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Mary McDonaldElegant + Exuberant = Enchanting

Interior designer mary mcdonald is known for creating sumptuous interiors that combine old world elegance and bold patterns with free-spirited, exuberant design. Named one of House Beautiful’s top 100 designers, the former milliner didn’t set out to be a designer, but says, “My design work is an extension of my artistic soul. Creativity is like breathing for me—it’s my life force.” And create she does. Between her work with clients across the United States and in Saudi Arabia, her reality show on Bravo and a host of brand extensions, including her upcoming fabric collection for F. Schumacher and a rug line for Patterson Flynn due out next year, McDonald is a creative force to be reckoned with. We caught up with her while she was filming Million Dollar Decorators in New York City on the eve of her trip to the Miromar Design Center in Estero, where she will be speaking as part of the Distinguished Speaker Series on April 19. Her new collection of lighting is now also available at the design center.


Is there a signature look that defines a space designed by you?

At the base of all my fun colors, I am really just a classicist at heart. I have a few signature looks but am always working on something new to redefine myself. People might know me most for an over-scaled patterned floor with a three-color combination and chinoiserie paper with some Louis XVI somewhere. Having said that, every project is a new slate to me. 


Did you always know you wanted to do this as a career?

I started in fashion as a milliner and accessory designer, so this part of my career is just another angle of design for me. I always knew I loved design, whether it is fashion, interiors or products.


Happy days: Bright colors enliven an otherwise traditional room, as seen in Mary McDonald’s book, Interiors: The Allure of Style. (MARY MCDONALD INTERIORS: THE ALLURE OF STYLE - JESSICA NAPP © MELANIE ACEVEDO)What is it about Southwest Florida that inspires you? What elements are essential in making a home here both comfortable and chic?

I love the sunny coastal environment. It allows you to use unexpected colors and natural materials more easily. I also love wicker and all the modern designs with it now. You can use it more readily in casual living rooms and outdoor living spaces here where you can’t other places.


How should people go about choosing a designer?

First of all: Do you actually like their work? It sounds funny, but sometimes people are hired only because their friend hired them and they really don’t want any of their design vision. Second, they should be very clear about the process and how it will work with a proposed time line and budget discussions. You need to be comfortable with how they work as it really is a business with lots of transactions.


On Million Dollar Decorators, you work some incredible magic with some very challenging projects. What have been your most challenging and rewarding jobs of late?

All projects have challenges, which you just work through. I am really loving working on one of Chris Burch’s (Tory Burch’s ex) new brand, Monika Chiang. We are working on her new Soho store, which will be really fun and sexy. I am having a blast with it.


Mixed media: McDonald tends toward a blend of textures and natural materials, particularly when working on projects in Southwest Florida. (JESSICA NAPP © MIQUEL FLORES-VIANNA)What’s the one design trend you wish would go away?

Brightly painted lacquer on really ugly, old junk. We all had our fun with it, myself included, but the weird, old garage sale furniture in lime green has got to go.


What’s the one classic element of design that can work anywhere?

One neoclassic element—some-thing on a pedestal or perhaps a Louis XVI-inspired chair. They can even work with some very modern interiors.


Choosing the right color for a space can be very intimidating to a lot of people. What do you advise clients to do to overcome their fear of color? Is there a palette that you are loving right now?

I am loving aubergine and teal right now, but it is pretty specific and I would not recommend it as an everywhere choice. I think people do not need to become color fanatics if they aren’t. But if they do love one particular color they are afraid of (using), try one of their more dramatic rooms with it. If that is still too scary, paint your closet one of these dramatic colors. You will see how it changes a space dramatically. Always test a few shades of it first, though. Even I do that in my office before I commit.


Think pink: When opting for dramatic wall colors, McDonald recommends starting in a smaller space—and testing a few shades before committing to one. (JESSICA NAPP © DOMINIQUE VORILLON)Tell us about your new line of fabrics for F. Schumacher.

We are creating a few new things that have not been done before. We also have trims. I think people will definitely see my stamp on it with my love of femininity and modernism. I also have a line of rugs for Patterson Flynn and Martin following it with a similar sensibility.


Do you have a motto? If so, what is it?

Keep it simple and keep it moving. In my office, I say keep it moving as it is so easy to get hung up on what is not available, what sample came back wrong, who did not show up. Just make a new choice and keep it moving. It’s the only way to get everything done.

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