Classic Decadence: Interview with Mary McDonald

Interior designer Mary McDonald (photos courtesy of Mary McDonald)

The ultraglam Mary McDonald is much adored and admired here at the Well Appointed House (see previous post Ringing in the New Year with Mary McDonald). Her style, which she describes as “whimsy rooted in classicism”, transcends her genius for interior design. We spoke with the decor guru, who revealed the secrets to her eclectic look, the luxe way to an organized closet, and tips to staying chic on the go.

Describe your personal Style: Classic decadence.
What is your style mantra: When in doubt go classic. Once at the party, just OWN it. Try to think that people must be looking at you because you look like you were personally styled by Carine Roitfeld. How do they know?
Day uniform: Gray flannel anything with a little leopard print something.
Night uniform: Little black dress with different accessories. And once again, a little leopard something.

Piece in your closet that gets the most wear: A vintage ’60s Valentino coat with grommets and a leather belt.
Favorite Designers: I love dressing up and being different people so, I love so so many…
My fantasy self: Vintage Dior, Geoffrey Beene, Jean Desses, Giambattista Valle, Christian Lacriox, vintage Jaqueline de Ribes (remember her?).
My workable self: Carolina Herrera, my good friend Gregory Parkinson and J.Crew.
Most treasured material possession: An emerald cut emerald that was my mother’s and my collection of first-printing Eloise books.

Most adored fashion item: A vintage leopard coat and a Charles James dress of my grandmother’s. 
Closet organization secrets: Lots of servants. Just kidding, sort of. Don’t waste space or lock it away. Use hooks on the undersides of shelving for purses (pretty Houles-style hooks). Align the purses by color — it looks better (see my book!). Also, if you have a lot of jewelry, whether ethnic, semi-precious or paste, organize it in drawers or boxes by COLOR, then type. I have a green drawer, a red and coral drawer, a blue and turquoise drawer, a wood and naturals drawer, a bone and white drawer, etc. You can even get clear stackable organizers that fit into your drawers.  If you are extravagant, you may have custom lined boxes that stack in your custom lined drawers. Mark hat boxes for eccentric accessories in categories such as feather, faux flowers, wraps, collars, etc. You never know when you will need a fox cuff or cock feathers to give something a more cocktail edge.

Tips for incorporating whimsy/style/dash into your look: A spray of feathers beneath a vintage paste pin, perhaps on a dress or even in your hair at the back of a French twist; stacks of bracelets up your arm in similar but different materials like ivory and bone (vintage, of course), or multiple tones of the same color jeweled glass and semi-precious cut stones. Perhaps you wear a rather large brooch down by your waist on a dress rather than the expected collarbone.You may even hang an unusual pin from a sizable gold chain for a bit of panache. Belt a coat with a different belt; wrap your low bun completely in an Hermes scarf like a little muffin…
Tips for an easy, mom-on-the-go look: Just go classic and think Audrey Hepburn. Don’t be tricky. A trench coat and ballet flats works with jeans for a quick out-the-door fix it. Grab a scarf and leave the glitter for another day.
On your spring shopping list: I love that flirty, full-skirted, horizontal-striped Prada dress in the warm pinks and black little stripes. I need to track that down.
Prada Spring 2011. Photo: Monica Feudi /
Simple way to turn a plain room into something special: Professionally lacquer the room a jewel tone or paint the floor with a pattern or something zippy.
How does your design style manifest itself into the way you dress? I generally have a classic silhouette, such as a pencil skirt and white blouse, but I might have a feather vest on over it or a load of different necklaces or my collection of jeweled bees on the lapel.  Classic structure adorned with whimsy.
What advice can you give women who so admire your effortlessly chic look? Keep your staples classic and it actually IS effortless. Always have gray flannel pants and a pencil skirt (camel, too); fitted black pencil pants and wide leg trousers; the prefect white blouse with cuffs for day and night. Accessorize to your mood and to what is current. A fur vest, heavy gold chains, and unusual brooch, dazzling cocktail earrings for night.  If you keep the base classically elegant, it truly is effortless to layer your latest “thing” with it, which may even be a bit on the eccentric side. Now, if you want to really step out with the latest trend, keep it to one gimmick per customer. Also, please look in the mirror and see if it complements your body type. Not everyone is Gisele. Gisele is probably not even Gisele. 
Mary McDonald’s recent book

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  1. Karena

    Jenny what a superb interview with Mary, she is truly classic, I love her design works…must get her book!

    Do come and enter my Artful Offering!

    Art by Karena

  2. quintessence

    Great interview!! I adore Mary – both her interiors and her personal style – and love her tips for looking effortlessly chic – how I like to dress as well!!

  3. Hamptontoes

    Great interview! Truly enjoyed. Also, loved Mary’s comment about her Eloise collection. I just took my daughter to high tea at the Plaza and then we visited the Eloise boutique…absolutely adorable.

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