Style at Home: You found your way to decor quite circuitously, didn't you?
Mary McDonald: Yes. After college, I went to Parsons The New School for Design in New York City to study fashion. At the time, we were all really into hats. In the middle of my studies, I started a millinery business. By my late 20s, I realized I didn’t want to figure out how to profitably manufacture 200 sun hats. Then a friend who'd seen my apartment and liked it asked me to design her house.
S@H: If your student apartment catalyzed a successful career in design, it must have been quite something. Can you tell us more?
MM: Design is such a studied field now, but for me, it's always been organic and innate. I cared about my home in the same way I did about my outfits. But in truth, my apartment looked grander than it was because my mom had given me oil paintings that I hung all over the place. The place looked quite glamorous.
S@H: Glamour is a word often applied to your work. Does that make you happy?
MM: Yes, it does because I love glamour, including all things 18th century and all things French. I have a great appreciation for the Dangerous Liaisons approach to decor—what I call the boudoir sensibility.
S@H: How do you reconcile your Marie Antoinette muse with the need to be current? The hotels you've designed, for example, have a contemporary feel.
MM: Part of being contemporary is being surprising. I like the unexpected. I'm not too serious about the provenance of a piece or about classicism. I like to mix things up. Once, when I was working on a kitchen, I stumbled on some '50s wooden bowls in the shape of fish. I was so struck by them I went on a hunt and collected a bunch. Then I stuck them on the wall to resemble a school of fish.