Interior design can tell you a lot about a person, but no one more than the designer. From the classy modern baroque style in the early 20th century to the bold geometric patterns of the ‘60s, interior designers throughout history have defined eras and transformed peoples homes and businesses into on-trend socialising zones. So, whether you’d like inspiration for becoming an interior designer or are simply curious, here are eight of the top interior designers from around the world that everyone should be aware of.
Ella Anderson de Wolfe is remembered as one of the world’s top interior designers due to her unconventional interiors. After receiving private education in New York and Scotland, de Wolfe focused on becoming a professional theatre actor in 1890. However, she retired from acting in 1905 to begin a new career path in interior design. Due to her experience with set design, social connections and success with decorating her own house, de Wolfe quickly won a commission to design the interior of New York’s first women’s social club, the Colony Club. The design elements she used would become her staples, and her rebellious tastes helped catapult her to popularity among her wealthy social circle and her own generation. Her acclaim led to a collection of articles she had written for Good Housekeeping and the Delineator being published in her influential book, The House of Good Taste, in 1913. Along with her autobiography, de Wolfe’s books are considered to be some of the most important in the design world. [i]
Jean-Michel Frank was born in Paris to a German family and completed his education at the Lycee Janson de Sailly. Tragically, Frank lost his two brothers, father and mother during World War One. This left Frank a small fortune that he used to travel around the world and embrace the different cultures. Once back in Paris, Frank became partners with interior designer Adolphe Chanaux after Frank asked him to decorate his apartment. Their collaboration led to the opening of the Gallery Jean-Michel Frank in 1932. The popularity of this partnership led to Frank getting some of his most recognised commissions, including the Club Chair, plus partaking in some of his most renowned collaborations, including with Salvador Dali and Diego Giacometti. In 1939, Frank left France for New York, where he continued his design work and also began teaching at the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts. However, due to his émigré background, Jean-Michael Frank committed suicide by jumping through the window of a New York building in 1941.[ii]
William Williar Baldwin Jr., known as Billy, was born in Maryland and raised in a home created by renowned New York architect Charles A. Platt. From a young age, Baldwin expressed an interest in design. In support, his parents allowed him to redecorate his room however he pleased, including the furniture. Baldwin briefly studied architecture at Princeton, but quickly moved into hometown decorating. In 1935, Baldwin was approached by famous decorator Ruby Ross Wood, who admired Baldwin’s home designs and convinced him to move to New York and join her firm. When Wood died in 1950, Baldwin took over the firm and, with his ideas of comfort and modern simplicity, his designs quickly rose to popularity. Baldwin retired in 1973 and moved to Nantucket, where he revelled in his treasured comfort until his death.[iii]
Remembered fondly as the ‘Prince of Chintz’, Mario Buatta was born on Staten Island. At 12 years old, Buatta acquired his first antique piece (a writing desk) with his beloved aunt Mary Mauro, which kickstarted a life long love for traditional designs. After refusing to study architecture at university, Buatta began working in decorating departments of local store, even working under renowned designer Elisabeth Draper. In 1963, the young designer opened his own business, which allowed him to meet decorator John Fowler. Buatta was hugely influenced by Fowler, who fed the young designer’s knowledge of furniture and fabrics. This led to his obsession with the English country home style, since it incorporated a range of objects and designs from different eras and countries. Buatta was inspired by this style for the rest of life, working his design magic on many homely apartments for famous clients including Nancy Reagan and Barbara Walters.[iv]
Dorothy May Kinnicutt, also known as Sister, was born in New Jersey to parents who had footholds in New York, Maine and Paris. This meant she was exposed to a range of art and designs at a young age. However, Parish claimed to ‘know’ very little when she started, since she never had any decorating education. Sister Parish married young, and happily decorated their new farmhouse home using various materials and colours. During the Depression, Parish set up a small interior design business, much to her mother-in-law’s disbelief. Luckily, because friends wanted her to design their homes, Parish’s business flourished. Once her business took off, it had little time to come down, and Sister Parish worked with many famous names, including Astor, Vanderbilt and Kennedy. Parish’s design is most recognised in the oval room in J.F.K.’s White House, although Jacqueline Kennedy fired the designer before she could finish because Parish told Caroline Kennedy to take her feet off the upholstery.[v]
Dorothy Draper was born in Tuxedo Park, an affluent village in New York, to wealthy parents. After a rich education, Draper became the first to ‘professionalise’ the interior design industry in 1923, when she established the first interior design company in America named ‘Dorothy Draper & Company.’ Commercial interior design was a male-dominated profession, and Draper instantly fought against this notion with her first big commission redecorating New York’s Carlyle Hotel. With the success of this commission, Draper went on to design many hotels and other commercial buildings around Manhattan. Some of her most famous designs include Sherry’s Restaurant, hotels on Central Park South and the Roman Court restaurant in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although this restaurant no longer exists, its enduring design earned it the nickname ‘the Dorotheum’. Draper is also credited with the invention of ‘modern baroque’, a style still found in architecture and public spaces today that includes bold stripes, splashes of colour among black and whites and contemporary twists on traditional styles. Due to her innovative designs and career, Draper is considered one of the top interior designers of all time.[vi]
Born in Tennessee, Bill Willis had a colourful education in his youth. It included military school followed by six short months in the Air Force, Columbia University and the esteemed École des Beaux-Arts. After graduating, Willis moved to New York to work under Rosyln Rosier until 1964. Whilst there, he met a man who agreed to financially support his buying an antiques shop in Rome. The shop sold an array of interesting objects, old and new, and, coupled with Willis’ self-confident attitude, was an instant success. During his tenure in the shop, Willis gained a wealthy clientele including Rudolf Nureyev, Alessandro Ruspoli and Cy Twombly, and designed towels for Saint Laurent and accessories for Valentino. However, Bill Willis’ most renowned designs were completed in South Africa. After a visit to the country in 1966, Willis fell in love and spent the rest of his life there. In South Africa, Willis decorated the Palais de la Zahia for three different owners, which allowed his name to be spread through the social elite who were quickly clamouring for his talents in their own homes and businesses.[vii]
David Nightingale Hicks was born in Essex, and began his adult life by completing National Service in the British Army. Here he worked as an art teacher. After leaving, Hicks began working for an advertising agency drawing cereal boxes. During this time, popular magazine House & Garden published photographs of the interior of the house Hicks had decorated for him and his mother. This publication was so popular that the social elite across London were soon clamouring for this rising designer. Hicks’ bold colours, geometric prints and eclectic furnishings quickly became a staple of ‘60s England. His bold designs showed regular people how they could use colour and stylishly mix the old with the new in their own homes. Eventually, Hicks began designing and producing his own furniture and accessories, which celebrities all over the world sought out. At the peak of his career, Hicks had offices and boutiques in eight countries around the world, and people still seek out his designs today.[viii]
Interior design is a broad industry, but everyone in our list of top interior designers managed to leave their bold mark! Do you prefer Bill Willis’ beloved Moroccan twists? Or maybe Elsie de Wolfe’s more elegant designs? Let us know in the comments below!
You can find out more about the interior design styles that these artists pioneered here.
Office and marketing manager for Sloane & Sons Stylish Chairs, who sell a range of high-quality tub chairs, accent chairs and more.