She was born into the aristocratic Tuckerman family in Tuxedo Park, NY, one of the first gated communities in the United States. Her parents were Paul Tuckerman and Susan Minturn. In addition to the house in Tuxedo Park, the family also had a Manhattan town house and a summer cottage in Newport, RI.
Draper's great-grandfather, Oliver Wolcott, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Drapers's cousin, Sister Parish would also become a major interior designer of the 20th century.
Educated primarily at home by a governess and tutor, Draper spent two years at the Brearley School in New York City. The family took yearly trips to Europe.
Donald Albrecht, the curator of architecture and design at the Museum of the City of New York, said her "background not only provided Draper with a valuable network of clients and an innate sense of entitlement and authority but also offered her a first-hand acquaintance with the historical styles that she would freely interpret and transform," Draper was a debutante in 1907.
Draper married Dr. George Draper in 1912 and continued to live in glamour, she redecorated her homes in such style that other high society friends began to do the same for their homes. Her husband was the personal doctor to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt after he was diagnosed with polio. Eleanor Roosevelt and Dorothy were cousins and good friends growing up, so the relationship between the two families was already in existence.
The Drapers had three children, and as they bought and sold houses, Dorothy Draper developed a reputation as having a flair for decorating. Dorothy and George Draper divorced in 1930.
Draper created a new style known as "Modern Baroque," adding a modern flair to a classical style. She used dramatic interior color schemes, and trademark cabbage-rose chintz. She promoted shiny black ceilings, acid-green woodwork and cherry-red floors, believing that "Lovely, clear colors have a vital effect on our mental happiness." She also chose very dramatic and contrasting color schemes, such as black with white and adding in some bits of color. She combined different colors, fabrics, and patterns together, combining stripes with floral patterns. She often used large, oversized details and numerous mirrors. All of the colors and patterns contributed to her dramatic design now referred to as "the Draper touch." The opposite of minimalism, her designs were incorporated in homes, hotels, restaurants, theaters, and department stores.
By 1937, Draper had become a household name whose aesthetic enthusiasm was adopted by suburban housewives. F. Schumacher sold more than a million yards of her cabbage rose chintz in the 1930s and 1940s. The Draper bedroom scheme of wide pink and white wallpaper, chenille bedspreads, and organdy curtains soon became ubiquitous across the country.
Encouraged by her friends, Draper started Architectural Clearing House in 1925. It was "arguably the first official interior design business." After several successful apartment lobby renovations, Draper changed the firm's name to Dorothy Draper and Company in 1929.
Draper's first big break came in the early 1930s when Douglas Elliman hired her to redecorated Carlyle Hotel on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. This would be the first of many important hotel commissions.
Draper was again hired by Douglas Elliman to redecorate a block of former tenement homes (today known as Sutton Place) as people were not purchasing the homes. She painted all the buildings black with white trim and added colors to the doors.
Draper did a great deal of hotel design, including Sherry-Netherland in New York, the Drake in Chicago, the Fairmont in San Francisco. At the height of the Depression, Draper spent $10 million designing the Quitandinha in Rio de Janeiro.
In 1937 Draper created a top-to-bottom decorative scheme for the exclusive Hampshire House apartment hotel. The lobby had a bold black and white checkerboard floor, a thick glass Art Deco mantelpiece surround, Victorian-style wing chairs, and neo-Baroque plaster decorations. She found artisans in Brooklyn who could fashion enormous scroll-and-shell bas-reliefs, floral swags and multi-arm chandeliers. Her use of sliding glass doors rather than shower curtains at Hampshire House was considered innovative.
During the Great Depression, the Ask Dorothy Draper column ran in 70 newspapers. She advised people to ``take that red and paint your front door with it,`` and many people followed her advice. They also bought more than a million yards of her signature cabbage rose fabric.
One of Dorothy Draper's most famous designs was The Greenbrier Hotel in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia. During World War II it was used as a hospital by the military, After the war the railroad repurchased the resort and Dorothy Draper was retained to redecorate the entire resort. Draper designed everything from matchbook covers to menus to staff uniforms. Draper transformed the Greenbrier in 16 months. Draperizing 600-plus guestrooms and all the public areas took 45,000 yards of fabric, 15000 rolls of wallpaper and 40,000 gallons of paint. The $4.2 million renovation was unveiled at a postwar house party featuring such society guests as the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and Bing Crosby. In exchange for her work at The Greenbrier, Draper picked up the highest fee ever paid a decorator. By 1963 Carleton Varney, who succeeded Dorothy Draper as the president of the firm that bears her name, had taken over the job of maintaining and subtly changing the décor of The Greenbrier.
In the early 1950s, Packard hired Draper to harmonize the colors and fabrics of their automobile interiors.
Draper's 1954 concept for the cafeteria at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, dubbed the Dorotheum, featured birdcage chandeliers and a skylighted canopy.
One of Draper's last projects was the 1957 International Hotel at Idlewild Airport (today John F. Kennedy Airport) in New York.
In May 2006, the Museum of the City of New York held an exhibition of Draper's work, curated by Donald Albrecht and designed by the Manhattan studio Pure+Applied, called "The High Style of Dorothy Draper." He has said, “Taking an eighteenth-century chair normally done in wood and making it in clear plastic is a Dorothy Draper kind of thing. And she is a fascinating person. All of her tips must have been really great for housewives in the fifties. To have this woman telling them, ‘Don’t be afraid! Paint the door green!’” Draper-designed furniture was lent by The Greenbrier Hotel and The Arrowhead Springs resort—two of her best-known projects. A 9-foot-tall (2.7 m) white "bird-cage" chandelier that Draper designed for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Dorotheum cafe was also on display.
From December 2006 through July 2007, the Women's Museum in Dallas, Texas hosted "In the Pink: The Legendary Life of Dorothy Draper." It featured archival photographs of Draper's work from The Stoneleigh Hotel and the St. Anthony. The exhibition was designed by Pure+Applied of New York. The exhibition then moved to the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale from February through June 2008.
Her 1941 book Entertaining is Fun! How to Be a Popular Hostess, was reissued in 2004, which had a hot pink, polka-dotted cover and was a best seller. (ISBN 0-8478-2619-8)
Her pronouncements were legendary. "The color of your front door announces your personality to the world." Or, "If it looks right, it is right."
In 2006, Dorothy Draper was featured in an exhibition done in her memory in the Museum of New York City. The exhibition moved from NYC to Texas, and then to Florida.
Much of her work survives today, in the lobbies of apartment buildings, hotels (The Carlyle in New York and Hampshire House until recently) and the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, specifically in The Victorian Writing Room, once called the most photographed room in the United States.
Modern designers influenced by Draper include Kelly Wearstler and Jonathan Adler.
Draper suffered from Alzheimer`s disease towards the end of her life.Dorothy Draper, ed. (2004) . Entertaining is Fun! How to Be a Popular Hostess. Rizzoli. ISBN 0-8478-2619-8. (Reprint)
Dorothy Draper, Decorating is Fun!: How to Be Your Own Decorator. New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1939.
Dorothy Draper, 365 Shortcuts to Home Decorating. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1965.