Design School

The History of Hollywood Regency

By Meaghan O’Neill
November 6, 2017

It’s big, it’s bold, and it’s not easily forgotten. It’s also easy to adapt to nearly any interior.

Initially popular in the 1930s and ‘40s, during the golden age of Hollywood, the artful ideas of the Hollywood Regency-era are making a comeback. A blend of the English and French regency styles that came well before it, Hollywood Regency’s hallmarks were luxury, ostentation, and sophistication. The style also incorporated Greek and Egyptian motifs, a plush sense of modernism, and a strong reaction to drab colonial interiors.

“It’s a style that looks collected over time,” says Dane Austin, principal of Boston-based Dane Austin Design. “Pairing many patterns, finishes, and furniture pieces of various provenance within one space is daring, and creates tension and visual interest in a room.”

To get a mental picture of Hollywood Regency style in its heyday, imagine Joan Crawford lounging on a tufted velvet chaise. Materials and finishes such as lacquer, chrome, velvet, and oversized prints brought interiors (and even landscapes) to life. As the doyenne of the scene, Dorothy Draper was the defining decorator of the moment. Her spaces combined elements of the baroque, jewel tones, and tons of drama into flamboyant yet highly refined spaces, perhaps most famously seen at West Virginia’s The Greenbrier hotel.

A Greenbrier staircase designed by Dorothy Draper protégé Carleton Varney. Photograph courtesy of The Greenbrier
A Greenbrier staircase designed by Dorothy Draper protégé Carleton Varney. Photograph courtesy of The Greenbrier

Today, Draper-designed furnishings, such as the Espana chest and her sinewy couches, remain relevant, and her firm, Dorothy Draper and Company, continues to operate under the renowned designer Carleton Varney.

No surprise then, that some of today’s most celebrated designers have applied their own contemporary twist to the style. Modern master Kelly Wearstler’s matchless interiors, like those for the iconic Viceroy Santa Monica hotel, are rooted in Regency. Others, like the charming Jonathan Adler, have built empires on their witty, contemporary takes on it.

The beauty of Hollywood Regency is that because it combines characteristics from so many eras, it’s compatible with many different aesthetics. Key to the complex mashup of its multifarious components, though, is a sense of balance, symmetry, and order. “It’s a style that can be quite overbearing and glitzy,” explains Paris Forino of Paris Forino Interior Design in New York City. “You have to be very restrained.”

Pairing many patterns, finishes, and furniture pieces of various provenance within one space is daring, and creates tension and visual interest in a room.

To add a touch of its opulence to an existing interior, consider starting with a classic, such as a Billy Haines chair—the actor-turned-designer was a leading player in the original Regency scene.

There’s no need to stick to ‘30s and ‘40s period pieces, though. Because Regency’s reach is broad, many antiques as well as contemporary pieces can work in a wide range of spaces. “Jewel tones and brass are two palettes that really evoke the feeling,” says Forino, who uses both frequently in her own designs. She notes that lighting fixtures—from decadent chandeliers to glimmering sconces—are an excellent entrée.

A sunburst mirror, colorful cabinet, gleaming shelving unit, or even Louis XVI side chairs would also all make sense. The key is to use the curatorial eye of a discerning collector. “Well-dressed interiors feel collected over time,” says Austin. “Edit out subpar pieces in your home and invest in quality items that you love.”

The Viceroy Santa Monica. Photograph courtesy of Kelly Wearstler
The Viceroy Santa Monica. Photograph courtesy of Kelly Wearstler