English feminist author Mary Haweis wrote a series of widely read essaysin the 1880s in which she derided the eagerness with which aspiring middle-class people furnished their houses according to the rigid models offered to them by the retailers. She advocated the individual adoption of a particular style, tailor-made to the individual needs and preferences of the customer: “One of my strongest convictions, and one of the first canons of good taste, is that our houses, like the fish’s shell and the bird’s nest, ought to represent our individual taste and habits.
The move toward decoration as a separate artistic profession unrelated to the manufacturers and retailers received an impetus with the 1899 formation of the Institute of British Decorators; with John Dibblee Crace as its president, it represented almost 200 decorators around the country. By 1915, the London Directory listed 127 individuals trading as interior decorators, of which 10 were women. Rhoda and Agnes Garrett were the first women to train professionally as home decorators in 1874. The importance of their work on design was regarded at the time as on a par with that of William Morris. In 1876, their work – Suggestions for House Decoration in Painting, Woodwork and Furniture – spread their ideas on artistic interior design to a wide middle-class audience. By 1900, the situation was described by The Illustrated Carpenter and Builder: “Until recently when a man wanted to furnish he would visit all the dealers and select piece by piece of furniture
Today he sends for a dealer in art furnishings and fittings who surveys all the rooms in the house and he brings his artistic mind to bear on the subject.” In America, Candace Wheeler was one of the first woman interior designers and helped encourage a new style of American design. She was instrumental in the development of art courses for women in a number of major American cities and was considered a national authority on homedesign. An important influence on the new profession was The Decoration of Houses, a manual of interior design written by Edith Wharton with architect Ogden Codman in 1897 in America. In the book, the authors denounced Victorian-style interior decoration and interior design, especially those rooms that were decorated with heavy window curtains, Victorian bric-a-brac, and overstuffed furniture. They argued that such rooms emphasized upholstery at the expense of proper space planning and architectural design and were, therefore, uncomfortable and rarely used. The book is considered a seminal work, and its success led to the emergence of professional decorators working in the manner advocated by its authors, most notably Elsie de Wolfe.