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Sarah Tomerlin Lee and Tom Lee Collection

Identifier: nysidar_2013_01
The Sarah Tomerlin Lee and Tom Lee Collection contains correspondence, photographs, publicity materials, newspaper and magazine articles, original writings and project specifications derived from Sarah Tomerlin Lee’s six-decade long career in fashion, advertising and interior design. Materials document her career trajectory from copywriter for magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, to Vice President of Lord & Taylor, to Editor-in-Chief of House Beautiful, and finally to noted interior designer. The collection features business records, project specifications, photographs and correspondence documenting major hotel projects., including The Helmsley Palace in New York City, The Willard Hotel in Washington D.C., The Bellevue Hotel in Philadelphia, and many others. The collection also features published writings and speeches that she authored throughout her career, as well as materials related to publications that she authored. Of particular note is an original recording on a 33 1/5 LP of the jingle Lee wrote for the swimwear company, Jantzen, “Just wear a smile…and a Jantzen”. Also of note are the business records, correspondence, and editorial writings from her time as Editor-in-Chief of House Beautiful (1965-1971).

The collection also contains drawings, renderings, photographs, scrapbooks, publicity materials and newspaper and magazine articles documenting the career of Tom Lee (1909-1971), Sarah Tomerlin Lee’s husband, a well-known display, exhibit, set and interior designer active from the 1930s until his untimely death in 1971. The collection features drawings and photographs of window displays that Lee created at such department stores as Bonwit Teller, Lord & Taylor and Bergdorf Goodman, product designs for companies such as Caron Perfumes, and set designs for theatrical productions, most notably Broadway’s “Louisiana Purchase”. The collection also features drawings, photographs, and various other materials related to his interior design career, projects which included the Park Avenue Savoy Room, Colonial Williamsburg Motor Lodge, the Doral Park Avenue and the Doral Miami Beach, the Royal Theran Hotel, and the Royal Sonets Hotel in New Orleans. Of particular note, the collection contains drawings and photographs of Lee’s designs of the 1947 RCA Exhibition Hall, which marked the first time the American public was introduced to the technology behind and capabilities of the television; the New York City’s 5th Avenue association’s Golden Anniversary parade in 1957 celebrating its 50th anniversary; and his designs for Lever House, which included the well-known and beloved Lever House Christmas Carousel in New York City.


  • 1940-2011


Conditions Governing Access

The collection is open for research use.

Conditions Governing Use

To publish collection material from this collection, researchers are required to request permission from the Archivist, pay any associated fees for its usage, and agree to properly cite the collection in the published work. Please refer to the NYSID Archives' Rights & Reproductions policy:


12.24 Cubic Feet


A collection of twenty-three boxes of material including correspondence, drawings, publications, articles, project specifications, photographs and miscellaneous items documenting the careers of both Sarah Tomerlin Lee (1910-2001), advertising executive, magazine editor, author and interior designer, and her husband Thomas (Tom) Bailey Lee (1909-1971), noted designer of displays, exhibits, sets, and interiors.

Biographical Note

Sarah Tomerlin Lee was born in Union City, Tennessee on August 18, 1910. Her father, Charles G. Tomerlin, was a department store executive whose work entailed revitalizing stores that were experiencing low sales. Due to the nature of his work, the family moved often and lived in various cities, including St. Louis, Cleveland, Detroit, and Indianapolis.

Sarah Tomerlin Lee attended Randolph Macon Women’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1932 as President of her Class, having majored in both Greek and Latin. While in college, Lee would spend her summers studying advertising at Columbia University’s School of Business in New York City. Upon graduating, Lee began working for a department store in Utica, New York where her father was an executive, writing advertising and promotional copy.

In 1936, Lee moved to New York City and found a job writing advertising copy for the New York City department store, Bonwit Teller. It was there she met her future husband, Thomas (Tom) Bailey Lee (b.1910-d.1971), who was Director of Display at the time. The two married in 1938 and had two sons. (Materials related to Thomas (Tom) Bailey Lee’s career as a prominent New York-based designer of sets, displays, exhibits and interiors make up a significant portion of this collection. See Biographical Note for Thomas (Tom) Bailey Lee for more information.)

