Grab a Hoffman House Martini, pull up a Scalamandre Tigre-covered chair, and meet Mary McDonald, the supremely gorgeous and talented interior designer to the stars. Surely you know Mary from her starring roles on Bravo TV’s Million Dollar Decorators and Property Envy. You may even own her inspiring coffee-table tome, Interiors: The Allure of Style. When Mary’s not designing homes for the well-heeled, chic, and social, she’s creating fabric, lighting, furniture, and rug collections for 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 to why everything these days is making her blush.
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 converse with one another, the better the vibe. Take care to make sure 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 accomplish this with dimmers or use 15-watt bulbs in all your lamps to simulate candlelight. Also, I strongly recommend candles for atmospheric supplement.
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 on a blush-pink kick. I want to see it, eat it, paint it, and wear it with either neutrals or high-contrast blacks and browns. We are introducing a new Schumacher Bermuda Blossoms in putty tones to pay homage to my latest obsession. I am even upholstering the pieces in my Chaddock furniture collection in blush for the Spring Market.
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.
As we head into spring, 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 define 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?
Weird iceberg-looking furniture. It’s a new, next-layer to the faceted pieces we have been seeing. I am also deep into black faucets and hardware.
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.
Playing Favorites with Mary McDonald
You’re known for your exquisite taste. Tell us about your favorite entertaining products. Let’s start with your dinnerware.
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.
What about glassware, linens, and flatware?
I like William Yeoward glassware and Leontine and E. Braun linens. My favorite flatware right now is Herdmar’s vintage gold collection.
And your favorite products for the powder room?
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 Pastille Soaps because they’re individual, and the assorted colors are so pretty to have out.
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.
And here are a few more story topics we think you might enjoy:
How interior designer Charlotte Moss entertains
How interior designer Bunny Williams entertains
Party lighting: tips for creating a glamorous entertaining space