Courtesy of Yale University Library

In an online exhibition called “Edith Wharton: Designing the Drawing Room,” Julia Carabatsos ’20 uses drawing rooms as a lens to look at Wharton’s novels and her ideas on interior design which can still be adapted in today’s Interior design services.

The exhibit explores the connections between Wharton’s fiction — the work she is best known for — and Wharton’s passion for interior design. The show was originally supposed to open as an in-person exhibit at Sterling Memorial Library on Commencement Day last year, but it was converted into a digital format due to the pandemic.

“The drawing room was a space of particular interest for me because it was the space that most of the characters who are women have the freedom to decorate and design as they want,” said Carabatsos, who is a former Arts editor for the News. “So it tells us a lot about the world of women in the world that Wharton is describing in these novels.”

Carabatsos conceived of this exhibit last year when she was inspired by her senior thesis. As a double major in English and history of art, Carabatsos was drawn to connections between artistic objects and literature. When she read Wharton’s “The Age of Innocence,” she was struck by Wharton’s rich descriptions of objects and interiors. This inspired Carabatsos’ senior essay about the relationship between Wharton’s novels and design ideas.

In her essay, Carabatsos explored relationships between drawing rooms and the women that designed them. In the exhibit, Carabatsos built upon this concept by focusing on Wharton’s design work.

“I really wanted to emphasize what I think is the lesser-known side of Wharton’s career, which is the interior design treatise on the decoration of houses and her own homes,” Carabatsos said.

For the exhibit, Carabatsos mainly drew from the Edith Wharton Collection in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library. The online exhibit features the same materials and text as intended for the in-person exhibit, and in the same sequence.

The exhibit begins by introducing and contextualizing Wharton. It then discusses Wharton’s ideas about interior design, the house interiors designed by Wharton and Wharton’s novels.

Edward Cooke, a professor in the Department of the History of Art, advised Carabatsos during her exhibition planning. Cooke noted that this project was well-suited to an online format. He explained that since the exhibit cases in Sterling are shallow, Carabatsos selected flat objects for display. These were mostly photographs, which are easily translatable to a digital medium.

Cooke added that the ability to include links and videos in the exhibit created a “very rich experience,” as opposed to “a kind of flat exhibit” in Sterling.

Sarah Davis, a conservation assistant at Yale Library, created the online exhibit. She said the online format improved the exhibit’s accessibility through features such as text-to-speech, screen magnifiers and closed captioning on videos.

According to Kerri Sancomb, Yale Library’s exhibits program manager and another advisor to Carabatsos, the online transition allowed them to introduce a metadata page — an online catalog for the exhibit’s objects. This allows viewers to view selected objects in the context of the library’s collections.

“Because the materials that I selected for my exhibit are very text-heavy, I think it’s easier to read those if you’re sitting at your computer and you can zoom in and take all the time to look at them,” Carabatsos said.

Davis changed several aspects of the exhibit while adapting its medium. Davis added language intended to help orient someone viewing the exhibit on a screen and occasionally re-ordered and reformatted text to better fit a screen.

Sancomb said that she and her colleagues hope the physical exhibit program will resume in some capacity next year, though they do not know what this will look like.

Sancomb said the library had two active student exhibit projects when the pandemic began, in addition to Carabatsos’.

“The online exhibits produced for each of these projects are fantastic and, though not what any of us originally signed on for, are the product of patience, adaptability, imagination and a commitment to sharing scholarship,” Sancomb said.

The exhibit went live on Yale Library’s website on March 1 and will remain available to the public indefinitely.

Annie Radillo |

Annie Radillo covers museums and visual art. She is a sophomore in Benjamin Franklin College majoring in English.