At the start of World War II, Lee left Bonwit Teller to work as a copy writer, and later beauty editor, at Vogue Magazine. She stayed at Vogue for five years before moving on to become cosmetics editor at Harper’s Bazaar, writing feature articles about the beauty and health trends of the day.

After the birth of her second son in 1950, Lee retired from her position at Harper’s Bazaar and became a de-facto freelance advisor to several cosmetics manufacturers including Helena Rubenstein, with whom she had a lifelong friendship, as well as Elizabeth Arden, Jacquelin Cochran, and Lilly Dache.

Lee eventually returned to work as an account executive for the advertising agency, Young & Rubicam. She stayed at the agency until 1954 when she was appointed Vice President of Hockaday Associates, a New York City-based advertising agency which specialized in fashion and home furnishing accounts.

As a copywriter, Lee distinguished herself through a literary prose style and knowledge of history which she brought to the myriad projects she worked on. Of particular note is her campaign for the perfume company, Prince Matchabelli, and her feature articles for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.

As an advertising executive Lee was responsible for creating some of the more recognizable campaigns of her time. It was while advising Elizabeth Arden that Lee designed the “Red Door” promotional campaign, using the spa’s famous painted red doors in their packaging and promotional materials. Lee was also responsible for writing the tag line, “Just wear a smile…and a Jantzen”, a popular and long-running campaign for the self-same swimwear company.

In 1959, Lee was appointed Vice President of Lord & Taylor. While there, she directed the advertising, public relations, and display of the store. She managed a staff of more than eighty people, created and placed millions of dollars’ worth of advertising, and oversaw twenty writers and layout artists as well as twelve illustrators. She was also in charge of the display of store windows, and the store’s interior displays.

It was during this time that Lee was named President of The Fashion Group (1960-1963), a non-profit organization of women executives in the fashion and home industries. At the time, The Fashion Group had twenty-seven branches in the United States, with chapters in Hawaii, Toronto, London and Paris. During her presidency, the membership totaled four thousand with fifteen-hundred in New York alone. During her tenure, Lee was responsible for instituting a retirement plan for members of the group.

In January 1965, Lee was named editor-in chief of House Beautiful magazine. Lee’s six-year long editorship was marked by an effort to highlight individual interior designers, decorators and craftsmen, making them into public figures. Of particular note are her editorials for the March 1965 issues, “The Individualist”, and the two-editorials in the October and November issues of 1966 focusing on decorators and designers. She wrote that designers were “Somewhere east of the architect and west of the decorator,” (October 1966 issue), and “extraordinary men and women who are artist-historian-designer-colorist-entrepreneur-teacher-psychologist-idealist-sophisticate-romantic-ace shoppers-of-the-world” (September 1966 issue).

Lee’s life and career was suddenly altered when, in July of 1971, her husband Tom Lee died from injuries sustained in an automobile accident near their home in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was 61 years old. At the time, his firm, Tom Lee Ltd., was under contract to finish the interiors of the Inn on the Park hotel in Toronto, Canada. Although Lee had no experience or formal training in interior design, she assumed the Presidency of the firm and completed the project. Sarah Tomerlin Lee remained the President of Tom Lee Ltd. for the next three decades, designing the interiors of over forty hotels, inns, and clubs in the United States, nineteen of them in New York. When Tom Lee Ltd. merged with the architectural firm Beyer Blinder and Belle in 1993, Lee became President of the Hospitality Division of the Interior Design department until her retirement in 1997.

During her tenure as President of Tom Lee, Ltd. the firm focused almost exclusively on hospitality design. The firm was well-known for their expertise in restoring historic hotels, most notably The Helmsley Palace in New York City, The Willard Hotel in Washington D.C., and The Bellevue Hotel in Philadelphia. Her projects also included contemporary spaces, such as The Parker Meridian in New York City, The Doral Saturnalia Spa in Miami, and The New Orleans Meridian in New Orleans.

