The female pioneers of ‘House Decoration’

This International Women’s Day, I would like to honour two ladies who blazed a trail for women in the interior design world; Agnes and Rhoda Garrett.

During the height of the Suffrage movement, Agnes Garrett – sister of suffragist leader Millicent Fawcett – and her cousin Rhoda, were prominent suffragist campaigners, not to mention great change makers in the business world.

In the 1870s, the cousins began apprenticeships with architect John McKean Brydon of London, under the strict instructions that they were not to participate in any of the dirty, unladylike activities involved in the construction process. This architectural practice gave them an extraordinary entry into a male-dominated career that was considered totally unsuitable for women.

Fast forward to 1874, and the Garretts decided to open their own practice, R & A Garrett House Decorators. Extraordinarily, their interior design firm was the first British business to be registered and run by women!

They went on to become some of the best-known designers of the era, thanks to the release of their publication ‘Suggestions for House Decoration in Painting, Woodwork and Furniture’ (1876), offering money-saving tips on how to decorate the home in an unpretentious manner.

 

     

 

While most British interiors of the time were rather garish and heavily adorned with fussy ornaments, the Garretts adopted a more reserved, purposeful style. Some of the furniture they designed can still be seen on display within the National Trust property, Standen House, situated in nearby East Grinstead.

In 1879, Rhoda and Agnes set up home in the village of Rustington, just a stone’s throw from our My Sacred Space base. The village became a hub for suffragist campaigning and their business continued to thrive until Rhoda passed away in 1882, aged just 41. Agnes Garrett eventually found a way of combining her political interests with her love of interiors – she was heavily involved in designing the New Hospital for Women, founded by her sister Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (the first woman to qualify as a doctor) in an effort to enable poor women to obtain medical help from female physicians.

A commemorative plaque was unveiled outside their residence, Old Orchard House, as a permanent memorial to these two pioneering ladies who refused to accept they could not climb the entrepreneurial ladder and make a difference in the world.

 

 

There is a lot we could learn from these astonishing ladies. You could say interior design today calls for an overhaul in the fussy, over-designed look. Maybe it’s time to take inspiration from the Garrett’s design ethos, creating spaces that are less about showy display, and more about enabling a person to find comfort in a simplistic and purposeful interior.

While we have a strong base of female entrepreneurs leading the way for women in business today, let’s hope the rebellious spirit of Rhoda and Agnes inspires more of us to ignore the nay-sayers and follow our passions – because the world needs what we have to offer.

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Nichola Hayler

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