Mary McDonald loves Ikea. No, really, she does. The acclaimed, high-end-as-it-gets designer is a big fan of the Swedish megaretailer, which has, as she puts it, “something for everyone.” That someone who starred in a show called Million Dollar Decorators would sing the praises of the Lack bookshelf has an irony to it—and McDonald is very much in on the joke. Though her own work can be elevated and formal, she herself is not. “I’m like a kid playing dress-up, [saying,] ‘Let’s make this fancy,’ or ‘Let’s make it whimsical,” she tells host Dennis Scully on the latest episode of The Business of Home Podcast. “But really, I think everything is kind of funny. … [the industry] can be absurd.”
McDonald’s own path into design wasn’t exactly absurd, but it did follow a winding path. She studied fashion at Parsons and ended up in millinery, starting a successful line that rode the 1980s hat boom. As it wound down, back in her hometown of Los Angeles, McDonald found an eager group of friends and acquaintances hoping she could replicate the chic vibe of her pad in theirs.
One thing led to another, and soon McDonald’s work was appearing in shelter magazines—frequently on the cover. A new kind of stardom beckoned in 2011, when McDonald was invited to appear on Million Dollar Decorators and, partially against her own instincts, said yes. “It sounded bad,” she says. “I thought it would make things that I worked on cheesy, and I really wasn’t a cheesy person.” Ultimately, while it led to no small amount of petty sniping, the show elevated McDonald’s profile and introduced her to a new pool of clients around the world. “It’s easy to forget how powerful it can be,” she says. “But when you have a show going out to 22 countries, people will recognize you.”
Despite great press, a book, a high-profile show and a sizable social media following, in McDonald’s telling, much of her time is devoted to the daily design grind—albeit an extremely upscale variation. She’s deliberately kept her firm small, and spends much of her time on projects and licensed collections through Chaddock and Schumacher. A would-be influencer McDonald is not, nor an empire builder. Instead, she embraces interior design’s “never-ending learning curve.”
“People say, ‘Oh, you have great taste, you should be a decorator.’ That is about 10 percent of it,” she says. “The other 90 percent is: How does the business work? You can have great style and never work as a designer—you couldn’t deal with the people, the paperwork, the presentations. It’s a service business. When you start out doing your own house, you see it as a product business, but it’s not.”
Elsewhere on the podcast, McDonald discusses the challenges facing young designers today, the surprising reason she finds RH useful in her firm and her thoughts on what clients really want.
Homepage image: Mary McDonald | Courtesy Mary McDonald