How much do we love Mary McDonald? Let us count the ways. She’s won oodles of awards and accolades, including being named to best-of lists by House Beautiful and Veranda. Her style—a strong classical, décor-arts base updated with contemporary flourishes, fantastical patterns, and “couture chic” details—adapts to seemingly every home style with ease. She’s a great storyteller, as evidenced by her book Mary McDonald: Interiors, The Allure of Style, and her scene-stealing appearances on the TV shows Million Dollar Decorators and Property Envy. She has a swoon-worthy Instagram account. And she’s vibrant, funny, and down-to-earth—exactly the kind of person we want at a dinner party or hanging out with us on a weeknight while we watch guilty-pleasure Lifetime movies or indulge in fantasies of being a rock star.
We kid you not about the last two. Read on for more of what makes Mary so memorable as a designer and as a person.
Fresh American: What’s your earliest memory of being interested in design?
Mary McDonald: I always loved color and pattern, since I was teeny-weenie. It really had to do with anything crafty. I used to make these paper-covered desk sets. They were really quite terrible, but I loved making them. I still have my first fabric-covered jar, which I made from a Heinz pickle jar. Later I got into costumes and fashion and art. It always stuck with me.
FA: How did you get started as a designer?
MM: I went to Boston University as an undergrad, then Parsons for fashion. I was a milliner in my twenties. I had always cared about interiors as a side interest—even when I was in college, I decorated my half of the room to the hilt. I had a sophisticated eye, and I was willing to do any grunt work to make an interior complete, so I always had these really put-together rooms and homes. When I was around thirty, a friend asked me to do their home, and that was the beginning. I’m entirely self-educated, and I found out quickly that running a business is very different from the exciting, creative part.
FA: What has been the biggest change in your design approach or aesthetic over the years?
MM: I can appreciate simplicity more and a broader range of aesthetics that might be completely contrary to each other. I pay more attention to lines, simple silhouettes, neutrals.
FA: Your work has a throwback feel to some of the great, classic designers of the past. Has this always been part of your aesthetic?
MM: Yes. Remember The Great Lady Decorators book? I always loved those old-school designers and the flamboyance—Nancy Lancaster and her huge urns and vases, Madeline Castaing with her dollhouse-y mix of furniture and objects. William Hodges from Boston, Anthony Hale from San Francisco, Charles Spada from Boston—their work is based in tradition, it’s classic, it’s a little Francophile. I’ve always been a bit of an actress, in that I see interior design a bit like production design. Who do you want to be? How do you want to feel? I might give a room a contemporary interpretation with a graphic pattern or something overscaled, but my approach is rooted in tradition.
FA: What’s your greatest challenge as a designer?
MM: The business pressure of things getting done on time, and all the little details that can slip through the cracks. I’m not turned on by business or money; I’m more of an arty type, so I feel like I’m always on a learning curve with business.
FA: Which design “rule” or idea do you refer back to over and over? Which have you tossed out?
MM: I really try not to pay attention to rules. I work on instincts. Each space is so different that something that might be a rule for one type of architecture might be the opposite for another.
FA: What are your go-to sources for inspiration?
MM: I’m inspired by so many things. Sometimes its nature, water. flora and fauna. Or Googling things from a certain decade. I have some favorite things I never get tired of, like eighteenth-century France. Malmaison, Napolean and Josephine’s summer house—the decorative arts aspect of the home is incredible.
There’s such a wealth of visual info on the Internet—you can Google geodes, crystal jewelry, driftwood, and get lost for hours. It’s inspiring, but sometimes you need to step back and look at what you’re working with instead of getting oversaturated with images.
FA: Describe a project that didn’t go quite as planned, and how you turned it around.
MM: What project doesn’t? [Laughs] There’s always something.
On one project, we had a huge room with a tented ceiling. It was supposed to be faux painted, but when the contractor primed the walls, something about the formulation of the base paint made the walls peel. With all the ceiling fabric already in place, we didn’t want to sand it, so instead we used a fabric wallpaper in the same pattern as the tent. It was incredibly stressful, but the result was beautiful.
FA: Which design trend or idea do you wish would go away? Which design trend or idea are you loving right now?
MM: I’m really liking the movement toward things that look organic—like the ocean, waves, stones, or wood—but then are glamorized with gilding or plating. There’s also lots of really bad versions out there, so I’m hating those. [Laughs]
I’m a little sick of overlapped, two-tone lattice-y patterns. I feel like it’s been a trend for six or seven years now.
FA: Which designers can you not get enough of?
MM: I find myself fascinated by several European designers, like Lorenzo Castillo of Spain and Phillipe Durand, a French architect. I’m drawn to French designers right now.
FA: In your opinion, what’s one thing that will never go out of style?
MM: Louis chaise chairs and versions thereof. I can’t get enough.
FA: What’s the one item in your home you couldn’t live without?
MM: I love my eighteenth-century bureau plat [writing desk]. I also love my chinoiserie bed, of my own design—even if I didn’t use it in my master bedroom, I’d use it in a guest room. I have collections of glass and ceramics from different periods that I usually group by color—pink, shades of green, white. I pull them out and rearrange them from time to time.
FA: If you were to chuck design for another career, what would it be?
MM: Do I have to pick just one? [Laughs] I would probably go into fashion, since it was one of my first love; I could see myself as an evening gown designer. I’d love to be a jewelry designer. Or a cake decorator, like Sylvia Winestock. I’m fascinated with those really ornate, fantasy cakes. Or a florist; I love the architecture of really talented florists’ work. Or a rock star. It looks like so much fun, but I’d be so bad at it.
FA: Which book is on your nightstand, and which movie is tops in your Netflix queue right now?
MM: I usually have a stack of books. I’m really easily distracted, so I’ll start one and then put it down for another. I bought Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People in the airport. And Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. I leaned in and fell off the bed on that one. Now I’m reading 200 Superfoods That Will Save Your Life, because I’m trying to eat better.
There are so many movies I want to see. Trainwreck, Straight Outta Compton, which has gotten such great reviews, and that Lifetime movie A Deadly Adoption with Kristen Wiig and Will Farrell—it’s so serious, it’s corny. Really, anything with Kristen Wiig, I’m in love with. I love anyone who can make me laugh.