Oval Office, as created by Sister Parish
Parish is said to have created the American Country Style that focuses on cozy and comfortable spaces with a “more is more” approach.
7. Patricia Urquiola
Patricia Urquiola, Image Courtesy of Cassina, Photography by Valentina Sommariva
Spanish architect and designer Patricia Urquiola was born in the Spanish Asturias, a land and culture that has continued to inspire her work. She studied Architecture at the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid, then moved to Politecnico di Milano in Italy, where she graduated under the instruction of famed Italian furniture designer Achille Castiglioni.
Urquiola founded her own practice in 2001, and currently operates in different fields, including product design, interior design, and architecture. She has also collaborated with the Italian brand Cassina and was appointed as its Art Director in 2015. Her extensive list of clients includes brands such as Andreu World, Bolon, Kartell, and Salvatori. She received the Designer of the Year and Designer of the Decade awards from multiple periodicals over the years.
IGNIV Restaurant, Bangkok, Photo Courtesy of Patricia Urquiola
Urquiola is known for designing fun, clean, and creative furniture pieces.
8. India Mahdavi
The Gallery at Sketch, designed by India Mahdavi, Photo by Noor Chalhoub
Iranian-French architect and designer India Mahdavi was born in Tehran, Iran. In contrast to the Queen of White, Mahdavi is the Queen of Color and is often celebrated for her courageous use of color.
Mahdavi mixes color with cartoonish shapes to create an exuberant play on culture and modernism. Her clients include Monte Carlo Beach in Monaco, Le Germain in Paris, and the Coburg Bar at London’s Connaught Hotel. In addition to hospitality, she’s also designed residential and retail spaces.
Mahdavi is interested exclusively in interior design. She has also introduced her own furniture lines, including functional and decorative pieces in the collection. Her designs often pair traditional colors with unique patterns to create a vibrant, playful, and modern take. She has designed for Monoprix, Ladurée, and Dior Maison. Not only was she inducted into Interior Design’s Hall of Fame in 2019, but Mahdavi’s design of Sketch restaurant in London has also been heralded as the most Instagrammed photo in the world. Since 2008, she has maintained a collection with the luxury furniture company, Ralph Pucci.
9. Kelly Wearstler
Kelly Wearstler is an American designer born in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Wearstler was heavily influenced by her mother, an antique dealer passionate about interior design. Wearstler developed a love of design from a young age and even started a vintage clothing company at the age of 15. She moved to California with the hopes of working as a set designer. She eventually found some success in production but ultimately decided to start her own interior design business. In 1995, Wearstler founded the design firm Kelly Wearstler Interior Design and worked in residential and commercial spaces, most notably, The Tides Hotel South Beach in Miami.
She’s also opened her own retail spaces, introduced a line of decorative goods and home furnishings, and even created her own fashion line.
Wearstler is identified as the person who introduced the West Coast style to the rest of the world. Her style is a unique blend of vintage and contemporary elegance.
10. Alexa Hampton
Alexa Hampton, Source: New York Times (Photo: Fred R. Conrad)
Alexa Hampton is a New York-based interior designer. She is the owner and featured designer of Mark Hampton LLC, an iconic started by her father Mark Hampton. Upon his death in 1998, Alexa became the owner of the firm and has taken it to new levels of success.
Hampton graduated from Brown University and went on to do postgraduate work at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts, in Florence, Italy, and New York. She has also received honorary doctorates from Moore College of Art & Design and The New York School of Interior Design.
Hampton is consistently regarded as one of the best designers alive today. Her style is fresh formal, a new take on classical design.
Alexa Hampton Interior, Source: New York Times (Photo: Fred R. Conrad)
Hampton has designed collections for various companies, including Theodore Alexander, Visual Comfort & Co., Generation Lighting, The Shade Store, Kravet, Stark, Eastern Accents, and Chesney’s.
11. Victoria Hagan
Victoria Hagan, Photography by William Waldron
Victoria Hagan graduated from Parsons School of Design and now serves on the schools’ Board of Governors. She has gone on to author three books on design, Live Now (2021), Dream Spaces, co-authored with David Colman (2017), and Interior Portraits (2010). Her work has been featured in Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, Homes & Gardens, and Veranda. In 2002, Hagan launched Victoria Hagan Collections, a product line that includes furniture, fabric, and rugs.
Like others on this list, Hagan is an award-winning interior designer with a classic and elegant style. In fact, her style is considered Classic American Luxury. She has been included in Architectural Digest’s AD100 list more than once and was inducted into the Interior Design Hall of Fame in 2004.
Ostrover House, Greenwich CT, Photography by David Sunberg
12. Robin Standefer
Robin Standefer, Source: Apiece Apart
Robin Standefer is co-founder of the New York-based interior design firm Roman and Williams. After attending Smith and Hampshire College for intensive studies in Fine Arts and the Histories of Art and Architecture, Standefer was hired by film director, producer, and screenwriter, Martin Scorsese to work as a creative consultant for several of his films. Standefer, together with her business partner and husband Stephen Alesch, created the iconic Boom Boom Room, a nod to old Hollywood grandeur.
One of her career highlights was winning a commission to reimagine the British Galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was a task that had never been outsourced to an independent design firm. Along with her partner, Standefer went on to open The Guild, a flagship store that’s part showroom, part shop, and part restaurant.
Boom Boom Room, Source: Roman and Williams 2012 book, Buildings and Interiors: Things We Made
We hope you enjoyed reading this roundup of some of the most influential female interior designers in the last 100 years. Here’s to another 100 years of excellent women in interior design.