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24 Sep

Design Lessons to Be Learned From Tom and Sarah

Multihyphenate monikers at the moment are very much a thing with influencers and wannabes alike. But many years before interdisciplinary design became such a self-defining salary track, the husband-and-wife team of Tom Lee and Sarah Tomerlin Lee exercised their design dexterity working at malls, in interiors, theater, magazine publishing and architecture.

Their largely unheralded skilled lives are the main focus of a recent exhibition on the Latest York School of Interior Design, and can also be accessible online. On view until Dec. 5, “Designing Duo: Tom Lee and Sarah Tomerlin Lee” draws from the couple’s archives, which have been donated to the Upper East Side academic institution.

Constructing an archive of interior designers’ work was a part of the impetus for the exhibition, based on Donald Albrecht, who co-curated the show with Thomas Mellins. “And like in all of life lately, there’s a desire to broaden the beaten path of the standard white, male-dominant designer,” he said.

Tomerlin Lee was largely known in her day for renovating the Helmsley Palace Hotel in Latest York and the Willard in Washington, D.C., and serving as editor of House Beautiful, but she has been largely forgotten, Albrecht said. “We were involved in her husband, but she was a really dynamic and interesting woman. She worked at Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and Lord & Taylor. Their ambidextrousness is the part that we found fascinating. It’s an actual Latest York story — high-end retailing, fashion and ornamental arts journalism, historic preservation, interiors, Broadway,” Albrecht said.

At different points in his profession, Tom Lee designed sets and costumes for prized composer Irving Berlin, worked on a ballet for Lincoln Kirstein and cultivated Bonwit Teller’s repute for theatrical store windows, including just a few imagined by Salvador Dalí  in 1939. After serving within the counter-intelligence branch of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services during World War II, Lee arrange his own design firm in 1947, happening to design such properties because the Williamsburg Motor Lodge’s interiors and the Tehran Hilton. After his death in a automotive accident in 1971, his wife, who was then in her sixties, took over the design firm, happening to handle the interiors for greater than 40 hotels.

Tomerlin Lee’s skilled trajectory was rooted in fashion, having worked in marketing at Bonwit Teller, Margaret Hockaday’s pioneering creative agency, Lord & Taylor’s marketing department, and acting as a beauty editor at Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar well before her lead role at House Beautiful. She also served as president of the Fashion Group within the ’60s, held that very same post on the Decorators Club and was founding father of the Latest York Landmarks Conservatory. Tomerlin Lee also edited the book, “American Fashion: The Life and Times of Adrian, Mainbocher, McCardell, Norell and Trigere.” Within the ’90s, when Tom Lee Ltd. became the inside design department of Beyer Blinder Belle, Tomerlin Lee headed that up from 1993 to 1997. Working well into her eighties, she died in 2001 on the age of 90.

As for what those that are recent to design might glean from the Lees’ profession paths, Albrecht said, “It says, ‘Be flexible.’ What Sarah used to say was she tended to maneuver laterally. She didn’t take the boss’ job — she moved from one position to a different. And he or she used words, narrative and storytelling. Obviously, that’s germane for fashion journalism. But when it got here to doing interiors for hotels, her approach was to inform the history of a hotel and she or he would derive her ideas by writing them down. She would sell the concept through text greater than she would through drawing, Albrecht said.

The galleries are open to the general public and the exhibition can also be accessible virtually.

Photo by Steven Eloiseau/Courtesy

Newcomers could take heed about being flexible in manifesting a theme across different disciplines, Albrecht said.

For Tomerlin Lee, the large mirrored five-story atrium within the Parker Meridien Hotel in Latest York reflected her “fusion of the trendy combined with history,” Albrecht said, adding that something in regards to the Lees’ ethos was “optimistic, fun, glamorous, romantic and freewheeling. What’s also interesting is he was working and she or he was working, when modernism was king. We expect of modernism being [synonymous] with Florence Knoll, Chase Manhattan Bank, the Seagram Constructing and [Ludwig] Mies van der Rohe. But additionally, there’s another story of modernism that’s more decorative, romantic and drew on history overtly. A technique which you can be modern is to look to history and update it. That’s something that folks don’t realize was being done on the ’50s and ’60s.”

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