American architecture and design entered a golden age around 1900 as skyscrapers began to soar to unthinkable heights and interior decorating became a legitimate career choice for men and women alike. Along the way, several Americans emerged as influential, putting their signature stamp on rooms and buildings that are still being referenced in design work today. Yes, I’m talking the Franks—Lloyd Wright and Gehry to be exact, but there are also a few lesser-known design pros that made my list of greats as well as some early decorators that paved the way for the Kelly Wearstlers, Bunny Williamses and Daryl Carters of the world. Check out these ten talents and consider making a trip to see their groundbreaking work in person.
Frank Lloyd Wright, Architect
Why He Matters: Hailed as the “Father of Organic Architecture,” Frank Lloyd Wright ushered in an era of buildings that were designed to be in harmony with their natural surroundings. His designs displayed many hallmarks of modernism that are still popular today, from open kitchens and central hearths to expanses of large glass windows and balconies. He designed plans for over a thousand buildings and more than 500 were completed, many of which are still standing today.
Notable Work: Fallingwater, the private retreat Wright built for the owners of the Kaufmann department store chain in southwestern Pennsylvania, has been called the greatest work of American architecture. The home was built on top of falls, so visitors could see a view of the cascades when approaching it. The structure is now an operating museum, but if you want to make a pilgrimage to a lesser known Wright house, try Rosenbaum House in Alabama or Freeman House in Los Angeles (where you can see a handful of other Wright homes as well). He’s also known for his design of the snail-like Guggenheim Museum in New York City.
Dorothy Draper, Interior Decorator
Why She Matters: Talk about a trailblazer, Dorothy Draper was America’s first female decorator and arguably the first person to create an interior design firm when she opened up shop as the Architectural Clearing House in 1925. Instead of sticking to the dark and moody Victorian sensibilities that prevailed early in her career, Draper embraced bold juxtapositions of bright colors in her work and didn’t shied away from pattern either. She never met a stripe or floral she didn’t like, and the influence of her print mixing skills can still be seen in American interiors today.
Notable Work: This New York native left her mark on a bunch of Manhattan interiors, including the dining area in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Sutton Place on the east side and the lobby of The Carlyle. She decorated hotels all over America, but her most famous project has to be the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia, where Dorothy’s designs have been left largely intact.
Frank Gehry, Architect
Why He Matters: Frank Gehry is a bit of an outlier on this list because he’s Canadian-born but American-trained, hailing from the University of Southern California and the Harvard Graduate School of Design. He opened his own firm in 1962 after apprenticing in Paris and definitely brought a European sensibility to his work. In addition to designing several museums, concert halls, homes and university buildings across the country over the course of his lifetime, he’s also done plenty of international work, too.
Notable Work: Gehry’s use of metals like steel and titanium, as well as his repeated use of geometric shapes and curved forms, makes his buildings easy to spot. He’s best known domestically for his own family home in Santa Barbara and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, which took roughly 15 years to come into full fruition. The Los Angeles Philharmonic still performs there.
Sister Parish, Interior Decorator
Why She Matters: Let’s just say the decorating gene ran in Sister Parish’s family—her mother May’s first cousin, after all, was the legendary Dorothy Draper mentioned above. But Parish put her own spin on design once she opened up her first office at the age of 23 in 1933. She was never formally trained but earned her decorating stripes by redoing her own New Jersey home and then the homes of others in her social circle, which eventually brought her to designing the Georgetown home of the Kennedys and later the White House.
Notable Work: Just look at a picture of late President John F. Kennedy’s Yellow Oval Room to see Sister Parish’s quintessential design aesthetic. She certainly wasn’t afraid of color or pattern, but her interiors are really characterized by their casualness for the time. She’s basically the mother of American Country style, meaning you can thank her for all the wicker, ticking stripes, hooked rugs, quilts and painted wood furniture and floors you still see today.
Daniel H. Burnham, Architect and Urban Designer
Why He Matters: As an urban planner and architect, Daniel H. Burnham left his mark on a number of American cities, including Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Cleveland.
Notable Work: Check out his handiwork in a handful of buildings in any of the above cities, including Union Station in D.C. The Flatiron Building in New York City (shown above) is also one of his most famous designs.
Albert Hadley, Interior Designer
Why He Matters: As the design partner of Sister Parish for years, Albert Hadley made a name for himself with his attention to detail and penchant for planning out his spaces thoroughly. He was known for straddling the threshold between traditional and modern design influences. Think chintz florals with tailored furniture—never overstuffing or crazy ornamentation.
Notable Work: Hadley may have only just done the curtains in the Kennedy White House, but it was 100 percent his vision behind the library at socialite Brooke Astor’s apartment on Park Avenue (which is one of the most photographed rooms of all New York homes). He also completed projects for the Rockefellers, the Getty family, the Gores and Diane Sawyer.
William “Billy” Haines, Interior Designer
Why He Matters: Actor-turned-designer William “Billy” Haines really helped make Hollywood Regency happen by serving as an interior designer for starlets like Joan Crawford and Gloria Swanson. He was known for lavish wall coverings, high shine finishes and the tufted furniture he used throughout his interiors.
Notable Work: Haines is perhaps best known for designing the low-slung Brentwood Chair, a fixture of Regency design that’s still being made today.
Cass Gilbert, Architect
Why He Matters: Despite designing a bunch of prominent public buildings, including the state capitols of Minnesota, West Virginia, and Arkansas, Cass Gilbert has somewhat under-the-radar status when it comes to American architecture. While he mainly worked in the Neoclassical style at the dawn of the 20th century, Gilbert embraced modern features such as indoor swimming pools and elevators, even in his historic-look Gothic Revival designs.
Notable Work: Gilbert designed the SCOTUS building in Washington, D.C., and helped create the plans for the George Washington Bridge. But his most famous project is probably the Woolworth Building in Lower Manhattan, which was commissioned by dime store chain and finished in 1913. At the time, the Woolworth was the tallest skyscraper and surely influenced later structures like the Chrysler Building, which soared above it some 16 years later. The facade features gargoyles and terra-cotta, and the interior boasts a fancy lobby and modern steel framing. You can still take a look at his handiwork—luckily the Woolworth survived the 9/11 attacks despite being very close to Ground Zero.
Mario Buatta, Interior Decorator
Why He Matters: Lovingly referred to as “The Prince of Chintz,” Mario Buatta is credited with ushering in an era of “more is more” in American interiors in terms of combining patterns, embellishing textiles and glazing walls. He basically Americanized English Country style and has been working steadily for the rich and famous over the past 50 years.
Notable Work: Yes, he’s the man behind Mariah Carey’s insane townhouse that was profiled in Architectural Digest and MTV’s Cribs over a decade ago. Want to see his work IRL? Take a trip to the Carolands, the 98-room Beaux Arts château in Hillsborough, California, lovingly restored by its current owners and decorated by Buatta. Tours are available on Wednesdays.
Philip Johnson, Architect
Why He Matters: The Cleveland-born legendary architect took several post-grad trips to Europe to study Classical and Gothic landmarks, where he became acquainted with German talent Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who became his collaborator and a great influence on his work. By 1930, he was working for the MoMA’s architectural department. But he didn’t actually begin designing and building until after World War II ended, as he served in the army during the war. He got his start building houses and quickly moved into designing skyscrapers and larger scale commissions with both modern and postmodern attributes.
Notable Work: His own home, The Glass House, has been hailed as one of the greatest residential structures of the 20th century. You can visit the rectangular glass structure in New Canaan, Connecticut, or check out the MoMA Sculpture Garden, the Seagram Building and 550 Madison, among other structures, all by Johnson and located in New York.