As I was packing my bag for the next leg of my cross-country road trip to discover all-American design styles across the lower 48, I was considering how clothes and fashion trends influence our interior design choices. At a basic level, we tend to gravitate toward the same patterns and colors for both. However, like our clothes, our homes are very much linked to our identity. Which begs the question, are you more punk or preppy? I’m taking a cruise up the East Coast — the land of boat shoes, OCBDs, and madras — to learn more about preppy interior design and why the style is ingrained in the American vernacular.
What is Preppy Interior Design?
“What makes you so sure I went to prep school?” demands Oliver Barrett IV, a Harvard blue blood. “You look stupid and rich,” retorts Jenny Cavalleri, the hardworking student who made it to Radcliffe on grades alone.
The term preppy made its American debut in the 1970 film Love Story starring Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw. MacGraw’s character calls O’Neal “preppy” to tease him for his privileged prep school upbringing, but it eventually becomes a term of affection as their love unfolds through the scenes. From there, preppy stuck as the label for Ivy-style WASP culture associated with clam bakes, summering in the Hamptons, and old-money status.
Preppy is categorized by a nonchalant, broken-in, leisurely cool — from the frayed Lacoste polo to the faded heirloom rug. It’s a delicate code to say, “I have money, but I don’t really care.” The look has been packaged as the aspirational American identity and sold to those looking to convey status and gain access by brands like Ralph Lauren and J. Crew. In 1980, Lisa Birnbach wrote the step-by-step guide outlining the preppy style (and how to copy it) in the New York Times best-seller, The Official Preppy Handbook. The intended stocking stuffer flew off the shelves, giving the masses a blueprint for social climbing and the old-money elites a chance to poke fun at themselves.
Preppy interior design mirrors preppy fashion, embracing layered patterns like gingham and madras, pastel color palettes, and sporty or nautical motifs. Preppy style should be stately but understated, formal but casual, and every other paradox of the look. Above all, a preppy interior should have a wingback chair with a martini sitting on a water-ring-stained mahogany side table.
The Paradoxes of Prep
There is an inherent paradox inside the world of prep. Brand-new tennis polos and stiff ironed shirts feel a little too try-hard, but frayed Brooks Brothers suits and scuffed oxfords meet the criteria of luxury goods worn without care. Ralph Lauren even advertised fading dyes on his polos as an asset for those looking to get the “real” preppy look on the quick. The same goes for interiors. Auction-house paintings line walls in haphazard arrays, and who cares if the Berber rug purchased on the last trip to Morocco has a wine stain? Adhering to the preppy look means following a strict set of codes but not trying too hard to meet them.
The Link Between Preppy Fashion and Interiors
When you think of preppy fashion, a few brands come to mind. You have Ralph Lauren, the father of preppy American style, who laid out the guidelines and packaged up prep for the masses. He designed clothes to move from the office to the country club, and his interiors served any activity, from formal dinners to lounging with a book. J. Crew came later and ditched the visible logo for an insider appeal. Like the Hamptons clambake, you had to get your invitation to participate with the arrival of the coveted catalog. In preppy paradoxical fashion, WASP-culture outsiders created these leading brands. Ralph Lauren founder Ralph Lifshitz and J. Crew founder Mitchell Cinader were both Bronx-born Jews. However, being on the outside allowed them to take note of the codes and people’s desire for access.
These brands mirrored the dress codes of old-money prep schools, country clubs, and sports teams, allowing people to present like a Northeastern elite from anywhere in the country. Similarly, our “front of house” interior spaces give our guests a first impression of who we are and how we live. Whether shaking hands in a Brooks Brothers suit or serving gin and tonics in Waterford crystal, you’re making a preppy first impression.
Elements of the Preppy Design Style
Effortlessly Layered Patterns
Like any preppy outfit, layered patterns are the cornerstone of preppy interior design. Combining patterns like plaid, madras, stripes, houndstooth, and gingham creates a rich yet inviting look.
“Go-to-hell” Color Palettes
In a 1976 Esquire article, Tom Wolfe describes the preppy wardrobe, “…the pants had a go-to-hell air: checks and plaids of the loudest possible sort, madras plaids, yellow-on-orange windowpane checks, crazy-quilt plaids, giant houndstooth checks, or else they were a solid airmail red or taxi yellow or some other implausible go-to-hell color.” These “go-to-hell” colors signal leisure and care-free fun. Classic combinations include the more restrained navy and white or the louder pink and green, both equally preppy in their application.
As expected, old-money estates are filled with antiques, making heirloom objects a critical factor in executing a preppy interior. If you weren’t fortunate enough to inherit a collection of frayed oriental rugs or mahogany sideboards, aim to furnish your preppy space with items from the auction house (or even garage sale finds).
Outdoor and Sport Motifs
Many preppy fashion brands have a sporting background, like Lacoste’s life on the tennis court or J. Crews (fictional) crew team ties. Add to the preppy look with outdoor, sports, and nautical motifs like bowls of Hamptons sea shells or hung lacrosse sticks.
Wallpaper, Paneling, and Trim
If these walls could talk, they’d say, “Cover me in Ralph Lauren wallpaper.” Preppy walls are never left bare but are finished with patterned wallpapers, stained paneling, and lots of decorative trim work. Bonus points are awarded to those who hang up so much art that you can’t see the wallpaper anyway.
Lived in and Never Staged
Like preppy clothes, a preppy home should feel lived in, worn, and never staged. So allow yourself to be a little messy, leave the Jaguar keys on the dining room table, toss the New Yorker on the ottoman, and leave the crystal in the sink — they’re such chic items, you’ll want your guests to see them anyway.
The Appeal of Prep and All-American Interiors
The preppy style is an American invention tied up in our country’s folklore, aspirations, and laid-back approach. What I love about American style is the invitation to irreverently break the rules, whether mixing ostentatious patterns or simply feeling free to use the priceless antique dining table for a night of cards.
The preppy style might have a strict campus rule book, but that makes them all the more fun to break.