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Hazel Dell Brown of Armstrong Flooring — the most influential residential interior designer of the 20th Century (that you probably never heard of)

Hazel Dell Brown of Armstrong Flooring
Hazel Dell Brown, c. 1931. Building Techology Heritage Library MBJ Collection

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.

hazel dell brown favorite kitchen design
Kitchen storage — decorative panels closed.
hazel dell brown armstrong flooring
Kitchen storage — decorative panels open. Above: The “All-in-One-Closet Kitchen” designed by Hazel Dell Brown  c.1941. When she retired, Hazel Dell Brown said this was one of her favorite room designs ever. Later, when she built her own small, retirement house, she created a kitchen like this for it. Photo: Building Technology Heritage Library MBJ Collection

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.

In fact, the company is credited with introducing the first color advertisements.

1941 armstrong linoleum
c. 1941 Hazel Dell Brown kitchen design, from brochure in my collection

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.

1940s kitchen design ideas
c. 1941 kitchen design by Hazel Dell Brown, brochure from my collection

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

One letter of appreciation said:

“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 that 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!

hazel dell brown small cottage design 1948
1948 Hazel Dell Brown “balcony cottage” design — plans sold to the public — was considered her most successful room design. Source: Building Technology Heritage Library MBJ Collection
hazel dell brown small house design for armstrong flooring
1948 Hazel Dell Brown “balcony cottage” design — plans sold to the public — was considered her most successful room design.Source: Building Technology Heritage Library MBJ Collection. And, here’s another entire house that Armstrong offered plans for, in 1949 — I wonder if she also designed it.

I find her designs absolutely delightful! 

Above: Lookie what Diane found on Amazon!

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 the 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.

Armstrong Flooring Bureau of Interior Decoration
Undated description of Armstrong Flooring’s Bureau of Interior Decoration. From Building Technology Heritage Library.

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 I think happened: The Bureau existed, but without a decorator. She was hired and worked within the Bureau. Ultimately, she led it.

1924 interior design
Is this one of the first room paintings by Hazel Dell Brown for Armstrong? It’s from c. 1924, when Armstrong published a brochure written by a New York interior designer. The illustrations are not credited, though. In the few brochures I can find pre-1922 — before Mrs. Brown’s hiring — the company seemed to be using images submitted by architects. Alan O’Bright Collection, Building Technology Heritage Library

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.”

hazel dell brown mood board
Mrs. Brown was particular adept at showing homemakers how to combines colors and patterns. 1937 – JD Collection Building Technology Heritage Library

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!

hazel dell brown living room
In a 1929 brochure, Mrs. Dell Brown showed the use of Armstrong flooring in her own home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. MBJ Collection / Building Technology Heritage Library

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

1940s kitchen dsign
c. 1941 kitchen design by Hazel Dell Brown, from a brochure in my collection

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.

paris theme basement
1950 basement design. From JD Collection / Building Technology Heritage Library

Some might say that some of the rooms … pushed the limits of good taste. 

pink bathroom hazel dell brown
c. 1948 pink bathroom by Hazel Dell Brown. MBJ Collection / Building Technology Heritage Library

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 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!

More reading:

  1. Debbie in Portland says:

    I picked up my first Hazel Dell Brown booklet, “New Ideas for Old Rooms” at an estate sale around 1979, for a probably a dime, and I’ve bought several more since then. Her style is so exuberant, so optimistic. I see so many minimalist, colorless home designs now and I always think “Huh: this room sure could use a little Hazel Dell Brown!”

    Thanks for this great article, Pam. You really brought her to life for us.

  2. Leslie says:

    “Wacky…” “pushed the limits of good taste….”

    No, they were cheerful and fun and comortable and not stiff and pretentious.

    One of the home improvement channels should start a What Would Hazel Dell Brown Do? show. Think how much better the rooms would look than the ones they do now! I’d kill for that kitchen storage cabinet (though I’d want different decorative panels).

    Thank you for a splendid article.

  3. Electra says:

    I am not well so I do not always have enough energy to read your emails . When I do they bring such delight . Thank You for all the time and effort to share with others the eras of decorating we all love . This article made my day …….as for over the top decorating . That is why I love the Art Deco era . It was exuberantly over the top in materials and design . Owning such objects brings back the joy of an era when many nations were going ” Full steam ahead “

  4. Margare says:

    Thank you so much for this wonderful article! I really enjoyed reading it. This is such a fascinating story, and you are so right that it shouldn’t be lost.

    I love looking at these designs, but I have to say, as much more of a fan of 1960s and 1970s mod and flower power type decor, that living room with the terra cotta linoleum floor does not “sing with color.” It’s actually pretty drab. Cute, nice, comfortable, but drab.

    Now that Chinese bathroom – that has color. Not in a good way, but wow!

    1. Pam Kueber says:

      Yes, I think that she reflected decorating trends of the time. The 1929 living room would look different than a… 1950s bathroom.

      Armstrong rooms designs of the 1960s were fabulous as well. They can been seen in this book (affiliate link) >> https://amzn.to/3bUIpTr

  5. MaryAnne S says:

    Pam,
    Thank you so much, I love this article and I love her designs. The fact that she was accessible to the normal homemaker is so important. That she said it’s OK to repurpose what you already have and that she was so very practical while filling her spaces with great design really speaks to me. I love the storage wall and the sewing/writing nook in the kitchen. And, I love that she is still remembered for her work. What a lovely way to start my day!

    1. Pam Kueber says:

      You’re welcome. Yes, the fact she was really decorating for the normal homemaker is what made her so historically influential, I think.

      Let’s all work together to keep smiling!

  6. Neil says:

    Dear Pam,
    Fabulous article, about the fabulous HDB. This jumped out at me:
    “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.”

    Surely collecting these packets of Hazel’s singular design largesse is your new quest!

    And, from this description she sounds like a marvelously original and eccentric character (which is vividly illustrated in her unparalleled room designs):
    “Mrs. Brown loved oriental art, always had Siamese cats, always wore a black velvet bow in her up swept 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.”

    Can’t you just imagine it….Her sitting in a room full of orientalia, linoleum and chrome, a black velvet bow in her hair and a matching bow on the Siamese in her lap, with a blithe spirit wafting and inspiring her in air behind, while she pauses in her decorating song to think of a rhyme with Chintz?

    PS: I wonder if someday someone will write a similarly delightful article about you….can’t wait to read it.

    Grinning and grateful,
    Neil

  7. Dan says:

    What a delightful read. Yes, some of her designs may have been a bit much in toto, but I doubt the idea was that anyone would copy them exactly. Instead, each room offered several ideas from which to choose. And what a brilliant marketing idea, sending everyone who wrote a few samples of this and that. It would be interesting to find out how Armstrong sales increased thanks to her.

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