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

Biography

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.

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.

Beginnings 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. 

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 of Work

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. 

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://amzn.to/3I0veBc

Additional Reading

Burke, D. B. (1986). In pursuit of beauty: Americans and the Aesthetic Movement. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved from https://amzn.to/3199u5F.

Kirkham, P. (2000). Women designers in the Usa, 1900-2000: Diversity and difference. Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts. Retrieved from https://amzn.to/3FUXWSl.

Wilson, R. G., Eyring, S., & Marotta, K. (2006). Re-creating the american past: Essays on the colonial revival. University of Virginia Press. Retrieved from https://amzn.to/3cZWhyt.

Yankee Books. (2005). 1,001 Old-time household hints: Timeless Bits of Household Wisdom for today’s home and garden. Retrieved from https://amzn.to/3FS0rEY.

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