Candace Wheeler

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Candace Wheeler (1827–1923), often credited as the "mother" of interior design, was one of America's first woman interior and textile designers. She is famous for helping to open the field of interior design to women, making decorative art affordable, and for encouraging a new style of American design. In the years after the American Civil War, she advocated the fields of applied art, fine art and design as suitable for women, especially for the thousands of war widows who needed to be able to support their families. Wheeler was instrumental in the development of art courses for women in a number of major American cities. She was associated with the Colonial Revival, Aesthetic Movement, and the Arts and Crafts Movement throughout her long career, Wheeler was considered a national authority on home decoration. Wheeler was a member of the Associated Artists, along with Louis Comfort Tiffany. She founded the Society of Decorative Art in New York City (1877), and encouraged the creation of similar artistic societies across the country. Wheeler is also noted for designing the interior of the Women's Building at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, IL.

Early life[edit]

Candace Wheeler was born Candace Thurber on March 24, 1827 in Delhi, New York west of the Catskill Mountains (which would serve as the inspiration for her development of Onteora). Her parents were Abner and Lucy Thurber. Candace was the third born of eight siblings: Lydia Ann Thurber(1824-?), Charles Stewart Thurber (1826–1888), Horace Thurber (1828–1899), Lucy Thurber (1834–1893), Millicent Thurber (1837–1838), Abner Dunham Thurber (1839–1899), and Francis Beattie Thurber (1842–1907).

Wheeler led a happy a childhood, though she expressed annoyance at how their father raised them "a hundred years behind the time" (6, Peck and Irish). Her father was strictly Presbyterian but also a strict abolitionist. He ensured that the family never used any product made by slaves. So concerned was this endeavor of Abner, that the family used homemade maple sugar instead of cane sugar and linen woven from flax they grew on their farm instead of southern cotton.

Candace attended an infant school and later, when she was old enough, the Delaware Academy in Delhi And despite her complaints about her father was often actively encouraged by him to write poetry, to paint, and to generally be creative and imaginative.

Chicago World's Fair[edit]

The Chicago World's Fair, the World's Columbian Exposition, celebrated the city's rebirth from the effects of the Chicago Fire of 1871 and the 400th anniversary of the first voyage of Christopher Columbus. Organizing the fair was a massive undertaking and because it took place at a time when women were becoming more independent and taking a greater role in American society, a number of powerful women advocated for and won permission to build a Women's Building for the fair. The building was to be a celebration of the progress that women had made in the 400 years since Columbus's discovery of America. The Board of Women's Managers was led by the Chicago art collector Bertha Palmer, who worked closely with the curator Sarah Tyson Hallowell on the art for the women's building. Palmer and Wheeler had first met in 1882, when they worked together on the decoration of the Palmer mansion in Chicago. Because of her tremendous influence in the field of design and reputation as an advocate for women in the arts, Wheeler was selected to supervise the decoration of the women's building. While Hallowell thought it was a good idea to have applied art for women in the Women's Building, she felt that women painters and sculptors should not be segregated and should compete with the men for selection into the main art exhibits. While Wheeler had enormous respect for Hallowell. going so far as to say that her "judgement in art matters was as unquestioned as law," she wanted to have both applied and fine art by women exhibited in the Women's Building. While Wheeler's view won out, many of the leading women artists chose to have their art displayed alongside the men. She presided over exhibits of women's artistic works from Russia, Japan, Ceylon and many other nations. Wheeler also had an important role in New York's exhibits for the fair and was appointed Director of the Bureau of Applied Arts by the Board of Women's Managers of New York State. The State of New York wanted to emphasize its leading role in the field of design and decoration at the fair. In her formal role as interior designer for the Women's Building, she was known as Color Director. In her role as designer, she had to coordinate the placement of hundreds of donated items in the interior of the building. Sarah Hallowell and Bertha Palmer had commissioned two large murals Primitive Women and Modern Women from Mary Fairchild MacMonnies and Mary Cassatt respectively, for each end of the Women's Building, but Wheeler complemented these large works with smaller murals by her daughter, Dora Wheeler Keith, Rosina Emmet Sherwood and Lydia Field Emmett as well as two by Amanda Brewster Sewell and Lucia Fairchild. While there were many battles over the decoration of the Women's Building and tremendous hurdles that had to be overcome, Wheeler later looked back favorably on the fair and her role in it.

Later life[edit]

After the conclusion of the Chicago World's Fair, Wheeler continued to head the family firm Associated Artists with her daughter Dora as vice-president. She continued to design textiles and came under the influence of the historicism that was sweeping the design field during the period known as The American Renaissance. Her husband, Tom Wheeler died in 1895, at the age of 77. She seems to have retired from business in 1900 and Associated Artists closed altogether in 1907. In her later years she wrote extensively on design, but also fiction for both children and adults and became an advocate for gardening. She also advocated rug making as a money making scheme for rural women, a scheme that met opposition from some women who felt Wheeler was out of touch with the aspirations of women on farms and in rural America. She recovered from breast cancer at eighty. In her later years, she spent her winters in Thomasville, Georgia, where she designed her own cottage, named "Wintergreen." In her last interview, published in Good Housekeeping when she was 93, she was described as "a handsome and erect figured women of gracious manner and striking personality..." and this took place in 1919, a year after the end of World War I, in which three of her grandchildren had been killed. She lived with her daughter Dora in her last years and according to Hazel Cutler, who had been engaged to their grandson, she remained active and well dressed until her death at the age of ninety-six.


  • Household Art. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1893.
  • Content in a Garden. New York: Houghton Mifflin and Company, 1901.
  • How to make rugs. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1902.
  • Principles of Home Decoration. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1903.
  • The Annals of Onteora: 1887–1914. New York: E.W. Whitfield, [1914?]
  • Yesterdays in a busy life. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1918.
  • The Development of Embroidery in America. New York: Harper & Brothers, [1921].


  • Amelia Peck and Carol Irish (2001). Candace Wheeler. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. ISBN 1-58839-002-0. 
  • Peck, Amelia. “Candace Wheeler (1827–1923).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004)

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