Tom Lee and Sarah Tomerlin Lee, husband and wife for more than three decades, left a distinctive mark on 20th century American design. He worked as a theater designer, a department store display director, and chiefly an interior designer, and she was a magazine editor, a department store executive, an advertising copywriter, and ultimately a renowned interior designer. But they were more than simply successful individuals; a designing duo, they sometimes shared clients and, more significantly, shared expertise, experience, and perspectives to profoundly influence each other. This synergy was vividly manifest at the time of Tom’s death at age 61, when Sarah seamlessly took over his firm and went on to design more than 40 hotel interiors before she retired, shortly before her death at the age of 90.
As influential tastemakers, the Lees promoted a sophisticated blend of traditional and contemporary aesthetics—by turns decorative and minimalist—which Sarah called “romantic modernism.” Underlying their work was a belief that architecture and design were essentially forms of storytelling influenced by literature, theater and art. At the same time, their work powerfully reflected larger social and cultural forces, from the advance of middle-class consumer culture to the rise of women in the workplace. They used design as an agent of American diplomacy during the Cold War, positioned American fashion on the international stage, and helped make historic preservation an indispensable economic engine of urban redevelopment.
The objects in this exhibition are drawn from the New York School of Interior Design Archives, unless otherwise noted. The archives’ holdings underscore that the Lees’ work was at once international in scope and a quintessential New York story.