In addition to her career as an advertising executive and interior designer, Sarah Tomerlin Lee authored several publications. After the initial establishment of the Air Force Reserve in 1948, Lee was commissioned by the United States Office of Information Services to write a booklet, the “Air Force Reservist in Your Family”. In 1954, she wrote a booklet for the Sterling Silversmiths Guild of America titled "Sterling to Live By", and in collaboration with the Fashion Institute of Technology, Lee edited the book American Fashion: The Life and Lines of Adrian, Mainbocher, McCardell, Norell, and Trigere, published by the New York Times in 1973.

Lee was an active member of several boards of trustees throughout her career and received numerous awards. She passed away on Easter Sunday in 2001, at the age of 90.

Honors, Awards and Distinctions 1932 Randolph-Macon Woman’s College, AB, Phi Beta Kappa, Class President 1982 The Decorators’ Club, Medal of Honor 1986 Interior Design Magazine’s, Hall of Fame 1986 Widener University, School of Hospitality Management, Doctor of Applied Arts (Honorary) 1987 Moore College of Art, Doctorate of Fine Arts (Honorary) 1988 American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), Designer of Distinction 1988 Network of Women Executives, Woman of the Year 1990 American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), Designer of Distinction 1991 New York Landmarks Conservancy, Honor 1998 New York School of Interior Design, Doctor of Fine Arts (Honorary) 1999 American Society of Interior Designers (ASID), Designer of Distinction

Professional Organizations and Board Memberships The Fashion Group, President, 1960-1963 Randolph Macon Women’s College, Trustee 1964-1981, Trustee Emeritus 1981-2001 New York Landmarks Conservancy Co-founder 1973, Vice President, 1982-1985 American Craft Council, Trustee 1969-1979, Trustee Emeritus 1984 The Decorators’ Club, President, 1995-1997 Merchant’s House Museum, Board of Directors 1985-1991 Cosmopolitan Club, National Arts Club, Fortnightly New York School of Interior Design, Board of Trustees, 1990-2001

Select Bibliography Sarah Tomerlin Lee Collection, New York School of Interior Design Archives, New York School of Interior Design, New York, NY. Mott, Frank L. A History of American Magazines. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1938. Print. Lee, Sarah Tomerlin. “The Decorators – Part I.” House Beautiful, September 1966. Lee, Sarah Tomerlin. “Focus on Decorators.” House Beautiful, October 1966.
Biographical / Historical Thomas (Tom) Bailey Lee was born in San Jose, Costa Rica in 1909. The son of a United States diplomat, Lee lived in various cities across Europe and Latin America, spending most of his childhood in Brazil. Pursuing an early and natural talent for drawing and painting, Lee moved to New York City in his early teens to study at the Traphagen School of Design and the National Academy of Fine Arts.

Lee began his career while still a student, designing costumes for burlesque shows at Minsky’s and Columbia Wheel, movie posters for MGM Studios, and book jackets for the Modern Library. At nineteen, Lee joined Macy’s Design Studio, where he designed advertising layouts and displays throughout the store. His work at Macy's lead to a private commission to design a department store in Sydney, Australia.

Upon his return to New York City in 1936 he was hired by Bonwit Teller as Display Director. While there, Lee pioneered the use of various techniques and materials, establishing himself as a leader in the field. (It was at Lee’s suggestion that Salvador Dali be commissioned to complete a series of window displays. Photos of the windows that Lee and Dali worked on can be found at the Museum of the City of New York.)

Lee’s talents and experience continued to land him a variety of contracts. In 1940, he designed the set and costumes for the Broadway musical Louisiana Purchase, and was also responsible for designing the costumes for Walk with Music, a musical also produced in 1940.

At the advent of World War II, Lee was commissioned as a first lieutenant in the Eigth Air Force. He served overseas in the Camouflage Unit and the counter-intelligence branch of the OSS, retiring at the end of the war with rank of Major. Lee also designed the sets for a musical produced by the Eigth Air Force, titled Skirts.

