Mary McDonald in Los Angeles
by Kerstin Czarra | photos by Manfredi Gioacchini | May 1, 2017
On the eve of the design extravaganza known as Legends of La Cienega, the glamorous designer shops the district and reveals how thinking a bit outside the box can yield stunning results.
Mary McDonald doesn’t so much walk as sashay around a space. On this typical sunny L.A. day, the ever stylish and spirited designer, author and scene stealer of Bravo’s Million Dollar Decorators, arrives for a day of browsing in a paper-thin leather sheath, with a bold choker of horn around her slender neck. “I love horn!” she proclaims. With that, we’re off to visit some of her favorite shops along La Cienega Boulevard in West Hollywood.
This legendary stretch is known as the La Cienega Design Quarter (or LCDQ), where you can find everything from 17th-century French antiques to mid-century gems to the newest, buzzed-about brands’ latest designs. (Beginning on Tuesday, May 9, the laid-back LCDQ will be transformed for the annual three-plus-days blockbuster of panel discussions, open houses, book signings, cocktail parties and high-octane schmoozing that is Legends of La Cienega.)
A native Angeleno, McDonald has been coming here for years. “I worked for Joel Chen more than twenty years ago, when he was on Melrose and La Cienega,” she says of the renowned antiques dealer. “So, really, it’s what I’ve always known.”
As usual, McDonald is shopping for clients (and herself) — looking for pieces that play into her signature design aesthetic, which she dubs “classic traditionalism with whimsical flair.” Her good friend and fellow designer Nathan Turner calls her “a total adventuress! I’ve shopped with her everywhere, and no one is better at finding stellar pieces and implementing them to perfection.”
It quickly becomes apparent that she balances the classic with the eclectic masterfully. For her, it’s about receptivity. “I can appreciate multiple, varied aesthetics,” she says. “I definitely have a vision of what we’re going for, but I’m always open for the unplanned turn of events.” Our first stop proves that.
We enter the cheerful coral doors of Harbinger — which carries what McDonald calls “a comprehensive range of chic current lines that jazz up any home — unusual wallpapers, fabric, rugs, textiles and art.”
Owner Joe Lucas appears ready to show McDonald all things interesting. “Mary’s not afraid to try something new and different,” he says. “But she also knows what she likes.”
McDonald is soon mining a heap of marbleized fabrics by Los Angeles artist Rule of Three. “I appreciate that they’re made with the same process as the classic marbleized paper,” she says.
Marble is on her mind as she then inspects some speckled ceramic vases. “Pottery pieces with a hand feel are great in any room,” she notes.
Another recurring theme today is mirrors. McDonald sees a favorite of hers, a design with a chain-link frame by East Coast interior designer Steven Gambrel. “I used this for a Romona Keveža showroom I designed,” she says. “It’s hip and chic, and Steven will customize it for you.”
After browsing some more, McDonald notices the latest from Lance Wovens, which makes Italian leather designs that are similar to materials used for Bottega Veneta bags. “These are great for unusual upholstery in vibrant colors.”
After some personal catch-up with Lucas and filling the room with her infectious laugh (“Joe has a great sense of humor”), we leave the design present to dive into the past.
Collector, designer and connoisseur Richard Shapiro greets us with coffee in hand at his store, which displays an elegantly curated selection of unique European designs from the 19th and 20th centuries as well as his own Studiolo line of timeless pieces with flair. “Tell me what I like today,” McDonald jokes, then passes through some Franco Albini–esque Italian rattan chairs to get a close look at a pair of Roberto Giulio Rida brass table lamps with celestial cutouts. “These are glamorous and groovy.”
After putting a hold on a set of framed frescoes for a client, McDonald looks up and admires an over-the-top chandelier Shapiro designed from a found raw-steel frame and a cascade of bulbs. “Love the scale,” she says. “It has an industrial feel while being well thought-out in fluidity and form.”
