Color, fabric, and accessories interweave in an artful way.

If you've read any of the Idea House features that appeared in our August 1992 through August 1998 issues, you've enjoyed the design work of Mary McWilliams, our former Director of Interior Design. Mary Mac, as we like to call her, has put down her pen and is now working as a designer with Stephen Fuller, Inc., in Atlanta. When we recently visited her own home and found it filled with beautiful decorative effects, we asked her to tell us how she pulls it all together.

Q: What prompted you to choose this particular house?
A: Older cottage-style homes like this one afford so much age and character. After looking at many different houses, I entered this one and mentally started placing furniture.

Q: What makes this house feel like home?
A: When you walk into my home, you'll find a tapestry of all my favorite experiences, journeys, and the show homes that I've worked on for Southern Living. I tried to acquire one thing from each project--from rugs, pillows, and artwork down to the accessories and little things.

Q: When you decorate one of your own rooms, what comes first?
A: I am most passionate about color, especially organic colors that I love being around and enjoy wearing. My favorite color is red, and so every room has a touch of red. These colors aren't too strong. They look like they've been doused with half-and-half to age and add character to the spaces.

Q: How did you plan the flow of color throughout the house?
A: It was important for these colors not only to be strong and rich, but also to balance. They carry through from room to room and are repeated in artwork and accessories, almost in a domino effect. There are touches of mustard gold, olive green, and rich red everywhere.

Q: How did you select the colors in the living room?
A: I had all neutral, creamy upholstery at first but decided that the white upholstery did not give the cooling, calming subtleness the room needed. Three yellow fabrics, all with different textures and weaves, are now used for the upholstery. For the window treatment I didn't want to block the light with plantation shutters, so I decided to use blinds that are concealed by one continuous valance with a lot of pretty details.

Q: How do you choose accessories?
A: In my previous home I only had space to collect accessories and artwork. With more breathing room in this house, I have been able to combine new pieces with the old. I like anything that feels like it's from the outside--florals, fruits, leaves, vegetables--and love to see these shapes in accessories, porcelains, and artwork.

Q: How did you plan the lighting?
A: Lighting is so important in design, because it enables you to vary the ambience in a room. You can easily create different light levels by using dimmers, three-way bulbs, and dimming in-line switches. Black shades are great for throwing light straight down on a grouping on a chest or tabletop. Using exterior fixtures inside is an affordable way to add weight and substance to a room.

Q: How do you select furniture?
A: It's always important to make purchases for a lifetime. The den, for example, seemed to call for pine pieces that feel rugged and old. But furniture that would be the perfect size for this little room might be too small for my next den, so I looked for larger scale pieces that will work in any size room. Often small-scale furniture doesn't feel as substantial as it should.

Q: What inspired your colorful dining room?
A: My favorite Idea House was the Centennial (see the August 1996 issue of Southern Living), and the design of its dining room draperies is duplicated here. The widths of deep red, quilted fabric feel very ballgownish but are quite simple. Queen Anne chairs were replaced with red Country French ladderbacks. The green majolica plates wrap the mirror to give it more importance.

Q: How have you collected your paintings?
A: I'm so glad that I didn't wait for years to begin collecting wonderful art. You can move art from room to room, and it will only increase in value. Go to art fairs and collect anything original. I spotted my pear painting in a gallery display in a restaurant and bought it on the spot. And when you can, treat yourself to something special. I purchased the painting in the dining room when I turned 30 and had just started working at Southern Living. It always reminds me of that time in my life.

Ideas for Your Interiors

  • Think of accessories as the final layer that makes everything beautiful. You can make an ordinary surface more special simply by placing things at varying heights. Group different shapes and sizes to achieve almost still life vignettes.
  • Visit the remnant room of your favorite carpet store, look for a piece of sisal that's the size you need, and have its edges serged and bound in a color. This is usually much more affordable than picking out a sisal sample and ordering a rug.
  • Always consider the long view in a room and use furniture or artwork to create an attractive feature. For example, place a mirror where it will add light as well as a pleasing reflection.
  • Give each room one unique touch that is not too forceful. For example, choose a clear acrylic coffee table for a traditional setting, or use an abstract painting to contribute a touch of contemporary in a subtle way.
  • Make an ordinary houseplant special by banking it with walnuts, cranberries, or lemons nestled in Spanish moss. Add a twist of French wired ribbon for an instant centerpiece.