Design Experts

Inside design: Mary McDonald

Inside design: Mary McDonald Author: Style At Home

Design Experts

Inside design: Mary McDonald

Los Angeles-based designer Mary McDonald has lent her hand to some of Hollywood’s most impressive estates, including Cary Grant's former digs. With a flair for drama and a love of glamour, Mary has an unmistakable old Hollywood style that has landed her work on countless magazine covers and made her one of House Beautiful's top 100 designers.

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?
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?
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.
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.(Continued) Inspiration is everywhere. My imagination is constantly being engaged, which naturally leads to new, fresh approaches that are, by definition, contemporary. The colour and velvety texture of mould on a lemon, for instance, inspired a powdery paint finish I created. It can be that weird.

But I think you can also stay current by being open to other people's work. No one is good at everything. For example, I have a friend who’s a production designer, and I’ve learned so much from him about furniture placement—how to use pieces as architecture, like floating walls.

S@H: What advice do you have for nonprofessionals, or armchair designers?
Don't be afraid to make mistakes. Instead, learn from them. We all want perfection, but the road to perfection is paved with failed attempts. You make adjustments until you get it right. I've made my share of blunders. I know there are designers out there who, after measuring and remeasuring, have made sofas that don’t fit up the stairs. I've done that too.

S@H: You don't seem like a typical dyed-in-the-wool designer.
I'm more of an Annie Get Your Gun type in a ball gown; I'm not afraid to try different things and get my hands dirty. Life is full of rich experiences.

S@H: What would you be doing if you weren’t designing houses and hotels?
Daydreaming. Or maybe gardening. No, seriously? I'd be a great paramedic; I'm really calm in emergencies. Or I'd open an orphanage in Africa, where lots of kids don’t have houses, never mind beautifully designed ones.  

Something about Mary
Here’s how to take home the look created by Los Angeles designer Mary McDonald.

Incorporate drama. According to Mary, no room is complete without it. So enclose a bed in floor-to-ceiling draperies or throw a zebra-skin rug on the floor.

Enjoy colour.
Introduce bold hues into a neutral room to add punch.

Do the unexpected. Mix a Chinese armoire with your modern furnishings, match the wallpaper to your beloved teacup collection, frame magazine covers you love. "The point is, have a sense of humour, take risks and break some rules," says Mary.

Be inspired by life. Whether it's a nail polish shade or the flush on a child's cheek, possibility presents itself everywhere: for example, Mary hired contractors to create a prototype filing cabinet using wallpaper she loved.


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Design Experts

Inside design: Mary McDonald