When an interior decorator goes to war

 Early into my graduate career, I had planned on focusing on the WWII period for both my thesis and then my dissertation. While working on my advanced degrees, I tried on many hats, but I settled on becoming a 20th century historian of medicine, gender, and consumerism. My dissertation focused on the modern pregnancy and allowed me to examine the 1940s and how war time society shaped meanings and expectations of maternity. In my own dissertation research, I found that clothiers had use less pleats and cuffs in maternity wear to save fabric for war manufacturers. I was not very surprised about this information, but to be honest, the influence the war had on interior design never crossed my mind or came up in my research. Why should it, right?

When you are doing historical research, it is important to know the language of the period because it reduces time spent and the amount of frustration you might have. In beginning this blog, I quickly learned that for most of the 20th century, interior designers were known as interior decorators or just decorators. Why is this such an important distinction? Being a decorator implies that a person is only qualified to choose fabrics, furniture, and accessories. At the same time, there is a historic gendered meaning behind the word. Women were decorators. Men were architects. And while there was fluidity in this dichotomy, gender (and sexuality) ideals still shape who is expected to enter each profession.

Designer vs. decorator still exists today, but in the mid-twentieth century, designing was not considered a decorator’s job. “Designing,” i.e. space planning and renovations, fell into the hands of architects. Yet, unlike today, ripping out walls to create an open space plan was not the norm. Thus, it is unsurprising that decorators mainly focused on color schemes, and the term identified this profession well into the 1970s.

 In the 1940s, interior decorators were presented with several challenges on the home front, but for this piece, I want to focus on how interior decoration was used to make front line spaces an oasis from ravages of war. Before the war, Marian Hall was a successful decorator who was a partner in the firm Diane Tate and Marian Hall, Inc. They were well-known for 18th century French and English decoration, working in large country homes and Manhattan townhomes.

In 1942, she was asked by the vice chairman of the Red Cross to become the Director of Club Operating in England. When over 2 million troops landed in England and Ireland before D-Day, finding and organizing space for this many soldiers was a massive undertaking and carving out leisure areas was even more difficult. Hall was in charge of creating “homely” spaces within the barracks and in allied occupied areas. It was a major project and before D-Day, she was directly responsible for decorating seventy-four clubs, and supervised the completion of several others in England and Ireland. By the end of the war, she had supervised many more projects throughout France.

These clubs became masculine retreats for soldiers, providing food, comradeship, and entertainment. While war hung over the atmosphere, for a few hours, soldiers could be ordinary men again, a shift facilitated by Hall’s decorating abilities. [1] She often had to be creative and resourceful. One solution the Army and Air Force used to house this influx of men was the Nissen Hut, which was a half-cylindrical steel structure (see picture below). While simple to construct, its interior was cold and industrial, not an ideal canvas for Hall. “I had to concentrate on making the Nissen hut like a camp in the Adirondacks, “Hall remarked in the New York Times, “or a ranch house in the desert and I have had to do it by begging for material for curtains and then arranging the color scheme around the curtains.” [2]

Other obstacles included drabness because even if fabrics soften the steel background, the grayness did little to brighten a soldier’s day. To neutralize the dreariness, Hall chose to paint the ceilings blue or yellow because, “they had to be gay and cheerful.” [3] At the same time though, she had to pay attention to masculine tastes, which included darker colors and heavier fabrics.

 In France, she faced a different set of problems that stemmed from the devastation the Germans left behind as they retreated. Hall’s expertise in residential design provided her the ability to turn these huts, shelled out hotels, tents, and other spaces into temporary living and dining rooms through the use of fabrics, paints, plants, art, and well placed furniture and accessories, all appealing to a mainly masculine population. In all, these spaces became havens, a place to set aside the horrors of war and bask in a comfortable and well-designed space (as much as it could be during war). For many of these soldiers, going to war was the first time they left home, so to be able to walk into a club that had some of the comforts of home brought some solace during a turbulent time. While servicemen did not know of the work Hall did, they enjoyed the atmosphere she created. For Corporal Howard Thomas, the clubs gave him opportunities to “listen to the experiences of his barrack mates who have become fast friends.” He also met women, although he had no serious plans, “he would like to meet some nice girls to whom he can take to dances and who he will not have to worry about falling in love with.” [4]

Woman played an integral role during WWII, but for the most part we remember and honor the ones that worked tirelessly in factories, shipyards, and hangars. Hall’s work has been largely forgotten, probably because a “decorators” job is considered frivolous or a luxury for the wealthy. But in Hall’s case, her experience and knowledge created hundreds of comfortable spaces for numerous soldiers, often using whatever she could get her hands on. She was not just a decorator, but indeed a designer. Her work was not insignificant and highlights how a well planned interior spaces can bring comfort and content, even during war.

Hall must have returned her business once the war ended because in early 1945, she considered the upcoming transition, “After catering to a purely masculine taste for two years…I sometimes wonder what it will be like to go back to decorating women’s boudoirs in frail feminine colors.”[5]

Frail feminine colors?

Well that’s another post for a different day.

[1] Segregated clubs for African-American existed, but many times, black and white soldiers were not separated at these clubs.

[2] New York Times, February 1, 1945

[3] Ibid.

[4] Life, April 26, 1943

[5] New York Times, February 1, 1945

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