Emerald green sofas. Fuschia velvet armchairs. Crimson and lime green floral rugs next to bold black and white checkerboard tiles. Stepping into the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island is like walking into a box of crayons that exploded. But it’s not just the vibrant colours that attract your eye: everywhere you look in the Grand Hotel there’s some elaborate, carefully crafted detail in this unique property that can quite literally be described as a ‘designer hotel’.
Dorothy Draper: The Grand Designer Behind the Grand Hotel
The Grand Hotel owes its signature decor to Dorothy Draper & Company, an interior design firm that was started in the early 20thcentury by a revolutionary woman whose bold, innovative use of colour and pattern changed the way America defined style.
When Henk and I visited the Grand Hotel a month ago, we heard about Dorothy Draper from Grand Hotel historian Bob Tagatz, who escorts hotel guests on architectural, historic and design-themed tours of the property.
I later discovered that Dorothy Draper was more than just a colourful designer; she was a colourful character and a pioneer in the world of design. Born in 1889 to one of the oldest, wealthiest families in New York, Draper made her mark in America for many reasons, not the least of which was the fact that she was a business woman at a time when men dominated every industry. Plus at the time she decided to launch her business, ‘interior design’ wasn’t even a thing.
Draper changed all that when she opened Dorothy Draper & Company in 1923, the first professional interior design firm in the country. And her aesthetic? Well, it was as controversial and modern as Dorothy was.
“Decorating is just sheer fun: a delight in color, an awareness of balance, …a zest for life…” Dorothy Draper
Draper felt that Americans were afraid of colour, so she broke all the rules with her mix of colours and patterns that ‘shouldn’t go together’. Her dictum was ‘if it looks right, it is right’, and this gave her permission to push the boundaries of convention.
Big, bold and bolder was her approach to colour and pattern, and with it she gained fans and clients who were Hollywood actors, jet plane and automobile manufacturers who hired her to give their vehicles ‘the Draper Touch’, and forward-thinking hoteliers who embraced her high style in what became true ‘designer hotels’.
Hotels and Resorts Loved The Draper Touch
Dorothy’s radical new style led to impressive commercial design projects that included rooms in the Waldorf Astoria in New York, the Drake Hotel in Chicago, and the restaurant at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Interesting note: The Fountain of the Muses has now been relocated to Brookgreen Gardens’ outdoor sculpture park, near Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
Draper’s reputation grew and by 1962 she had attracted a protégé named Carleton Varney, who believed in the same approach to design that she did and who eventually bought the company from Dorothy and became its current president.
Carleton Varney and the Grand Hotel Makeover
It was Carleton Varney who came to the Grand Hotel in 1976 at the request of the hotel owners who wanted to re-design the interior to ‘return it’ to a style that was more consistent with the age, history and grandeur of the hotel.
Varney visited the hotel, and after agreeing to take on the project and update the bland beige and burgundy interiors, he promptly declared that “beige would be forever banned” from the Grand. Varney set to work injecting ‘the Draper Touch’ into every detail of the hotel, right down to the staff uniforms and the pencils.
A Colourful Present You Can’t Wait to Open
Varney’s decorating philosophy was that “wallpapers are like wrapping paper, and rugs are like the ribbons and bows.” With these elements he would ‘package up people’s memories’. The Grand Hotel certainly does look like a colourful present you can’t wait to open – much like the hotel rooms themselves, every one of which is decorated differently.
TIP: If you are staying at the Grand Hotel, take every opportunity to peek inside other rooms while the housekeeping staff are cleaning them, not just to see the architectural style of each, but to see the riot of colour on the walls and floors.
Beautiful Gathering Spaces at the Grand Hotel, Too
Dorothy Draper believed that public spaces should be where people could feel elevated in the presence of great beauty, and Varney brought this to the main gathering places in the Grand Hotel as well, including the reception hall, massive dining room, and lower concourse.
The concourse in the lower level features two of Draper’s signature styles: oversized floral patterns on the rugs and black and white marble checkerboard tiles.
The bold use of black and white is found in other places at the Grand Hotel as well, like the area off the main dining room that feels more like a New York Art Deco penthouse foyer than a hallway to the restrooms.
The Audubon Bar may be as close as the Grand gets to a ‘traditional’ men’s club style with its wooden bookcases and limited edition Audubon prints, but even here there are some not-so-serious touches, like the lamps which are made from actual riding boots.
There are always opulent details in the rooms, too, like the chandeliers in a private event room that contribute to the ‘Modern Baroque’ of the Draper aesthetic. Even the Grand Hotel’s stables have chandeliers that were once installed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
TIP: You don’t have to be an overnight guest to visit the Grand Hotel. But there is a small admission fee for visitors which can be applied to any food or drink consumed in the hotel.
Grand Design for a Grand Hotel
The Grand Hotel offers everything guests at a luxury property would expect: fine dining, beautiful grounds, and above all a relaxing atmosphere that is part of the charm of Mackinac Island itself.
But I can guarantee that it is the Dorothy Draper design of the interior that makes the Grand Hotel so remarkable. Whether you are an overnight guest, or just a day visitor here, this is a true ‘designer hotel’ you won’t soon forget.
TIP: The Grand Hotel offers a Dorothy Draper School of Decorating weekend package every year, hosted by Carleton Varney himself, that includes decorating workshops, special cocktail receptions and more. Details are on the hotel website.
Special thanks to Sault Ste Marie Tourism who organized our visit to Mackinac Island, the Grand Hotel who hosted us, and to tour guide and Grand Hotel Historian Bob Tagatz.