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Following the end of World War II in 1945, the United States demonstrated its status as a “superpower” through both military means and the “soft” diplomacy of design.


Photographer: Rob Stephenson

Tom and Sarah promoted a national agenda by working for the US Air Force, creating American fashion shows in Moscow, and most importantly, designing international hotels. Tom’s interior design of the Tehran Hilton underscored Conrad Hilton’s claim that, “Each of our hotels is a little America,” designed “to show countries most exposed to communism the other side of the coin.”


Diplomacy Context

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Tom Lee’s interiors at the Tehran Hilton synthesized sleek International Style modernism and conveniences such as air-conditioning, with Islamic-style patterns on furnishings. (The hotel even incorporated typography influenced by Persian calligraphy in its marketing.) Does this fusion represent a positive American foreign policy intended to ensure stability through cooperation, or an aggressive American imperialism? By the mid-1970s, scholars such as Edward Said explored the myopia of a Western-centric perspective, describing it in the now widely used term “Orientalism.”