Multi-hyphenated monikers are now popular with influencers and wannabes alike. But decades before interdisciplinary design became such a self-defining salary track, husband and wife team Tom Lee and Sarah Tomerlin Lee practiced their design skills working in department stores, interiors, theatres, magazine publishing and architecture.
Her largely unannounced professional life is the focus of a new exhibition at the New York School of Interior Design, which is also accessible online. “Designing Duo: Tom Lee and Sarah Tomerlin Lee” runs through December 5 and comes from the couple’s archives, which were donated to the Upper East Side academic institution.
According to Donald Albrecht, who co-curated the exhibition with Thomas Mellins, building an archive of interior designers’ work was part of the impetus for the exhibition. “And like everything in life these days, there’s a desire to expand the beaten path of the typical white, male-dominated designer,” he said.
Tomerlin Lee was best known in her day for renovating the Helmsley Palace Hotel in New York and the Willard in Washington, D.C., and for serving as editor of House Beautiful, but she has been largely forgotten, Albrecht said. “We were interested in her husband, but she was a very dynamic and interesting woman. She has worked at Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Lord & Taylor. Her dual wielding is the part we found intriguing. It’s a real New York story — high-end retail, fashion and art journalism, heritage preservation, interiors, Broadway,” Albrecht said.
At various points in his career, Tom Lee designed sets and costumes for the esteemed composer Irving Berlin, worked on a ballet for Lincoln Kirstein, and nurtured Bonwit Teller’s reputation for theatrical showcases, including some designed by Salvador Dalí in 1939 for the US Office of Strategic Counterintelligence Division Services during World War II, Lee established his own design firm in 1947 and later designed objects such as the interiors of the Williamsburg Motor Lodge and the Tehran Hilton. After his death in a car accident in 1971, his wife, then in her 60s, took over the design office and later oversaw the interiors of more than 40 hotels.
Tomerlin Lee’s professional career was rooted in fashion, having worked in marketing at Bonwit Teller, Margaret Hockaday’s pioneering creative agency, the marketing department of Lord & Taylor and as beauty editor at Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar long before her starring role on House Beautiful. She was also President of the Fashion Group in the 1960s, held the same position at the Decorators Club and was the founder of the New York Landmarks Conservatory. Tomerlin Lee is also the editor of American Fashion: The Life and Times of Adrian, Mainbocher, McCardell, Norell and Trigere. As Tom Lee Ltd. became the interior design department of Beyer Blinder Belle in the 1990s, Tomerlin Lee headed it from 1993 to 1997. She worked well into her 1980s and died in 2001 at the age of 90.
On what those new to design could learn from the Lees’ career paths, Albrecht said, “It says, ‘Be flexible.’ What Sarah used to say was that she tended to move sideways. She didn’t take the job of boss – she moved from one position to another. And she used words, narration and storytelling. Obviously, that’s relevant to fashion journalism. But when it came to hotel interiors, her approach was to tell a hotel’s story, and she derived her ideas by writing them down. She would sell the idea more with text than with drawing, Albrecht said.
Newcomers could take care to manifest a topic flexibly in an interdisciplinary manner, said Albrecht.
For Tomerlin Lee, the huge, mirrored, five-story atrium at the Parker Meridien Hotel in New York reflected their “fusion of modernity and history,” Albrecht said, adding that something about the Lees’ ethos is “upbeat, fun, glamorous, romantic, and free-spirited . It is also interesting that he worked and she worked when modernity was king. We think of the being of modernity [synonymous] with Florence Knoll, the Chase Manhattan Bank, the Seagram Building and [Ludwig] Mies van der Rohe. But there is also an alternative modernist history that is more decorative, romantic, and overtly based on history. One way to be modern is to look at history and update it. It’s something that people don’t know was done in the ’50s and ’60s.”