How They Decorated: Inspiration from Great Women of the Twentieth Century

By Carl Dellatore

Maugham. Elkins. Parish. Castaing. de Wolfe. Draper. Brown. These are the names that typically appear in any list of great women decorators of the 20th century. In fact, it would be hard to consider yourself well versed in the decorative arts without an intimate knowledge of their collective work.

But within the new book How They Decorated by P. Gaye Tapp, to be released April 11th by Rizzoli New York, we meet 16 other high-culture women who forged their own remarkable aesthetic in the residences they decorated and occupied…

Babe Paley’s vibrant yellow 5th Avenue living room

Equal parts biographical exposé and pictorial essay, How They Decorated groups its style doyennes into four categories:  “The Fashionably Chic,” “The Unconventional Eye,” “In the Grand Manner,” and “Legacy Style.” Each interior illustrates a crucial aspect of its designer’s definitive taste.

Bunny Mellon’s Oak Spring Garden Library, with a monumental 1954 Mark Rothko canvas

In her foreword to the book, modern-day style icon Charlotte Moss captures the essence of the tome:

“How They Decorated is an invitation to enter the enchanting worlds of sixteen women — to experience their circles of influence and the results of their time spent at the altar of elegance, comfort, and beauty. Sybarites and weavers of dreams, they speak a common language. Each, in her own way, has been in a forensic pursuit of her own definition of beauty. Luckily for us, so much of their quests for living in a state of perpetual allure has been documented in images and words.”


Georgia O’Keeffe’s sitting room with its south-facing windows and skylights
Evangeline Bruce’s Albany library decorated by Diana Phipps

Despite this common style language, which Moss describes so eloquently, it is the nuanced stylistic “dialect” of each of the women that sets them apart: Louise de Vilmorin’s fascination with cornflowers in her Salon Bleu; Pauline de Rothschild’s iconic antique-Chinese wallpapered bedroom (who hasn’t seen that picture?); Babe Paley’s fashion sense, landing her a perennial spot on the International Best-Dressed List; and Dominique de Menil’s inspired and unconventional pairing of Philip Johnson with Charles James.

The Grand Salon in Gabrielle van Zuylen’s Parisian home

Illustrated with vintage photography and watercolor renderings, How They Decorated is an archaeological volume at heart, tracing the genesis of the many enduring decorating styles that were influenced by the women in its pages.


P. Gaye Tapp is the creator and author of the design blog Little Augury and has been an interior designer for more than 30 years.

Charlotte Moss’ latest book Garden Inspirations is available where fine books are sold.

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