Upon his return from the war, Lee joined W. L. Steensgaard & Associates (a Chicago-based firm that specialized in display and merchandise presentation) as Vice President and Director of East Coast activities. It was in this position that Lee designed and oversaw the construction of the RCA Exhibition Hall. The Exhibition Hall, located in Rockefeller Center, showcased RCA products and activities including radio broadcasting, television, recording, worldwide communications, and radio marine electronics. The exhibition was described as a “miniature electronics World’s Fair” and became a popular tourist attraction.

It was also in 1947 that Tom Lee established his firm, Tom Lee, Ltd. The firm focused on display, industrial and hospitality design and was contracted to design exhibits, trade shows, showrooms, packaging and product design, and the design of interiors.

Tom Lee, Ltd. projects included: • The design of the pageant and fashion show for the Golden Jubilee, New York City’s 150th anniversary (1948).

• The window displays at the Lever House building on Park Avenue, including the Christmas Carousel (1950s).

• The design of Helena Rubenstein’s corporate headquarters (1953).

• The design and installation of an exhibition of Picasso’s sculpture at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (1958).

• The stage and interior Design of the DuPont Exhibit at the 1963-64 World’s Fair.

• Design consultant for Bergdorf Goodman, and design coordinator for House & Garden (1940s and 1950s).

Lee completed a variety of freelance design projects throughout his career. Tom Lee’s son (Todd Lee) recalls seeing his father “sitting at the kitchen table with a small carving knife and a supply of Ivory soap blocks next to him. The floor was littered with shavings. He was on assignment from Lever Brothers to come up with a better bar of soap. He told me it had to ‘fit the curves of your body, not be so easy to drop, and provide a sensually delightful experience.’ The result was the prototype for Dove, the first oblong concave/convex soap which revolutionized the U.S. soap industry.” Lee’s drawings for his proposed new Dove bar can be found in the collection.

Additional projects include a series of commissions from the Smithsonian Institution. These traveling exhibitions were mounted on behalf of the United States Government under the auspices of the United States Information Agency (USIA). Lee worked on the design of the following exhibitions:

• “The Stage in America”, highlighting the history of theatre, musicals, vaudeville and ballets in the United States (1954).

• “Aspects of the American Film”, depicting the history and accomplishments of the U.S. Motion Picture Industry, mounted in Montevideo, Uruguay (1952).

• “Wallpaper in the United States”, an exhibition displaying examples of contemporary wallpaper design mounted in Germany (1952).

• The exhibition and display design for the Fashion Industries Presentation in Moscow (1959).

His design for the interiors of the Williamsburg Motor House in Colonial Williamsburg, VA (1956) marked his foray into hospitality design. The project consisted of a group of new buildings in Colonial Williamsburg, a motel with 208 rooms, a cafeteria serving 400 people, and a reception center. It marked the first use of contemporary design and materials in the historic city.

It was during this time that Lee was hired as design consultant for Hilton Hotels. His international work included the interior design for the Baghdad-Hilton Hotel in 1958. And 1959, Lee was contracted to complete the renovation at the Savoy Hilton New York hotel, in New York City.

Through the late 1950s and 1960s, Lee worked on the interiors of the following hotels: • Bellevue Stratford Hotel, Philadelphia, PA • Somerset Hotel, Boston, MA

• Royal Sonesta Hotel, New Orleans, LA

• Four Seasons Motor Hotel, Toronto, CA

• Doral Beach and the Doral Country Club, Miami, FL

• Inn-On-The-Park, Toronto, CA

• Royal Teheran Hilton Hotel, Tehran, Iran

At the time of his death in 1971, Lee had most recently completed the interiors of the Park Lane Hotel, and was in the process of completing the Rye Town Hilton in Rye, New York. He had also just returned from South Africa where he had designed the President Hotel in Johannesburg and hotels in Cape Town and Durban. Lee was an active member of professional associations such as American Society of Interior Designers, the Industrial Designer’s Institute, the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design, and the Architectural League.

Tom Lee died on July 14, 1971, in Greenwich, Connecticut.
Nora Reilly
2017 July
Description rules
Edition statement
Finding Aid created by: Nora Reilly

Repository Details

Part of the New York School of Interior Design Library & Archives Repository

NYSID Library
170 East 70th Street
New York City New York 10021 United States