The Canadian woman who is frequently described as Canada’s first designer, Kate Reed (1856- 1928) the decorator of Canada’s Railway Hotels, was born nine years before Elsie De Wolfe (1865-1950), that famous American usually thought of as the first successful professional decorator in America. While De Wolfe had a very different life story and body of work when compared to Reed, nevertheless a brief comparison between the careers of these two early 20th century pioneers may be of interest.
During this formative time prior to professionalization and licencing in the field of interior design, the roles that these two women created for themselves were somewhat different. Elsie De Wolfe was a self-made personality who started as an actress. Her dynamic social reputation brought her admiring clients who asked for help with their decorating problems. So, in 1903 she set up a consultancy charging fees of 10% total project budget. Kate Reed, on the other hand, was an admired hostess in elite Canadian society who only gradually took on professional involvement in interiors by working with one main client. When in 1900 her husband became manager at the Chateau Frontenac in Quebec City, Reed helped to decorate the hotel. Her efforts were admired by the President of the Canadian Pacific Railway who subsequently asked for her help in decorating a train car that would carry the future King George and Queen Mary on their 1901 visit to Canada’s East Coast. Thereafter, Reed was given an open assignment to decorate other CP hotels across the country. By 1911 The Toronto Star Weekly newspaper would report that Kate Reed was an employee earning a yearly salary of $10,000 for her services as “Arbiter of Elegance and Comfort” for the Hotels. Reed and De Wolfe’s differing spirit of entrepreneurialism nevertheless points to new narratives for the ‘career woman’ that were developing during the early years of the 20th century.
Both women were active in the field during 1900s-1920s and initially gained attention for their work in the burgeoning genre of leisure spatial types being built at that time. These were home-like interiors for the hospitality sector, intended to accommodate a certain set of user needs, in public or semi-private spaces. For instance: one of Elsie De Wolfe’s first projects to garner wide attention was in 1905-1907 for the Colony Club, a members-only women’s club in New York City designed by Stanford White. One notable room from that project was the Trellis Tea Room. It was intended to resemble a comfortable garden pavilion including walls clad in segmented patterns of green trellis, a working fountain surrounded by plants, and lightweight wicker garden furniture arranged in easy, intimate conversation groupings. Perhaps guided by her theatrical training, De Wolfe was sensitive to characters and the psychological setting they occupy, so the casual environment she created in the Trellis Room appealed to the women who frequented the Colony Club. This was in keeping with the spirit of De Wolfe’s legacy. Design Historian Penny Sparke has written that De Wolfe’s designs “articulated a fundamentally modern belief in the intersection of the domestic interior with personal expression and individual identity.” (Sparke 2005, 12) Most of De Wolfe’s fame rests on her residential projects where she applied aesthetic principles of simplicity, suitability, and proportion, further explained in her frequent public lectures and popular book The House in Good Taste published in 1913.
In contrast, Kate Reed’s work for Canada’s Railroad Hotels across the country helped to create a corporate vision of gracious hospitality. Designed by a variety of architects for different Canadian tourist destinations, the hotels had a recognizable chateau-esque style and scale. Reed functioned as the in-house interior design consultant and reportedly worked on projects that included: Banff Springs Hotel (Alberta); Château Frontenac (Quebec City); Algonquin Hotel (St. Andrews, N.B.); Hotel Viger (Montreal); The Royal Alexandra Hotel (Winnipeg, MB); Château Lake Louise (AB); The Empress Hotel (Victoria, BC); and Palliser Hotel (Calgary, AB). Inside, she combined furniture, finishes, accessories and textiles in historical styles with locally crafted vernacular pieces suggesting a nascent ‘Canadian’ style. Each hotel interior had a distinctive look and colour scheme to create an impressive yet welcoming environment. A connoisseur of antiques and paintings, Reed was also a product of her time, travelling to America and England to source interior products and to stay abreast of trends. She often used wicker furniture, potted plants, custom carpets, as well as a variety of accessories to spark comfortable conversation in the intimate furniture groupings that brought hotel guests together. Unlike Elsie De Wolfe’s example, however, currently we don’t know if Reed proselytized about interior decoration to an audience beyond those grateful hotel guests who found comfort in her interior settings. Kate Reed had a relatively short career, working with CP Hotels from roughly 1900 to around the 1920s. After her husband retired from CP hotels, she helped with hotels owned by Canadian Steamship lines. A notable residential interior design project was for her own summer home “Pansy Patch” in St. Andrews, New Brunswick. Reed died in 1928.
Reed and De Wolfe did not enjoy the same level of attention either during their lifetimes or in historical review. Elsie De Wolfe was successful, famous and even infamous in her own time and remains famous today, with many publications available exploring her career and its impact. Conversely, while Kate Reed is the subject of a recent biography by granddaughter Kate Armour Reed titled A Woman’s Touch: Kate Reed and Canada’s Grand Hotels (John Aylen Books, 2017) and a website (https://www.katereed.ca/), her contribution to Canadian Architecture and Design History has been neglected by historians. Thankfully, her story is starting to receive attention from a researcher at Queen’s University in Kingston.