Candace Wheeler, 1827-1923: Entrepreneur, Artist, and Founder of American Interior DesignMarch 02, 2010
When you set out to break through barriers, the secret to your success just might be that you don’t see the barriers in the first place. Candace Thurber Wheeler founded the Society of Decorative Arts in New York in 1877 to help the thousands of women who were left indigent at the end of the Civil War support themselves through handicrafts such as needlework, sewing, and other decorative arts. She called on prominent New York society matrons to support a shop in which the high-quality, custom-made goods could be sold to produce income. And as remarkable as this endeavor was, Wheeler — who felt that “women’s economic power, rather than political power, was their most immediate need” — started the society well into her dotage at the age of 52.
Two years after establishing the Society of Decorative Arts, Wheeler joined with Louis Comfort Tiffany, the well-known glass designer, to open the interior design firm, Tiffany & Wheeler, and served as the partner specializing in textiles. The firm decorated a number of significant late-19th-century houses and public buildings, including the Veterans’ Room of the Seventh Regiment Armory, the Madison Square Theatre, the Union League Club, the George Kemp house, and the drawing room of the Cornelius Vanderbilt II house. The firm also designed the interior of Mark Twain’s house, which is now a National Historic Landmark, in Hartford, Connecticut.
Dissolving her partnership with Tiffany in 1883, Wheeler established her own textile design firm — remember, she was pushing 60 — and became one of the first women to work professionally in a field dominated by male upholsterers, architects, and cabinetmakers. (Actually most fields in the 1880s were dominated by men.) In 1893, at age 66, she was commissioned to design the interior of the Women’s Building at the Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition. Her daughter, Dora Wheeler Keith, painted the ceiling fresco of that building.
Like Tiffany, William Morris, James McNeil Whistler, and other 19th-century artistic visionaries, Wheeler embraced aestheticism and the arts and crafts movement, and her wallpaper and textile designs foretold the coming art nouveau style of décor. But her greatest contributions were opening the fields of interior design and textiles to women, making decorative art affordable, and demonstrating that middle-class women could be financially self-sustaining.