Doyenne of Decor
My memories of growing up in Charlottesville, Virginia, were of constant company. I lived out in the country, and everyone—my great aunt, godmother, parents—went to each other’s houses. Having a dinner party or a cocktail buffet was a regular occurrence. There were libraries stacked with books and dogs constantly running in and out. It instilled in me the belief that houses should be welcoming, but not so precious that someone might feel uncomfortable.
I’ve often said that starting a project is like embarking on a new romance—that feeling of seeing someone across the room at a dinner party and your heart races. I fantasize about the house, imagining what it’s going to look and feel like finished. Like all affairs, there are the highs and lows, the traumas and dramas. There are exhilarating moments when you go shopping and find the perfect piece. Then there are the times when you’re dealing with budget constraints or something goes wrong. When I finish a house, I get incredibly sad. It’s time to move on to the next affair, but it’s hard because that project lived in my head for so long.
Working for Sister Parish and Albert Hadley taught me so much. I was just 24 years old, when I was lucky enough to experience the taxi-cab yellow drawing room they did for William Paley’s apartment. It had beautiful French furniture, a Coromandel screen and paintings by Van Gogh and Gauguin, yet the room was so comfortable. It was a perfect juxtaposition of grand and simple. I’ll never forget that space.
Interestingly enough, people tend to think that I mostly do chintz rooms, but I believe one of the most beautiful things is to have a very severe background with an incredible piece of 18th-century furniture and a modern painting. No matter the style, it’s got to be comfortable, and that’s especially important now. Eight people should be able to sit in a group and talk to each other with a place to rest their drink.
Coming out of this period, people will either want cozier houses filled with furniture and objects, or they’ll be compelled to edit and simplify. Everybody wants an easy answer, but there’s never been just one way in design.
PHOTO BY LESLEY UNRUH
This past year taught us that design isn’t just a pretty picture; it’s a vital component of our lives. We all like to believe that our homes matter. Certainly, I do—after all, I have a business based around that idea. But the importance of the spaces that we live in was magnified during the pandemic. When we look at gatherings that are more intimate, it makes experiences more valued and important.
Though I’ve been sheltering in Provincetown, Massachusetts, I generally think of San Francisco as my home. There’s a common thread that draws outsiders and nonconformists there, whether it’s artsy bohemians or the tech folks; it’s a community that relishes quirkiness and eccentricity. You get the feeling that even the blue bloods in San Francisco have some wonderful tawdry tale in their past! It’s the kind of place where a leather daddy, a drag queen, a tech gazillionaire and a doyenne with a neck full of diamonds can all sit at the same table. It’s part of what drew me there, and what adds a sense of otherness or fearlessness to our work.
When I was younger, I was desperate and excited to learn about design. Growing up in Virginia, I recall the impression family trips to Monticello or The Greenbrier had on me. As I got older, I became interested in designers who built totally immersive environments. The first time I went to Hotel Costes in Paris I was enthralled by Jacques Garcia’s ability to create transportive spaces. Similarly, Tony Duquette and Renzo Mongiardino had this gift for crafting rooms in an incredibly theatrical way. For us, every project starts with a story. There’s literally a written script for every job we do. The story provides a guidepost so we don’t lose sight of what we’re trying to achieve.
Not every project comes with a rich narrative, but sometimes you get lucky, which happened with our revamp of the Cloud Club, (the legendary lunch spot in the Chrysler Building). It’s one of the most iconic buildings in the world. We want to honor the building’s past as well as the optimism of its era. That’s what’s so special about working on this building at this particular moment. I think we all want to feel optimistic about something right now.
PHOTO BY THOMAS KUOH
Wit & Whimsy
Growing up in Palm Beach was a unique experience because it was all folly and fantasy. Every aspect of my childhood home was magical. I grew up in a turreted-shingled church in the middle of a garden filled with orange blossoms and bougainvillea. It’s a place where you can paint vines up over your walls and ceiling. It’s personality-forward decorating. That love of theatrical design, the integration of indoor/outdoor spaces and a laid-back approach to entertaining carry through my designs, no matter where I’m working.
Though I hadn’t planned on becoming a designer, I didn’t know how to not make design a priority. Deep down I just really like to find things and shine a light on them in a way that shows their potential. To illustrate, I’m not a morning person—there’s very little you could do to get me to wake up before 8:30 a.m. But if a friend said, I’ll give you $300 to go to the flea market to buy things for my house, I would be up at 5 a.m. shivering in the rain with a sense of anticipation that rivals Christmas morning. I get this feeling when I walk into an antique store or turn down an aisle at a flea market. I think we’re all led to things by our joy and if we’re lucky that can be our career.
When I look back, the buildings could burn down and the houses could be sold, but what matters is the people I’ve come to love or be changed by. It’s funny—you think your career is about what you do, but it’s mostly about who you do it with. An unforeseen and often uncelebrated highlight is that I get to work with my mother (interior designer Mimi McMakin). She’s the designer I’ve learned the most from, and it’s not just what she’s taught me professionally per se, but also the constantly evolving, beautiful home she provided for us.
The past year has given us all a chance to reconsider our priorities and what makes our homes distinctly ours. The pandemic, the stopping of work, having been stuck in our houses—it’s made things that matter mean much more. Personally, it has made me more focused on antiques, vintage items and things that have history. It’s beauty with deeper roots, meaning and authenticity.
PHOTO BY STEPHEN KARLISCH
As Told To Michelle Brunner