Candace Wheeler (1827 – 1923) American textile and wallpaper designer

Candace Wheeler was an American textile and wallpaper designer. She was born in Delhi, New York and professionally active in New York. Long before there was Martha Stewart, Candace Wheeler helped bring a woman’s touch to the male-dominated field of interior design in 19th century America by teaching wealthier women how to make their homes more comfortable.

Irises Panel by Candace Wheeler 1883
Irises Panel by Candace Wheeler 1883

But the portrait of one of the most unlikely careers in American history is irresistible here, for Candace Wheeler wasn’t just an interior designer in an age when women didn’t at least work in careers. She became an interior designer at the age of 49 when women were definitely past their prime.

Candace Wheeler | Bees with Honeycomb | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Candace Wheeler was an advocate for the development of women’s skills in the service of their financial self-sufficiency. She appreciated wallpaper’s universal appeal and affordability, “making beauty possible to those who have little as well as those who have much.” This wallpaper sample derives from a design that she submitted in 1881 to an international competition sponsored by the American wallpaper manufacturer Warren, Fuller & Lange. Wheeler’s bees-and-honeycomb pattern won first prize but also received criticism. While some lauded her relatively naturalistic initial rendition, others considered the design “quite unsuited for ordinary use” because “insects buzzing at one all day assuredly would not contribute to that sense of repose which, as a rule, a good wall-paper should afford.”

Two events changed her life

The two events that would change this artistic Long Island wife and mother’s life occurred in America’s centennial year. Wheeler visited the Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia, where she saw a display of embroidery by the British Royal School of Art Needlework. In 1876, Wheeler lost her beloved eldest daughter, who died of kidney disease at age 31. The loss, Wheeler wrote, “changed my whole attitude toward Ufe and taught me its duties, not only to those I loved but to all who needed help and comfort .” By the time Wheeler died in 1923 at the age of 96, the generation of feminists who three years earlier won the vote for women had been reading versions of her biography since 1888, when the first known version appeared in a book called Successful Women.

Began as an artist

An amateur artist who painted china and rendered needlework, she was greatly influenced by the Royal School of Art Needlework’s embroideries in London that she saw at the 1876 Philadelphia ‘Centennial Exposition.’ In 1877, she became vice-president, and corresponding secretary of the New York Society of Decorative Art, where classes were taught by Louis Comfort Tiffany, John La Farge, Lockwood de Forest, and Samuel Colman. In 1878, she founded the Women’s Exchange, which, until the 1980s, sold goods, crafts, and foodstuffs on Madison Avenue. In 1879, she was hired by Louis Comfort Tiffany as a textile specialist in his new decorating firm Associated Artists, where, until it was dissolved in 1883, she designed wallpaper. 

Candace Wheeler double frame ca. 1880–1900

A Busy Life

She continued designing textiles for a firm managed by her son and assisted by her daughter Dora until 1907. She invented new techniques in textile production; designed fabrics for silk mill Cheney Brothers of Connecticut; was appointed director of the Bureau of Applied Arts for the New York State stand at the 1892 Chicago ‘World’s Columbian Exposition,’ and was the interior decorator of the Women’s Building there. She wrote Household Art (1893), Content in a Garden (1901). How to Make Rugs (1902), Principles of Home Decoration (1903), The Development of Embroidery in America (1921), and the autobiography Yesterdays in a Busy Life (1918). 

Sample fabric designed by Candace Wheeler
Sample fabric designed by Candace Wheeler

Recognition

She received first prize at 1879 New York Society of Decorative Art exhibition (portiere design) and 1881 design competition (first prize; her daughter Dora won fourth prize} sponsored by wallpaper manufacturer Warren and Fuller. 

Candace Wheeler | Spider Web | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Like many of Wheeler’s popular wallpaper designs, this drawing employs forms found in nature to create a dense and stylized pattern, suitable for Aesthetic period interiors. It was produced by the New York manufacturer Warren, Fuller & Company. Also active as a teacher, Wheeler trained many younger women to achieve financial success in the fields of textile and interior design.

Candace Wheeler | Tulips panel | American | The Metropolitan Museum of Art

One of the most luxurious of Wheeler’s textiles, this unfinished panel was undoubtedly meant to be the central section of a larger portiere or curtain. The full-blown pink silk velvet tulips that form the swirling pattern have all been applied to the cloth-of-gold ground, but the detailed embroidery within many of the flowers and the couching stitch edging on the leaves has not been completed.

Sources

Byars, M., & Riley, T. (2004). The design encyclopedia. Laurence King Publishing.

Lynn, C. (2002, Oct). Candace wheeler: The art and enterprise of american design, 1875-1900. American Craft, 62, 56-57. Retrieved from https://ezproxy.csu.edu.au/login?url=https://www-proquest-com.ezproxy.csu.edu.au/magazines/candace-wheeler-art-enterprise-american-design/docview/216155836/se-2?accountid=10344

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Cheney Brothers (1838 – 1955) textile and silk manufactures – Encyclopedia of Design

The Cheney Brothers were American textile manufacturers. They were located in Manchester and Hartford, Connecticut. Cheney Brothers’ achievement in becoming one of the leading silk manufacturers in the USA was based on the family’s business expertise and broad knowledge of technical processes.

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