Strong, vibrant colours, a touch of Chinoiserie, and an old-world elegance seamlessly paired with modern statements and accessories – these traits equally apply to interior designer Mary McDonald’s fashion sense and decor style. Her rooms are planned with a well-developed fashion sensibility, and just as she would her outfits, she mixes and matches colours to achieve a sense of harmony.
The LA native is one of the best-known interior designers in California, with her work featured in countless major publications throughout the world including Vogue and the Wall Street Journal. She was a fixture on Veranda Magazine’s annual list of Top 50 designers, and her client list includes renowned celebrities as well as Forbes 400 families.
Growing up in Brentwood, Los Angeles, in a house where she was encouraged by a family of stylish women to express herself visually, it is not surprising that Mary McDonald’s fashion sense runs parallel to her interior designs, with one influencing the other. “I find myself in sweater sets some days and ostrich feathers others – Audrey Hepburn meets Auntie Mame. My interiors have that same range,” she says.
As a college student, she studied art history in Boston, and later, fashion at the Parsons School of Design in New York. In her 20s, she worked as a milliner and started collecting both new and vintage fashion, which she still does. She admits to using dressmaker details in her decorating, like braids added as a design motif on cushions, or elaborately draped beds that look like haute couture dresses.
Scheming in Colour
Her superb sense of colour reinforces her bright, creative ideas. McDonald enjoys over-the-top details, explaining that it adds a sense of dazzle. There is, however, a method to the madness; when designing with a bright palette of red and coral, she is careful to balance out strong, heavy wallpaper by having the same “weight” of patterns on the room’s furniture. “It is important that one part of the room does not overpower the other,” the designer adds. To brighten up dreary and dark spaces, McDonald uses a soft colour palette of ivory, beige, gray and taupe, and hints of lavender and aqua.
When it comes to accessorising, she keeps it simple and focuses on colour. “The objects don’t necessarily need to make total sense together if it’s just for decorative purposes. Just try to have something that’s big, something that’s medium and something that’s small; something that’s short, something that’s wide, something that’s skinny. Notice that not everything’s grouped together here. When you collect these types of things, the mere fact that they’re all in the same colour family, ties everything together and makes it all fun and interesting,” she says.
The Past and the Present
Mary McDonald is known for fusing classic, old school charm with contemporary designs. Walls are adorned with decorative paintings – blown up silhouettes of trees, flowers, patterns and her personal favourite, Chinoiserie, to add a touch of playful modernity to her rooms. She also respects the history of a building. “You should always think about stripping things down to find out what the original material is. A lot of the time it’ll be something that really gives the room a sense of patina and age.” Classic, vintage pieces underline her penchant for ‘grandma’ items, as the designer calls it, such as crystal vases, chair rails, mouldings and fireplaces.
To make rooms more modern, she adds patterns – it could be a rug, a wall, or a piece with a geometric pattern, a dining table with an octagonal top cut, or a zigzag pattern painted on the floor. “I always like to pair very symmetrical elements with something that’s asymmetrical, because the symmetry cleans up the asymmetrical parts and keeps them from getting too crazy.
Mary’s book Mary McDonald: The Allure of Style put her in a different category of published designers, where instead of going with the trend of ‘small space design’, she showcases her most dramatic work – big statements, huge homes, miles of fabric, and exuberant colours. From a strong panache to a more streamlined and softer approach, Mary McDonald’s interior design style is a reflection of the liveliness and ever-changing nature of fashion, as well as her own dynamic personality.