Three Legendary Female Interior Designers from the 19th Century to Now

India Mahdavi, The Gallery at Sketch London

Elsie De Wolfe (1865-1950)
Often referred to as “America’s first decorator”, De Wolfe was born in New York City and her life story provides a fascinating tale of romance and adventure. A true entertainer, she enjoyed shocking high society with her attire

Bernard Boutet de Monvel, Elsie De Wolfe, c. 1940 / Alamy

(including dyeing her hair blue, thus starting a new high society fad) and throwing extravagant parties. In her youth, she was educated in Scotland and even presented at court to Queen Victoria before returning to the US where she became a professional actress. Although her sensitivity to light and colour was apparent from childhood, her interest in interior decorating grew as a result of staging plays, and in 1903 she left the theatre to launch her career as a decorator. Her reputation as an actress, her social connections, and her success in decorating the interior of her own home in New York, Irving House, all aided her influence as a designer. 

In 1905 she received the first of many official commissions to decorate the Colony Club in New York, the first exclusive women’s club in America. She took on ambitious projects on both sides of the Atlantic; notably Villa Trianon, her seasonal residence in Versailles, and Countess Dorothy di Frasso’s Beverly Hills home. Her style was defined by her ability to transform dark, cluttered, and dreary Victorian interiors into light-filled, simpler spaces featuring fresh colours and suggesting the allure of the garden. She often made a feature of mirrors, utilising them to both illuminate and expand living spaces, and complemented this with the use of white or pale colours and trompe-l’oeil wallpaper. As she so aptly stated, “I opened the doors and windows of America, and let the air and sunshine in.” 

Sister Parish (1910-1994)
Born Dorothy May Kinnicutt, Sister Parish opened her decorating business at the age of 23 in 1933. With no formal training, her family helped influence her style and her earliest work was decorating the houses of friends. Despite the depression and WWII, Mrs Henry Parish II Interiors flourished. In the late 1950s she met Jacqueline Kennedy who asked her to decorate the Georgetown house the family lived in whilst John F. Kennedy was a Senator. Following Kennedy’s election to President in 1960, Parish was hired to redecorate the White House. Although Stephane Boudin was hired to decorate the State Rooms and later to also revisit the private rooms, Parish’s influence can still be seen – particularly in the Yellow Oval Room. Her style was what would now be considered American country; she avoided matching, instead she filled homes with contrasting prints and often intentionally placed items off-centre. 

White House Yellow Oval Room, c. 1962, decorated by Sister Parish

In a 1999 Architectural Digest article, Parish’s interiors were described as: “refreshingly unstudied, unself-conscious, and unstrained… A Sister Parish room overflowed, to be sure – but buoyantly.” In 1962, a young designer named Albert Hadley introduced himself to Parish and two years later became a full partner. Together they formed a legendary design duo known as Parish-Hadley Associates and went on to style the homes of America’s elite for decades.

India Mahdavi (b.1962)
Mahdavi is an Iranian-French architect and designer who was born in Tehran. Raised in the United States, Germany, and France, her heritage and cosmopolitan upbringing have been major influences on her work. Studying at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris and Parsons in New York, she then returned to France to work as the artistic director of Christian Liagre for seven years before leaving to start her own design company. One of her earliest projects was working with restaurateur Jonathan Morr on Townhouse, Miami, an 80-bedroom hotel. This first hotel set the scene for what would later become synonymous with her designs; rich, bold colours that transcend fashion and seasons. Her work is a mix of elegance and louder-than-life colour. Whilst every detail is meticulously thought out and planned in her work, the overall impression is very uncontrived. She conveys a sense of playfulness and humour whilst maintaining sophistication and originality. 

One of her most notable projects was for The Gallery at Sketch London, a three Michelin-starred restaurant in Mayfair, in 2014. Her design assisted the restaurant with being labelled as the most Instagrammed restaurant in the world.

By Madeleine Norton, Head of Decorative Arts & Art, Sydney

Top Image: India Mahdavi, The Gallery at Sketch London

April 2024