Pull up a Scalamandre Tigre-covered chair and meet our gorgeous pal, interior designer to the stars, Mary McDonald. Surely you know Mary from her starring roles on Bravo TV’s Million Dollar Decorators and Property Envy, and you may even own her inspiring coffee table tome, Interiors: The Allure of Style. When Mary’s not designing homes for the rich, chic and social, she’s creating fabric, lighting, furniture and rug collections for companies like F. Schumacher & Company, Robert Abbey, Chaddock Home, and Patterson, Flynn and Martin. Listen in as Mary dishes on everything from how to design a room for gracious entertaining and her favorite dinnerware to why she keeps a clay sculpture of Diana Vreeland on her desk.
A living room designed by Mary McDonald
What’s your best tip for designing a home that works well for parties?
Create living spaces with great multiple seating groups. The easier you make it for guests to be comfortable while engaging in conversation with others, the better the vibe. Take care to ensure that the groups have a dialogue with one another. I like to have one grounding sofa in an entertaining space complemented by groups of varying settees and chairs. Think about a banquette-type piece against a wall that can speak to a floating group. Pepper the room with slipper chairs and stools that you can move around as conversations shift. That way, people can move as the conversation flows, leaving no one area stagnant for too long. Also, make sure that your guests always have a place to put down a drink. Sit in every seat in your living room to see how far a guest will need to go to set down a drink.
What do you recommend for great party lighting?
Make sure there is intimate low lighting. You can achieve this with dimmers but, if you don’t have dimmers, use 15-watt bulbs in all your lamps to simulate candlelight. Also, I strongly recommend candles for atmospheric supplement.
A dining room designed by Mary McDonald
What are your tips for designing a dining room that works well for dinner parties?
It’s important to have good acoustics and lighting and a table that is not too deep in the middle for cross-talk. I also prefer a bit of drama in a dining room, so I am game for dark colors. It makes the room sexy and alluring. And put lots of candles on the table. There is nothing like speaking over candlelight. I cannot say enough for it.
You’re such a master of color. What are your current favorite color combinations?
I am hung up on eggplant and deep teal right now. I want to use it all the time, but the opportunity rarely comes up, so I tend to use either eggplant or teal on its own. I have always been hooked on high contrasts with black and am especially loving my new Grey Gardens fabric for Schumacher which is black, white, grey and apple green. It’s a zinger but very chic. I am also hung up on light coral, mocha and white. It reminds me of something ladylike when I was young, and I am pushing it, I find. Of course, I will never tire of light pink and navy, brown or flax. I can never get enough of light pink….
A foyer installation by Mary McDonald
An entry is the formal “gateway” to a party. What can people do to make their entry look welcoming?
I like an entry that says something, be it dramatic or luxe or uber-friendly. I never want it to be just white with a flush mount. For a little drama, paint it a dramatic color or even something with a deep value like black, so a gilded or plaster element will pop. For a more casual approach, I like to use a definitive color like pink or coral with a great wall console or covered table that’s appointed with a mix of objects that read friendly, like a lamp, a box, a posy of flowers and a found object. There’s something about the light from a dimmed lamp and a plant or flower mixed in with a collected object that says home, while objects of differing heights create relief to the eye. If you don’t have room for a table, don’t forget the impact of a stylish mirror and a pair of sconces to delineate the outside world from the welcoming sanctuary of a home.
An outdoor living area designed by Mary McDonald
What are some great ways to turn outdoor areas into pretty party spaces?
Make your outdoor entertaining areas feel like your indoor areas. Start with an outdoor rug to indicate the entertaining space and build from there. Use a low coffee table and little pull-up stools – even on the lawn. I also like to have a basket of throws nearby in case it gets chilly, so everyone can be cozy. Candles and low-voltage garden lighting are also a must for atmosphere.
What are your favorite current design trends?
I have always loved brass and it is back now and stronger than ever. But, then again, I liked it when it was “out,” too.
How often do you entertain at home and what is your entertaining style?
I am a phase person with a drastically swinging pendulum. For a while there, I would have Friday night kitchen dinners that would somehow turn into 10-person parties at a six-person table, which was casual and fun and low pressure. If I’m truly entertaining, I don’t have too many rules, but I do like a very complete theme. Whether the theme is blue and white island madness or a children’s gingerbread decorating party, I like to make sure that my tables and party decor are as complete as a design install on the day of a shoot. A party can become a magical difference when you put your talents into the table and atmosphere.
What’s the best conversation piece in your home?
A life-size head of Diana Vreeland made from artist’s clay. I commissioned her for one of my window projects during a Legends of La Cienega event. It looks exactly like her and, depending on my mood, I’ll prop her up on my desk or a side table. I love her. Someone accidentally tipped her over and her ear fell off, so she needs a little surgery, but I still revere her and call her The Oracle. When I have a design question, I consult her like a fortune-teller in an arcade booth and the answer always comes.
You’re known for your exquisite taste. Tell us about your favorite entertaining products. Let’s start with your dinnerware.
Haviland & Parlon’s Syracuse Pattern
I am mesmerized by “Syracuse” by Robert Haviland & C. Parlon. It is incredibly unique and modern while maintaining the complex layering found in historic China. The luscious color combination is magnetizing. On a simpler front, I cannot get enough of the fresh spring colors found in William Yeoward’s china as well.
What are some of your other tabletop favorites?
I like William Yeoward glassware and Leontine and E Braun linens. My favorite flatware right now is Herdmar’s vintage gold collection.
William Yeoward Glassware
Herdmar Gold Flatware
How do you keep your powder room party ready?
I love Manuel Canovas candles. I got hooked on them when I worked for Joel Chen over 20 years ago. They smell divine. For soaps, I like Claus Porto boxed soaps or Lafco Pastille soaps because they’re individual and the assorted colors are so pretty to have out.
Manuel Canovas Candles
Lafco Pastille Soaps
And, finally, what’s your favorite hostess gift to give when you go to a party?
Linen hand towels or a nice box of soaps, again from Claus Porto or Lafco. Sometimes I try to get tricky with some sort of exotic jam or something from Ladurée, but hand towels or soaps are reliable and always appreciated.
Claus Porto Soaps
Talk about appreciated. We couldn’t be more thankful for your chic tips, Mary. Thanks for stopping by.
Top photo: Ninelle Efremova
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