LISA CREGAN: Do you think you have a signature — some single thread that weaves through all of your projects?
MARY DOUGLAS DRYSDALE: How about "formality"? I know what you're thinking, and I don't mean that kind of formality! I mean the elegance of formal architectural detail. These clients — with their three children and four terriers — would never ask me to turn this pretty 1920s house into a mini Versailles. They want it as comfortable for blue jeans as it is for dressy parties. Contemporary art and modern furniture loosen things up, but without strict attention to classical proportion — using moldings and millwork to create balance — these rooms would feel off. I love using paneling more than anything in the world.
That's a lot of passion for wood trim.
Americans tend to believe you can fix everything with carpets and furniture. But in Europe, where I studied for three years, you lay the ground work first. For example, this enormous family room is a new addition, so I paneled the walls for cohesion. Then we painted the room blue — the wife's favorite color — and created high contrast with bright white recessed panels and white beading. That treatment came straight out of one of my historical reference books, but it still feels fresh and lively today. The power of the paintbrush keeps the room from looking like some staid Fifth Avenue lobby.
You must have been ecstatic to inherit these intricate moldings in the living room.
Actually, we installed two of those overdoor pediments — we even went so far as to add false
doors for the sake of symmetry. The door you see on the far left in the living room is false, and I have to confess we did the same thing in the breakfast room. The Dutch door to the right of the dining table leads to a pantry, but the other door is a complete fake — it doesn't even open.
Any other deceptions you'd like to own up to?
The living room's crown isn't carved. It's a stenciled pattern meant to look like carving — a more relaxed way of reinterpreting the moldings that might have happened here in the 1920s. They make the original fireplace mantel fit in better, too.
Were you ever worried all this elaborate detail and eye-popping art might turn the corner to glitz?
I will say that if we had used one more stick of French furniture, this living room would have gone over-the-top. The quiet moments, like the pale upholstery, offset the larger expressions, such as the Donald Judd prints. For a casual feel, we just leaned art on mantels and slipcovered the dining chairs. And instead of a fancy living room rug, we simply glazed the floor in stripes and added a border of painted shapes to mimic the Wendell Castle coffee tables. The floors in the new kitchen are glazed, too, creamy and neutral. I sand floors first, then mix a glaze into the paint to add color that doesn't conceal the grain. I love glazing almost as much as I love paneling. If I had my way, I'd glaze everything.
I thought glazing went out with the Reagans.
This isn't the showy glaze you saw in those days; this is very soft. The living room is done in a pale shade that looks like a single drop of evergreen made its way into a bucket of milk paint. And both that room and the family room have extremely low sheen, just a step or two above matte. When you use a glaze you add more pigment so there's more depth to the finish, making walls at once richer and softer. A glaze like this brings me back to the early 1900s, when paint was more complex.
This kitchen steals the show though, with those dramatic striped walls.
That came directly from my tremendous disappointment that a paneled kitchen wasn't in the budget! I thought about what I could do to bring in the warmth of painted wood, and I came up with striped walls. We started with a single shade of blue — deeper than the family room and dining room, because I wanted a connection of tonality but no matching. First we painted the cabinets in that base color, then we mixed one stripe 50% lighter and another 150% darker. That's a failsafe method for striping a wall. It's also a very architectural way of using color.
You've used a minimal amount of furniture. Is that to create a spare, modern aesthetic?
Personally, I don't like lots of furniture. Some people assume that filling up a room with heavy rugs and downfilled furniture is traditional American decorating, but that's not true. In the 18th century, people had good furniture, but not much of it. Federal pieces typically had casters so they could be moved around, and a demilune table in the hall would open into the dining table. They lived in a way we think of today as modern. My clients pull living room chairs up to the central ottoman when they entertain, and the breakfast room dining table doubles as an entry table for the back door. Minimalism wasn't invented yesterday; it's a very old idea.
This story originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of Natipernavigare.