BEFORE ELSIE DE WOLFE: Meet Candace Wheeler, the Mother of Interior Design

Elsie de Wolfe gets all of the credit.

But from 1877  through 1893, another woman was the acknowledged expert on anything to do with decorative textiles and interiors.  Some folks have called her the “mother” of interior design, particularly because she was the first person (who also happens to be a woman) to advocate that interior decoration, and the handiwork associated with it, was an honorable career for women.  Her name is Candace Wheeler.  

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I received many compliments via twitter and elsewhere when the lovely Emily A. Clark posted a picture of my powder room.  The wallpaper, known as honeybee, was an award winning design by Candace back in 1881.  She won $1000 in prize money for it.  That sounds like quite a bit for back then.

The pattern also graced Chester Arthur’s White House.  Yep–Candace beat Sister Parish to the punch when it came to decorating our presidents’ home.  She was hired, along with her business partner at  the time, Louis Comfort Tiffany, to give the White House a fresh face following the assassination of President James Garfield.

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Honeybee wallpaper with frieze at bottom

 
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Dressing room in the White House, c. 1880s

Candace ‘s work is described as distinctly “American.”  She is known for her use of color and for the native American flora, such as ivy, lilies, pinecones and thistle, that often graces her work.  Like other designers of the Aesthetic period, she was also influenced by Japanese designs.  I think her work has a timeless quality.

Detail of a Portiere

Portiere

Japanese Carp Wallpaper

Printed Cotton Velvet

Water Lily Textile

Daffodil Fabric

Seashell and Ribbon Fabric

Candace began her career in 1877 when she founded the Society of Decorative Art.  In 1879 she joined Louis Comfort Tiffany’s Associated Artists.  In addition to the White House, Associated Artists was hired to decorate the homes of Mark Twain and Cornelius Vanderbilt.  The Mark Twain house survives today as a museum.  You also can see interiors by Associated Artists at Manhattan’s Park Avenue Armory.   Candace’s  last major decorating commission was the interior of the Women’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893.

Dining room, Mark Twain House

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Park Avenue Armory's Landmarked Veteran's Room

Candace went on to write several books including Household Art (1893) and Principles of Home Decoration in 1903.  In these books, she gave specific instruction to new decorators and encouraged women generally to think of themselves as “makers” of their homes (possibly the origin of the term “homemaker.”)  Like today’s Martha Stewart, she believed that women’s attention to design and decoration could enhance the lives of their families.

She also authored an autobiography and other works on gardening and interiors.  I spotted this one on Etsy, but it has been sold.  I expect to be pawing used books stalls for some time now, looking for another copy.  You see, my wallpaper choice was very intentional.  Not only do I find the design stunning, but as an early “career woman” who inspired other women to demand a place in the workforce, Candace Wheeler is a hero of mine.

Move over Elsie.

Justin Wood