This South Carolina Cottage is Bursting With Charm, Color, and Personality
Decorator Whitney McGregor’s home-makeover advice: skip the big design plan. All you need are the things you love and the willingness to try and fail.
When Whitney McGregor and her husband, Tommy, went house hunting in the historic North Main area of Greenville, South Carolina, they discovered they didn’t have a lot of decisions to make: They needed to move quickly, and there were only three properties available. “So we just picked our favorite,” says McGregor. They loved the cottage’s coziness and traditional style; and the large yard, side screened porch, and recently added back deck made the home feel larger than its actual 1,400 square feet. The previous owners had decorated it in a staid style, but McGregor, an artist turned self-taught designer, saw an opportunity to create a polished and vibrant home without getting into major renovations.
The 1940s-era house became a laboratory for McGregor’s design experiments, which routinely called on her background in painting and sculpture. She auditioned four different paint colors in the dining room and shuffled countless pieces of furniture in and out of various rooms in search of the just-right arrangement. “I do my own spaces pretty differently than I do other people’s,” says McGregor, whose style runs from French antique to mid-century modern. “I didn’t really have a plan up front. My idea was to just take the next right step.” The living room didn’t come into focus until she took a beloved scrap of wallpaper she had carried around for months and tucked it behind a red-and-green painting. That aha moment laid the foundation for the room, and the rest of the house followed, evolving into a true passion project filled with her favorite patterns, hues, compositions, and objects. “I instruct clients the same way: If you love it, do it,” she says. By bending rules and taking risks, McGregor created a singular space for her family to call home. Take a cue or two from her freewheeling decorating approach.
Keep Pricey Pieces Neutral
McGregor loves colorful art, accessories, and wallcoverings but tends to stick with neutral shades for investment items (such as sofas and other large upholstered pieces), case goods (like sideboards and china cabinets), dining tables, rugs, and flooring. This strategy not only keeps things from, as she says, “looking like a circus” but also offers flexibility when her tastes and circumstances change.
Topped with bold accessories that tie into the rest of the room, stacked Ikea cabinets fit right alongside more traditional pieces.
Play with Similar Patterns
Sprinkling the same print throughout a room (on throw pillows, curtains, etc.) is an old decorator’s trick. Scattering patterns that are similar—in scale, motif, or color (like the diamond shapes in the living room)—but just a little different keeps things interesting and really wakes up the room. Colorful, loose abstract art pieces keep a formal room from feeling stuffy.
Tablecloths Are Really Storage Capes
In a pinch or on a day-to-day basis, a glamorous tablecloth can hide a multitude of sins—from stacks of books to kids’ toys and games (stowed under a cheery marigold print in the hallway). Whether tailored or free-flowing, they also offer visual variance in a room that has multiple pieces of leggy furniture.
Make It Your Own
To give the dining room a more formal look to match her antique furniture, McGregor added the panels of molding to the plain drywall and then hung her art inside each panel. Above the table, McGregor took an old brass chandelier and plastered over it herself – chain and all – as a quick way to modernize an old light fixture.
For both her clients and herself, McGregor buys art before she chooses furniture and then tucks it away until she finds the right spot for it. But that doesn’t mean she shops willy-nilly. “I am ruthless about what I select; I must love it. There’s no ‘Well this will work, and it’s super functional, so I’m going to get it’ mentality,” she says. Trained as a fine artist, she collects prints and pieces from antiques stores, local artists, and online sources (20x200.com is a favorite of hers). Once a room is almost finished, she adds art as one of the last layers.
When it comes to art, go ahead and invest in the framing. “Custom framing with a mat that’s the right size and color makes all the difference,” says McGregor, who suggests consulting locally owned shops, which are often staffed by artists.
Call a Carpenter
Big kitchen improvements—like the solid-wood cabinets, the stained butcher-block countertop, and the rustic shelves—were all done by a trusted carpenter. Not only did McGregor get the retro-style kitchen she wanted, complete with old-school hardware and laser-cut metal cabinet fronts, but she also saved money. A thorough number crunching (including labor and materials) revealed that this route was cheaper than working with a big-box store. Maintaining the penny-pinching efforts, McGregor’s all-white dishware collection combines French antiques and kid-friendly bargain-basement pieces.
Load Up on Charm
Located right off the kitchen, McGregor combined cottage sweetness with utilitarian function in her enclosed porch-turned-laundry room. She wrapped the walls and ceiling with V-groove paneling, painted the ceiling haint blue, left the original terracotta floor, and hung a big white factory light overhead. An acrylic plastic shelf brings modern contrast and elevates a basic fern.
Take It Outside
A storage shed—dressed up with window boxes—is ideal for small-house-dwelling families like Whitney, her husband, Tommy; son, Liam, 6; and daughter, Lilly Grace, 8.
If You Love It, Just Get It
How does she know when to buy something? “It’s a visceral reaction. I source for clients constantly, so I see a lot of
stuff. I’ve had time to fine-tune my ability to walk away from things that are just so-so,” she says. “If I’m unsure, then it’s a no. Whenever there’s a slight hesitation, I will sleep on it. And if I’m still thinking about it the next day—which isn’t likely since I have the memory of a goldfish—then I’ll go back and get it.” Case in point: Years ago, McGregor fell in love with a lush red-and-green floral wallpaper that was $10 a yard. At the time, she had no idea how or where it would work, but she snatched it up and waited for the right space to present itself—it ended up being perfectly suited for her bedroom. This bed, which cost $300 at an estate sale, was reupholstered in a synthetic raffia.
Keep Bathrooms Classic
A period-appropriate sink set on an old-fashioned washstand outfitted with a widespread faucet and fixtures feel original to the house, but McGregor added a few light decorative touches like grasscloth above the tile, an antique mirror, and sconces – designed to match the applique shower curtain.
Don’t Fret Over Mistakes
McGregor discovered, mid-sanding, that the super-shiny “finish” she was trying to remove from her son’s antique bed (a $200 estate sale find) was in fact veneer. (Often confused with laminates, the very thin covering slices of wood known as veneers don’t necessarily indicate low-quality.) Instead of having a come-apart, she embraced the new roughed-up look, which kept the bed from looking “too fine and fancy”, and installed it as-is.
Lilly Grace’s first big-girl bed is made of two estate-sale twin headboards joined together and re-covered in yellow velvet. Blue striped walls and classic florals keep the room fun and playful.
Find a Balance Between Mom and Decorator
A posh kid’s room is no great victory if your child can’t stand it. McGregor would love to replace the old white Dixie dresser (found on Craigslist) that’s in her daughter’s room, but 8-year-old Lilly Grace is so besotted with the piece, because it’s sized just right for her, that the designer has chosen not to take on that particular battle. Instead, she upped the dresser’s visual appeal by topping it with an eye-catching piece by a local artist and a showroom-worthy lamp with a floral shade.