I politely ask if size matters. “My eye roves to the large-scale dramatic antiques first, then color and pattern,” she says.
After a few more cries of “glam,” “groovy” and “zippy,” McDonald and Shapiro sit down together on a leather sofa under a dramatic 17th-century Dutch hunting scene — a backdrop tailor-made for her outfit.
The two belong to a mutual-appreciation society. “Richard has such a range of curated pieces, from unusual antiques to modern art to fabulous mid-century items,”says McDonald. “He’s also a talented artist and furniture designer himself.” For Shapiro, it goes beyond design. “Her dreamy work speaks for itself,” he says. “I most enjoy her charming wit.”
On our way out, McDonald can’t resist trying on what she at first mistook for an ashtray but turns out to be a ribbed silver collar from Italy. She deems it “easy to wear and stylish across the board.” Fitting words for the shop’s entire collection.
“I definitely have a vision I’m going for, but I am always open for the unplanned turn of events.”
Our next stop is Downtown, a boutique known for its totally original collection of furniture, lighting, mirrors and decorative objects. “When I need something with an edge, I hit Downtown,” says McDonald.
She notices first a set of slightly subversive ceramic lamps. “Are these from Beetlejuice?” she asks. “They are so chic, a great scale and so unusual.” Turns out that ceramist Warner Walcott, not Tim Burton, is behind their design.
Around the corner, McDonald notices something more classical: 17th-century Spanish urns on wrought-iron stands. “I’m always drawn to a beautiful collection of green anything” she says, “vases, plates … ”
Almost out the door, McDonald steps into the window display featuring a perforated brass-and-glass globe pendant. “I used this fixture in a beach house,” she says. “It reminds me of a deep-sea-diving piece. It has an edge but is not too wacko — just fun enough.”
“Mary is very attracted to the material and texture of objects,” says Downtown’s owner, Robert Willson. “We love hosting her because, not only is she beautiful, but she’s full of life and brings laughter wherever she goes!”
“My eye roves to the large-scale dramatic antiques first, then color and pattern.”
As we walk into Dragonette Ltd, we see a shimmering wall of glassware edged in silver — courtesy of American artist Dorothy Thorpe. “I will always love these,” says McDonald. “My mother has a huge set. They are glamorous without being glittery corny, which can happen so easily.”
Owner Patrick Dragonette is known for his fashionable wares, and the shop is a go-to for McDonald. “He’s a great guy with an educated eye,” she says. “He also has a vintage jewelry collection that sucks me right in.”
It’s easy to see why when scanning Dragonette’s fabulous display of brooches, rings and other baubles. McDonald asks to see a stone-encrusted butterfly ring. “Is it Moini?” she asks, referring to designer Iradj Moini, known for his fantastical jewelry, worn by style icon Iris Apfel. It is, and McDonald gives it a once-over. “I am mad for this jewelry,” she says. “The semiprecious stones are so well thought-out. It screams personality.”
Some more bold design character is steps away: a pair of Billy Haines fauteuils in a rich chocolate-brown suede. “I like the old-school quality of these,” she explains. “Especially with the leather stripe in the middle.”
A large abstract oil painting by John Harrison Levee is one of many striking artworks Dragonette stocks. “I love the bright yellow color and composition of this,” McDonald says.
After swooning over a pink boudoir stool, which she dubs “grandma chic,” and an opulent desk surrounded by Sid Avery black-and-white photos of Hollywood icons like Monroe and McQueen, McDonald heads back to the jewelry to buy something not exactly on the client list: slightly over-the-top gold chandelier earrings. “I can never get enough of these,” she admits.
Later, Dragonette muses on the McDonald mystique. “Mary has a wonderful style, grounded in the classics but with a sense of humor,” he says. “She has the ability to see something others might not notice and translate that into interesting and innovative interiors.”
As we head out the door, McDonald turns to me and asks, “Is that it?” in a joking, overly dramatic tone. “I want more.”
My thoughts exactly.