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Decorating and Design Tips from Mary Douglas Drysdale

Designer Mary Douglas Drysdale does traditional with a creative edge

From Interior Designer Mary Douglas Drysdale
  • I have found it much easier to use strong, saturated colors if I focus on one hue and use it liberally to cover many surfaces. I often like to combine that strong color with neutrals or other non-competitive hues.

  • Openings from room to room are most graceful when they accomplish two things. An opening should share a strong relationship with other openings within the space. And the view beyond the opening should be interesting and framed well.

  • Millwork adds detail and interest to most any room. But when adding millwork or paneling to a wall, it is important to consider how the furniture to be placed in front of that wall will share the space. We measure each piece of furniture to be used and consider these selections at the time the paneling is designed. When you use this process, there is a clear harmony of proportion.

  • If you choose to approach a project based on classical design, it is important to research the types of columns, moldings and floors appropriate to that style. Unlike Modernist design, classical work is based on highly calibrated theories and approaches that rely on precedent and example. Remarkable beauty is expressed when the principles of classical design are used successfully. But when they are not, a project may communicate awkwardness and an amateur’s eye.

  • I love to design kitchens and often suggest that we create finishes outside the most frequently used cabinet colors found on the market today. Unexpected color can transform a kitchen into a much more charming and inviting place in which to spend time. A painted kitchen also feels less utilitarian. And when the kitchen includes dining, a colorful room may translate into a more decorated and fun environment. Yellow is a particularly lovely choice and works so well with blue-and-white china.

  • I often find that it is difficult to locate the perfect and affordable rug to fit the needs of a given room. Painting or patterning a floor is a terrific solution, because the floor covering can be made to fit the dimensions of any room! And in the hands of a skilled technician, paint offers the opportunity to invent pattern and hone colors that are the perfect complement to almost any decorative scheme.

  • Paneling is often thought of in libraries and the more formal rooms, but I love to include paneling in bathrooms. These classical moldings add richness and balance to the room. Also more elegant in my view is the free-standing tub in lieu of a platform tub. In other words, the bathroom should express the mood and tenor of the rest of the architecture of the house. It is not necessary to have an ultra-modern bathroom in a house that expresses a traditional style or is from an earlier time.

  • My absolutely favorite piece of furniture is the traditional secretary. This piece of furniture is like the best assistant or teammate one ever had. The secretary multi-tasks beautifully. It can hide a television. It can act as a desk or sideboard. It can be the single spot that holds envelopes, stamps, business cards, invitations, cook books, and a calendar. A secretary needs to be beautiful when open or closed, while offering useful storage in the space below the drop-down desk top.

    In addition to the practical side a secretary lends to any room, these pieces are truly design stars, typically painted with lovely classical or oriental decoration. In my view the secretary is the absolute expression of “useful beauty.”

  • There is no room in a house that does not benefit from displaying art. Indeed, the balance of art, architecture, and decoration is at the foundation of the way I approach design. Just be careful to place works of art under glass in spaces such as kitchens where fumes and sticky surfaces might damage unprotected pieces.

  • I so often hear from my clients that they think of white rooms as cold. But I’d say it depends on the type of white used. A white-white is what I call a blue-white. I prefer to use broken whites (toned-down whites) and always try to make warm, soft and inviting white spaces. With vanilla tones, I will typically add wood tones, lots of texture, and subtle multi-tone white patterns. Warm white rooms eat up these gestures that might be too much when used together in a vivid color. I also find white flowers in a white room charming.

  • I often think that my rooms are places where the past meets the present. You can mix reflections of old and new in many ways. One of my favorite ways to begin a scheme is to search the attics and basements of my clients, where I dig up the most interesting things. I like to pair vintage furnishings that look dated (as they are) with colorful and patterned textiles. When reupholstered, these same pieces look distinctive and fresh.

  • Every decorative scheme starts with what I call a “driver,” or the element in a room around which the rest of a decorative scheme is built. Patterned rugs, and especially bold polychrome Orientals (such as my favorite, the Oushak), offer a great way to begin a decorative concept. I never fear developing a scheme around strong color. But I do find that extracting a single rich color from a rug for the major furniture surfaces is preferable to using too many contrasting colors. That single rich color grounds the patterned rug as well as the room.

    You can see how Mary updated and freshened a classic Washington, D.C., house in Before and After: Capitol Hill Renovation.

    You’ll also want to visit Mary’s own Web site.