Was Hazel Dell Brown of Armstrong Flooring the most influential residential interior designer of the 20th Century — that you probably never heard of? I believe that, yes, she was! Last week, I wrote about Armstrong Flooring’s revival of its famous pattern 5352, and then, a history of pattern 5352. To follow up, here’s a profile of Hazel Dell Brown, the company’s influential and impressive in-house interior decorator — a story that should not be lost to history.
Why do I believe that Mrs. Brown (as she was known) was the most influential residential interior designer of the 20th Century?
During much of the 20th Century, Armstrong Flooring distributed thousands of colorful decorating brochures and printed millions of ads featured regularly in newspapers (one story says 81, nationwide) and magazines — all showcasing the company’s flooring within Mrs. Brown’s clever, colorful and often thrifty room designs.
Mrs. Brown and her department were as prolific as they were creative. The design schemes were for rooms of all sorts — kitchens, bathrooms, living rooms, bedrooms, mud rooms, basements, attics, in-law apartments, rental rooms… you name it.
She and her department also offered homemakers the opportunity to write them for design recommendations. One story says they received and answered up to 1,000 pieces of mail a day.
Mrs. Brown also designed buildable plans for a “Balcony Apartment” designed to provide affordable housing options after World War II. It brought in 100,000 letters and plans were sold by the hundreds.
And, she gave lectures to the public, did training sessions for company salespeople, trained her staff, wrote advertising copy, and designed interiors for show houses and store windows all in the name of promoting the company.
“You have accomplished more than … the same magazines in which your advertisements appear….”
In its news release announcing Mrs. Brown’s retirement, Armstrong said:
Mrs. Brown’s name is familiar to millions of American homemakers and for a generation she has had a great influence on the decoration of the nation’s homes. Homemaking ideas which have appeared in Armstrong’s full-color advertisements in national magazines have been used by decorators and advertisers throughout the country.
Moreover, Mrs. Brown had a mission. Reading through articles and interviews, she seemed very focused on helping homeowners pull together rooms inexpensively… using furniture and decor they already had… recognizing that color was the place to start. As shown in the photo above, she was a master at making the most of small spaces. We also see lots of designs to turn extra rooms into apartments to ease housing shortages.
Hazel Dell Brown was designing practical solutions for practical spaces for folks on a practical budget!
In her own words:
“I am teaching the women of the whole country to love beautiful colors and harmonious combinations in their own homes.” – 1923
“We have given homemakers the creative urge, stimulating them to use what they have; to improvise and to discover their own ingenuity. We have added so-called social prestige to calico, tarltan, muslin and “done over” furniture.” — Hazel Dell Brown, upon her retirement in 1952
“I find myself looking for your page when a new magazine arrives. They are so restful, so harmonious, so beautiful in themselves, as well as so full of suggestions for actual house furnishing. Of course, you have published these pictures to introduce your linoleum, but I am sure you have accomplished much more than that in showing great numbers of people how beautiful a simple home may be. You have accomplished more than the articles on ‘Interior Decoration’ in the same magazines in which your advertisements appear.”
One observer called her the “Dorothy Dix of Decorating.” Like the letter above, I tend to believe that Mrs. Brown’s design ideas had much greater impact on “everywoman” Americans than professional interior designers. Surely she and her department must have learned from others in the industry. But, for their down-to-earth accessibility as well as their sheer reach alone, Mrs. Brown’s designs must have become part of the American psyche. A boy’s bedroom she designed with a nautical theme reportedly brought in letters for 10 years!
I find her designs absolutely delightful!
Born Hazel Snepp, c.1892-1982
Mrs. Brown was born Hazel Snepp, around 1892, in Lafayette, Indiana. She died at her home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania (home to Armstrong Flooring) on July 31, 1982.
There are some excellent biographical articles about Mrs. Brown in local Indianapolis newspapers of the era — she was a ‘local girl done good’ story, for sure!
The stories explain that she was an excellent painter in school. She became a school teacher, teaching art. She married her high school sweetheart L. Glen Brown in 1918, and just two months after their marriage, he was sent overseas to fight in World War I. While her husband was away, she began studying at the Pratt Institute — she had earned a prestigious scholarship to attend the art school. However, while she was was still studying, her husband died, leading her to return to Indianapolis. There, the Indianapolis School Board tapped her to lead all of its art programming district-wide.
