In her 1939 tome, Decorating Is Fun!, legendary New York interior designer Dorothy Draper writes that decorating is “a delight in colour, an awareness of balance, a feeling for lighting, a sense of style, a zest for life, and an amused enjoyment in the smart accessories of the moment”.
Draper is revered for founding Architectural Clearing House in 1925, believed to be the first proper interior design firm, and responsible for styling rooms in grand public institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, San Francisco’s Fairmont and Mark Hopkins hotels and the Greenbrier of West Virginia. Carlton Varney, another American designer of note, and protegee of Draper, once described his mentor’s importance to the industry as comparable to that of Chanel’s influence on fashion: “the woman was a genius”. Vogue tells of Draper’s penchant for a “wild Technicolour mash-up of pinks with greens, turquoise, and orange” that she incorporated into a modern Baroque style.
Currently celebrating its fortieth year, Cuthbert Interiors is possibly New Zealand’s oldest interior design company, and its chief, Anna Cuthbert, too, believes in the power of colour. “Colour in the home is especially important because it keeps things fresh and interesting,” she says. “I’m not a huge fan of the grey-on-grey trend, I want to be excited and colours do that. Interiors should make you smile when you walk in. Colour is important for people’s psychology and outlook on life.”
Anna, who has more than two decades’ industry experience, inherited the interior design firm from her mother in 2003. “As a child I was always rummaging through fabric samples, drawing and putting things together,” she says. “It was all quite normal to me!”
She attended the prestigious KLC School of Design in London, but not before cutting her teeth in the home and design world. “I wanted to get as much background knowledge as I could before I went to study,” says Anna, “so that I had all of the principals and fundamentals of design.”
Anna’s impressive resume bulges: she’s managed the GP & J Baker showroom on King’s Road, worked in the framing and art, and flooring and building products industries, run a kitchen manufacturing company and studied the fundamentals of engineering. “It certainly gives me the edge over my competitors,” Anna says. “I can walk the walk and talk the talk. Whether I’m dealing with flooring guys, electricians, or cabinet makers, I understand the background to it all, and I can use that knowledge to my—and my clients’—advantage for better planning and better results. Cuthbert Interiors is known for its integrity. We have credibility all over the country, and that is so important to me.”
How does the industry differ here to Europe?
“People in Europe are certainly less afraid of using colour. You only have to flick through the magazines to see how much it is embraced, whereas here things tend to be a little more subdued. New Zealanders often like to play it safe. But everything that is available over there is available here. As a small country we have access to so much stuff and that makes us very lucky in the design and housing industry. It’s quite phenomenal.”
Anna says that like anyone in the design industry, she’s constantly on the lookout for inspiration: “It never stops. I’m always telling my kids to look up! People forget to do that, but it’s so important, there is so much to see at the tops of buildings and trees. There’s inspiration everywhere.”
Though Anna does of course keep up with latest trends, she prefers to concentrate on “timeless appeal”: “That’s not to say you can’t tweak and change and do bits here and there, but I like to give people some longevity. A home will grow and change with the owners as they live in it, things will be swapped in and out—which I come in and do regularly for customers—but you shouldn’t have to change the whole scheme and every room every few years. Just let them evolve.”
Is it important that the interior matches the exterior of the house?
“Oh yes, there can definitely be a flow between the two, and that transition between the exterior and interior is important because you don’t want it to jar. For me the most important thing is to understand the client. It must be a collaborative evolution, working with the customers’ lifestyle and moulding and manipulating it so that we can get something really tasteful and beautiful. And always getting that a little wild card, something that may challenge them—that they may not even have considered or thought of.”
Anna is stumped when asked for a favourite design or style of architecture—she’s worked with them all and gets a kick out of the eclecticism. “I’ve done everything: turn-of-the-century, last century, arts and crafts homes right through to concrete, cantilevered, contemporary boxes. I’m qualified in traditional UK training, as well as the modern stuff, so am able to work across the genres and blend things so that they seem cohesive.”
All that counts, she concludes, is having happy customers at the end of the process: “Seeing them buzzing at the end of a job well done is what it’s all about, their smiles mean so much.”
The Evolution of Interior Design
Like so much else, we can partly thank the Ancient Egyptians for interior design. Even those that dwelled in humble mud huts were known to brighten them with animal skins, sculptures and murals.
Picking up where the Egyptians left off, the Ancient Greeks and Romans crafted intricate-carved wooden furniture and ivory and precious metal ornaments. They also introduced the likes of mosaic floors and frescoes. Both civilisations also mastered crafting cushions and tapestries.
The fittingly titled Dark Ages saw a period far-less flamboyance, partly due to the rise of the Christianity which discouraged any dazzling displays of wealth (expect in their own churches, of course). This European era was a time of wood panelling, subdued textiles and stone floors.
With the dawning of the Gothic era through to the Renaissance, living and public spaces once more benefitted from greater daring and imagination. There was greater focus on colour and carvings—marble floors and ornaments replaced stone and wood, colourful paintings were introduced, and furniture whittled from the finest of woods. Art was celebrated like never before!
Baroque gave birth to the widespread use of stained glass, coloured marble and painted ceilings—think the Palace of Versailles in France. By the mid-18th century, intricate Asian styling made its mark on rococo by way of floral porcelain and furniture lined with tortoise shell. By the end of the century, neoclassical was riffing heavily on the style of Ancient Rome.
The 19th century is known for experimentation. Rather than follow set looks and trends designers enjoyed greater freedoms to impart their own styles, and by the late 1800s, interior design was beginning to be embraced by those beyond the elite. But that’s not to say the modern era has not been without its movements—think art deco, art nouveau, minimalism and Bauhaus.
Icons of Interior Design
Known as the ‘dean of American decorators’, Albert Hadley worked by the philosophy of “never less, never more”. He decorated the Kennedy White House, along with their own homes, as well as those of other high-society families such as the Rockefellers, Gettys and Astors. Hadley, however, remained humble, telling New York magazine that design was not about “fantasy beyond reality”, and that it’s “what you can achieve for the simplest person” that matters. From 1962, he formed a fruitful partnership with another legendary designer, Sister Parish (see below).
A cousin of Dorothy Draper, the wonderfully-named Sister Parish (her real name was also Dorothy, but her childhood nickname of ‘Sister’ eventually stuck) opened an interior design store in New Jersey in 1929. Shunning the preferences of her antiques collecting dad, Parish preferred laidback offerings such as quilts, hooked rugs and oversized armchairs. She is credited with popularising the American country look of the 1960s.
Born in New York in 1865, Elsie de Wolfe is credited as ‘America’s first decorator’. Her life was full of compelling tales, educated in Scotland, as a youth she met Queen Victoria before moving back to the US to become an actress. Aged 61, de Wolfe became a Lady when she married British diplomat Sir Charles Mendl. Between all of this, she was commissioned to revamp New York’s first elite social club exclusively for women, the Colony Club, and later the homes of America’s high society lured by her vibrant, anti-Victorian eye.
David Nightingale Hicks became the UK’s go-to designer of the 1960s, employed to redecorate quarters for Prince Charles and Princess Anne, along with the nightclub of the QE2 and a yacht for Saudi Arabia’s King Fahad. By the following decade, Hicks had his own range of wallpapers, fabrics and linens. His big break came when a magazine published an article about the makeover he did for his mum’s London home. Hicks was designing cereal boxes for an advertising agency at the time.
Words: Jamie Christian Desplaces
Interiors: Dorothy Draper
Featured image: Indoor pool at The Greenbrier resort