Tom + Sarah

"Romantic appeal--that's what I'm interested in. People are starved for it. My husband was a romantic, and I am too. That's nothing to be ashamed of."

Sarah Tomerlin Lee in conversation with Charles McLaughlin, Architectural Digest, May 1985



Tom Lee (1910-71) was born in Costa Rica, the son of Samuel Todd Lee, the American Consul, and Emily Parker Lee. He spent his youth in Brazil, Portugal, and England. Upon settling in New York, he studied fashion at the Traphagen School and taught at the Fashion Institute of Technology. In the mid-1930s he was display director for the upscale Bonwit Teller department store, where he met Sarah Tomerlin; they soon married and had two sons, Todd and Charles. During World War II he served in London in the counter-intelligence branch of the US Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the CIA. Lee founded his own design firm in 1947 and in the mid-1950s designed the interiors of the Williamsburg Motor Lodge, launching a celebrated career in the field of hospitality design. 

Throughout his career, Tom Lee's work had a theatrical dimension, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly.  His department store window displays from the mid-1930s to mid-1940s were miniature stage sets designed to intrigue the passerby.  He also designed for the performing arts themselves in the 1940s, including a musical for composer Irving Berlin, ballet for impresario Lincoln Kerstein, and the Ziegfeld Follies.  Theater continued to shape his later work as an interior designer. "Designing a hotel is like producing a play," he told the New York Times. "You have to bring together all the separate elements and work them into one cohesive artistic expression that can still function efficiently on a day-to-day basis."


"Very few people in the world have a dream in three-dimensions and have it come true!”

Sarah Tomerlin Lee on interior design as her favorite occupation among her varied professional experiences



Sarah Tomerlin Lee (1910-2001) was born in Union City, Tennessee, and attended Randolph-Macon Women’s College in Virginia with a degree in Latin and Greek. Her father, Charles Granville Tomerlin, a travelling managerial and advertising consultant for department stores, taught her essential aspects of the business, and she wrote advertising copy for a store that he managed in Utica, New York. In 1936 Sarah moved to New York City and worked in Bonwit Teller’s advertising department, where she met her future husband, the store’s display director Tom Lee. Sarah's early professional experience, as well as her love of theater and the written word, laid the foundation for her careers in advertising, journalism, retail and interior design.

Beyond those working endeavors and throughout her life, Sarah advanced the fields of fashion, interior design and architecture through her participation in professional organizations.  From 1960 - 1963 she was president of the Fashion Group; she was also president of the Decorator's Club, a trustee of the New York School of Interior Design, and a founder of the New York Landmarks Conservancy.  The American Society of Interior Designers named her a Designer of Distinction in 1990.


Still from television interview with Sarah Tomerlin Lee from the series “Interior Design: The New Freedom,” 1981.

Courtesy of Dr. Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel, Interviewer/Producer; video provided by the Barbaralee Diamonstein-Spielvogel Collection,

David M. Rubenstein Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Duke University.

Click on the still image for full video interview URL (YouTube)

Tom + Sarah