In 1922 — this would have made her about 30 years old — the Armstrong Cork Company (as it was known then) began a search for a decorator for its Bureau of Interior Design. They found Mrs. Brown through contacts in the school district and soon enough, she was on her way to company headquarters. Most research I have read says that she was ‘the first decorator to lead the Bureau of Interior Decoration.’ But, I’ve also seen the Bureau listed in company materials as early as 1917. What perhaps happened: The Bureau existed, but without a decorator. She was hired and worked within the Bureau. Ultimately, she led it.
The company hired Mrs. Brown to create rooms that would show the many ways that Armstrong flooring could be used. But they not only used her creative designs — they also used her name itself in its advertising. I see this starting in the fall of 1923. The ads also evolved to have her instruct homemakers how to solve common decorating problems. Armstrong marketers surely knew what they had in hand — a talented executive who could forge a personal connection with women making big purchase decisions.
Armstrong Decorating Service
In addition to designing and painting rooms for ads, Mrs. Brown also corresponded with consumers — which led to the launch of Armstrong’s “Decorating Services.”
Mrs. Brown said that after Armstrong started running her room designs in color in national magazines, letters started to flow in. The Department responded to them all — and Armstrong’s Decorating Service was born.
“I couldn’t just write them without giving them something to look at. So I started enclosing bits of drapery and upholstery materials and samples of linoleum. This was a big hit with people….” she explained in a 1975 interview.
Indeed, who among us doesn’t want a free interior decorator to give us advice, or at least a second opinion, on matching curtains, flooring, painting, upholstery! Mrs. Brown and her team were on the job for Mrs. America!
For much of the 20th Century, magazines printed color illustrations — but not photography. In her earlier days with the company, Mrs. Brown’s room designs were paintings published in color in magazines. As printing technology evolved, her room designs were built into actual rooms and then photographed for advertising. She was involved at every step in the process.
Rooms were creative — pushed the limit
Mrs. Brown did not phone her designs in — all her rooms are chock-a-block with creativity. Some might say some of the rooms were… wacky.
Some might say that some of the rooms … pushed the limits of “good taste.”
In fact, someone did say such things. To which Mrs. Brown responded that ‘advertising is different from pure art. In her field over-emphasis is a necessary evil.’
I would say: These designs are visual kids in a candy store. They are filled to the brim with ideas, many of which you could see using in your own house. You can look and look and look and the next time you look, you see something you missed before. They are so much fun to scrutinize — this was part of their genius then, and now. That said, you don’t want to eat all the candy in the candy store, that would make your tummy hurt. Mrs. Brown gets an A+ with bonus points for ideas and creativity alone! And no doubt, she knew how to put together a cohesive and pleasing room.
Builds her dream house at age 82
Mrs. Brown retired from Armstrong in 1952. (Although this story says she retired in 1957 — did something delay her original announced retirement?) Her retirement story says she was planning to move to California. However, from later stories it seems she remained in Lancaster.
C. 1975, at age 82, she built her dream house, in Lancaster. That same year, friends made her a friendship quilt. Mrs. Brown loved oriental art, always had Siamese cats, always wore a black velvet bow in her upswept hair, hated onions and cigarettes, lived in town so she didn’t have to drive, was interested in psychic research, and sang in a chorus.. While working at Armstrong, she also took care of her ailing mother for 33 years — an experience that gave her great empathy for everyday homemakers.
Mrs. Brown died at age 90 on July 31, 1982, at her home in Lancaster. One obituary says that donations could be made to the Society for the Prevention of Blindness. The notice does not say she was blind… but. How sad to think that a woman who brought such visual wonder to the world for so many years would be without sight at the end of her life.
Hazel Dell Brown: Such an amazing and accomplished person in design history!
- From Hazel Dell Brown & Armstrong Cork Co. — 12 online catalogs from 1929-1951
- Of course, I wonder if she ever met: Royal Barry Wills, the most influential residential architect of the 20th Century (that you probably never heard of)
- Room designs from Louisa Kostich Cowan, who took over the department at some point after Mrs. Dell Brown retired.
- The history of Armstrong #5352 — the best-selling resilient flooring of the 20th Century