The influence of the most famous interior designers extends far beyond the homes they've styled. Here is a shortlist of 10 legendary 20th-century interior designers whose iconic work still influences the way we decorate and live in our homes today.
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Elsie de Wolfe
Elsie de Wolfe (aka Lady Mendl) is often credited as having invented the interior design profession. A stage actress turned interior designer, she lived a glamorous and storied life. Born in 1865 in New York, she loathed her dark and cluttered Victorian childhood home and developed a taste for 18th-century French interiors during trips abroad.
Her designs were light and airy, filled with French furniture, chintz, and animal prints. De Wolfe designed French villas and Hollywood mansions and wrote columns for home decorators. "I believe in plenty of optimism and white paint,” she said in her bestselling 1913 book The House In Good Taste (ghostwritten by a journalist turned decorator named Ruby Ross Wood). “But I think we can carry the white paint idea too far: I have grown a little tired of over-careful decorations, of plain white walls and white woodwork, of carefully matched furniture and over-cautious color-schemes. Somehow the feeling of homey-ness is lost when the decorator is too careful.”
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A protégé of Elsie de Wolfe, Tony Duquette was a Yale theater school graduate who worked as a Tony Award-winning costume and set designer before becoming a jewelry designer and leading interior designer in the U.S. and Europe. Duquette opened his own studio in 1941 and his maximalist, over-the-top style is the stuff of legends. Duquette’s most famous work was his Beverly Hills estate Dawnridge (above), which he and his wife built in 1949. Duquette died in 1999, but his longtime business partner Hutton Wilkinson purchased the property and continues to promote his legacy.
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An early pioneer of the interior design profession, Dorothy Draper established her own firm in 1923, which is currently led by her protégé Carleton Varney. Known for her “modern baroque” style that shined in public spaces such as hotel lobbies, theaters, and restaurants, Draper eschewed period rooms in favor of a bold, vibrant style that mixed colors and patterns, with signature touches including cabbage rose chintz and black-and-white checkered flooring.
Draper also wrote a popular column for Good Housekeeping magazine and published a book called Decorating Is Fun!: How to be Your Own Decorator. “Decorating is just sheer fun,” she wrote, “a delight in color, an awareness of balance, a feeling for lighting, a sense of style, a zest for life, and an amused enjoyment of the smart accessories of the moment.” Her tropical chic Brazilliance wallpaper is a design classic.
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Billy Baldwin took over the firm of Ruby Ross Wood after her death. He was a decorator for celebrity clients such as Jackie O., Cole Porter, Greta Garbo, and Diana Vreeland. Known as much for his personal style as his impeccable design taste, Baldwin was included on the International Best-Dressed List in 1974. His interiors favored crisp cottons and mixed old and new pieces to create a modern American style. His 1972 book, Billy Baldwin Decorates, is still a reference point for modern designers. The New York Times called Billy Baldwin the “dean of interior decorators” in his 1983 obituary.Continue to 5 of 10 below.
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Jean-Michel Frank was a French interior and furniture designer who worked in Europe and the U.S. He designed interiors for Cole Porter, Nelson Rockefeller, and Elsa Schiaparelli and a furniture line for Hermès. White was his favorite color, and he invented the enduring minimalist classic that is the Parsons table. Frank died of suicide in 1941 at the age of 46, cutting his career unfortunately short. But his refined brand of opulent minimalism that married clean lines with luxurious materials still resonates today.
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Sister Parish and Albert Hadley
Sister Parish was a celebrated interior designer who had a successful 30-year partnership with fellow designer Albert Hadley. The team known as Parish Hadley helped First Lady Jackie Kennedy realize her ambitious restoration of the JFK White House in the early 1960s, setting the bar for subsequent First Ladies. Seen above is their renovation of the Yellow Oval Room.
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A Staten Island native, Mario Buatto as known for bringing the English country house style to the U.S., earning him the nickname the “Prince of Chintz.” Buatta gave the look a bigger, bolder American spin and put his name on everything from furniture to home goods as one of the most popular designers of the 1980s and '90s. He died in 2018, having influenced American design for more than half a century.
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The groundbreaking work of Irish designer Eileen Gray (1878-1976), who worked alongside modernists such as Le Corbusier, spanned from furniture to interiors to architecture. Her Villa E-1027 (above) on the French Riviera joins Le Corbusier's Cabanon as part of both a French national historic site and a UNESCO World Heritage site. In France, the Association Cap Moderne was founded in 2014 to renovate the property for public visits. Gray's iconic E1027 adjustable table is in the permanent design collection of The Museum of Modern Art in New York City and is still produced and widely popular today, where it looks as fresh as it did when she designed it in 1927.Continue to 9 of 10 below.
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The 20th-century designer Charlotte Perriand made her mark as a furniture designer and interior designer known for such enduring classics as the iconic Chaise Longue Basculante designed in 1928. "As a female pioneer of modernist design, Perriand’s work was often overshadowed by her more famous male collaborators, who included Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret and Jean Prouvé," reads a press release from London's Design Museum about a 2021 retrospective of her work. "However, in recent years her reputation as a furniture designer and architect has matched the stature of her peers—her furniture in particular has become highly prized by collectors."
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Frank Lloyd Wright
While Frank Lloyd Wright is known for his invention of the Prairie Style and his prolific output of iconic mid-century homes and other buildings, the architect has arguably had as much influence as any dedicated interior designer on modern home decor thanks to his holistic approach to design. Known for orienting buildings and choosing materials that would blend harmoniously into their natural surroundings, he was just as obsessed with every detail of how his buildings looked and functioned on the inside. He brought in natural light and views and designed or chose everything from paint colors to furniture, lighting, decorative glass, rugs, and art. His still celebrated and much-copied style is a testament to his lasting impact on interior design.