new design times

Mary Douglas Drysdale


I remember one of the first photographs I'd seen of Mary Douglas Drysdale, an equestrian mastering with concentration and elegance her dressage exercise. At the time I thought, this is a woman with allure to burn. That first impression is reconfirmed when one reviews the work of this interior designer who has so often graced the front cover of so many magazines. We had the pleasure to meet Mary Douglas Drysdale in New York and to talk at length with her about her work and the evolution of interior design. Her style? Contemporary. Classic. What she touches and transforms remains alive over time because she knows how to exist in the moment while not losing track of the vast experience that's informed architecture and design for centuries. Bubbly, witty and eloquent, her enthusiasm fuels a certain rigor and we're delighted to share with our readers a few of the fruits of her thoughts .

Modeled after Château de Malmaison, the manor of Josephine Bonaparte, Marwood Estate is perched on the Potomac River.The interior of this 16,000 square foot historic mansion was entirely redesigned over a period of four years by Drysdale Inc. Their work included the addition of columns, paneling, doors, staircases and flooring, and required multiple trips to Europe to secure the proper stones and to supervise the complex millwork. In addition to the architectural redesign, Drysdale Inc. is also responsible for all aspects of the interior decoration of the mansion.

Marwood mansion, Potomac river

Marwood Entrance Designed by Mary douglas Drysdale

What is this house about? What can it do for you, where is it deficient, where does it have light, what are the attributes and the challenges. I'm not interested in going into any house and saying, "ok, I'll just go to my little notebook, let's see, how about we choose number 52?" I would be so bored! I want to stay interested.

Marwood details

Marwood home decor drysdale

You have to have a team and you have to have great clients. When I start on a new house, 1 want to start from scratch without thinking about what I've done elsewhere and 1 want to push it. I think what's really important is that it's a collaboration at a very high level. Like sports. You don't want to play with a bad player. My own business is very transparent. 1 need to make sure that I'm on the same page with my clients. They're training you and you're training them, and in the end you have this wonderful understanding. The result is a combination of what I bring to the table, what they bring to the table, and of course what the contractors bring. No one does everything. You have to have a team and you have to have great clients. "Do you ever turn away clients?" Oh yes! On a bad day I'm giving 120%. 1 need the same from my clients.

Marwood estate dining room

Marwood esate Living Room

Let's look at the last 100 years of design in America for just a minute, because it seems to me that if we go back to the beginning of the 20th century that's when America was really finding its sea-legs and standing up to Europe, when we started to do Revwal Houses (that were French Revival Houses) and we were becoming a world power.  But at the same time you had the Mrs- Browns and Edith Wharton who have as their clients great families from the American Indus­trial Revolution who haven't necessarily traveled. And so you have the lady decorator/designers ivho were going over to Europe and bringing things back and they had a net role of telling these very smart industrialists, "This is really what you want" because they had been there and seen it. Fast forward.
Now we are in 2011 and everything's reversed.
The industrialists, if we want to call them that, have probably been around the xoorld several times, been to all the great restaurants, read all of the magazines, and the designer today has to ask, what role am I going to play here, because I'm not playing my game with people who are less worldly than I am and for whom all I have to say is, "oh, you'll love it!" The game has changed fundamentally because today's end user has been around the world six times, has been to many places that the designer perhaps hasn't. Frankly the roles have reversed. Back then the Mrs. Browns were the messenger chiefs bringing back the knowledge on their sketch pads and saying, this is the truth.  And they could say without hesitation, don't worry about it, you'll love it because this is what's in vogue in Paris now. Today our clients have more information and the world is going to continue to give people more information, and honestly I think it's a good thing - but as designers we need to discover, we need to rediscover and to plumb our industry. We need to go way beyond the lady decorators of yesterday in utilizing our drawing skills and building knowledge to complete very complex projects.

4 rooms designed by Drysdale Inc

I'm very rigorous in how I do things <and I find myself more and more teaching young people things that 1 think they should have gotten in their parents' house, I see more and more that there's a massive inability to follow through. Anyone who is a list-maker knows that if you didn't get it all done in the hour you had allotted, you'll have to pick it up at another time to finish up. But often with these younger people you have to start afresh because they just lose that information by the next day. I don't allow music in the studio. I have to be on their cases all the time to use spellcheck. I'm a pretty casual person but still I think that my 20-something year old kids shouldn't assume that my 50-something year old clients want to be called "like hey, Chris."

yellow room by Drysdale Inc.

Olympic design is where I want to be and where I want to stay. My trainer was a two time Olympic rider in dressage. She became a business partner. Great architecture and great design is just like dressage -it's all about the transitions. You have to have great planning capabilities. You have to read the complexity and the weight of all the pieces. They're all made in the transitions. This meant so much to me because it's how I see my own work.

Mary Drysdale Designed rooms

One of the jobs of a designer is to help the client find his voice. Had a journalist ask me once, "Mary, what do you do when you're working with someone with no taste?" And I said, well that's cer¬tainly something that's never occurred. All people have taste. The question is, how do you draw it out. You can teach people and in the end, everybody likes something.

Maron romm design by Mary Drysdale

I do projects that interest me. I love the problem solving. That's what keeps me so motivated. I love the people. I love the designing because what I do from landscape plan, to interior plan, to adding a little chair that I designed, to picking the art - it's very complete. And if you have clients that trust you, who will allow you to work with them, it's truly a lot of fun. Do you have clients who say, "just do it for me." Yes. And my answer is, how could I possibly do it for you if you won't let me know you?

Mary Douglas Drysdale Portrait

I started off as a Modernist but soon found that what really interested me was architectural history and the subtle evolution of style in the decorative arts.


Mary Douglas Drysdale
Drysdale Inc.

2026 R Street NW
Washington, DC 20009

Tel: 202 588 0700


Peter Vitale: pages 1,2,3,4,5,7 (top),8,9
Ron Blunt: page 6
Andrew Lautman: pages 12,13,14 (lower),15 (lower)
Gordon Beall: page 14 (upper)
Kyle O'Donnell: pages 16, 17

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