America’s first and most acclaimed design firm, Dorothy Draper & Company, is a legacy continued by a team of talented designers. Upscale Living spoke exclusively to Rudy Saunders, Senior Interior Designer at Dorothy Draper
Dorothy Draper & Company has been creating designs for interiors, furnishings, fabrics, and accessories since 1925. Please talk a bit about the firm’s history and the secret to its longevity.
Dorothy Draper was simply a natural talent when it came to decorating. She had no formal education on the subject. Instead, she grew a reputation as having a flair for decorating. Mrs. Draper decorated her homes in such a unique style that other high society friends soon began to copy her. After some encouragement from her friends, she opened Architectural Clearing House in 1925 and later changed the name to Dorothy Draper and Company in 1929. She created designs for Hampshire House, Essex House, the Carlyle, the Greenbrier Resort, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to only name a few. Dorothy Draper was the first to professionalize interior design as a career, and her work continues to inspire today.
As Carleton Varney said, “Dorothy Draper created a look.” You know, when you walk into a Draper space, and that is what has stood the test of time. Design is often about finding the perfect item for every spot. Dorothy Draper went a step further and created custom-designed furniture and fabrics because no one else was doing what she did. Rather than being stuck in a specific period, she blends different pieces, periods, and styles, making it uniquely Draper. In so, she created something timeless, something we continue today.
Dorothy Draper is an icon in her own right, with work that continues to inspire today. Those must be very big shoes to fill.
At Dorothy Draper & Company, it is our privilege to continue and to add to the history of the firm. We are all part of her legacy and style, and we look forward to paving the path set by her and Mr. Varney to create beautiful spaces worldwide.
Rudy, tell us a bit about yourself and how did you end up having a career in interior design?
I always had a passion for design growing up. During my childhood, we were staying at Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island (Michigan), and it was love at first sight. I fell in love with the colors, and the design stuck with me. I always knew that’s what I wanted to do growing up. Because of that, I followed Mr. Varney’s career, went to his lectures and book signings, and when it came time for my college internship at the University of Cincinnati, DAAP, he gave me a chance. I started as an intern and have continued to grow and learn at the company.
What is your role at Dorothy Draper & Company, Inc.?
Senior Interior Designer.
Describe a typical day in your life.
There is no typical day, and that’s what I love about it. I genuinely love the design process from start to finish and seeing it come together.
First, you have a blank slate, then the dreaming and planning, followed by the execution and order, and then seeing the project through to installation. Watching clients enjoy the spaces we created together then is the real reward. My days are usually filled with meetings and conversations with clients, checking in and following up with individual orders, and tracking the progress of our custom-made pieces. Because we are doing multiple projects at a time, it is fun to juggle the needs of each.
It is always important to take moments to allow for creativity, whether seeing new fabrics or a museum—I can find design inspiration anywhere!
Change in life is constant, and so are interiors. How has the firm kept in vogue with new interior styles?
As we spoke earlier about Mrs. Draper, we are not stuck in a specific time frame. Overall, we try to stay true to our core design beliefs. You can see a change of the time in the spaces the office has created over the years, but our central look will have bright color, florals, a play of patterns and scale, and layering. We don’t jump on style trends, we are aware of them, but they aren’t necessary to follow if they don’t stay true to our beliefs.
You have undoubtedly influenced many excellent interior design outcomes. What is an essential component of maximizing a small space?
For spatial planning, I always think of it like a cruise ship. Since there is only so much space, everything has to have a spot, and this requires that you think outside the box in how you use vertical space, utilize underused space, and dual-purpose pieces. As for design- mirrors. Mirrors take advantage of all the natural light and visibly open up the space. Brighter always feels more spacious.
What is your design process?
Ideally, I like to see the space in person or look at the floor plan and photos to understand it. Then ask what the client is looking for and their vision. I like taking those components along with the inspiration of the particular space, perhaps local flowers or the atmosphere you want to create, and then pulling it together. I usually let designs percolate in my head, Mr. Varney would say he dreams his spaces, and I feel this is something I learned from him. The process begins with a main idea, and all the design puzzle pieces must fit together. Each selection informs the next decision.
Talk us through the importance of color schemes.
During her Edward R. Murrow interview, Mrs. Draper said, “Color is terrifically important, and fortunately, it doesn’t cost anything!” When we are laying out a project, we develop an overarching color story. This story guides our design so you can see colors woven throughout the overall project; they create a cohesive, flowing space. You have to figure out your parameters because breaking the rules is always great fun. A bright yellow lamp in the middle of a blue-green space will always bring great joy.
Color is the most important in our spaces; you can feel the excitement. Color is the common denominator that transcends time, specific style, location, etc.
When planning out a project, it’s essential to have the proper task lighting vs. ambient vs. decorative lighting. It is all about the different lighting levels. Are they on a switch? Can you dim them? Can you set the mood for the day, event, or occasion?
We love a statement chandelier, and it creates a magical moment that will be a central focal point of the space and certainly adds a layer of elegance. We love filling rooms with lamps for a warm, welcoming feel. I am also a big advocate for picture lights; they highlight the artwork and add ambient light throughout the space.
How can people incorporate heirloom pieces without making a space look dated?
Keeping a piece from dating the space is where the design puzzle comes into play. It’s all about layering styles to get the right effect for you. Each selection informs the next. Say you have your grandmother’s antique mahogany sideboard in the dining room. I would add a contemporary mirror above to make it feel newer. Then I would add other pieces around it from varying periods—like midcentury modern chairs flanking it. It is hard to tell someone how to do it exactly, it’s a balance of old and new, and it’s a feeling of making the space right, which is different for everyone.
Any interior no-go’s that could turn a nice space into a faux pas?
Following a trend that you do not like or choosing something that does not reflect the owner.
Listening to a designer or friend and not listening to yourself creates a space in which you are not happy.
Spring interiors! What’s hot and what’s not?
Our office is in New York City. Walking down Fifth Avenue, I see brightly colored dresses and flowers in shop windows. Everyone always thinks of color for spring and looks towards the garden for inspiration. I know it is what everyone expects for spring, but the concept is tried and true after a cold winter. People are waiting for new blooms and colors to come back into the world, and bringing that bright color inside will always make us smile.