timeless design by mary douglas drysdale
By: Zoe Rastegar
An Icon Creating Useful Beauty
“It’s what you can achieve for the simplest person. Glamour is part of it, but glamour is not the essence. Design is about discipline and reality, not about fantasy beyond reality,” — Albert Hadley.
Mary Douglas Drysdale is the Creative Director at Drysdale Design Associates, a full-service interior design firm. Drysdale has worldly experience when it comes to interior design and renovations. Her experiences in Europe and particularly her training in France have given her a broad vision and a sophisticated style for her approach to design and decoration. Her style is original and timeless.
Drysdale’s expertise in blending the old and the new with special touches of color and accessories makes her projects not only beautiful and timeless but also usable and practical. Her work reflects her mastery in her profession emerging from her extensive deep knowledge and her propensity in planning, management and her acute attention to details. It is not surprising that she has been referred to as an “American design icon.” Drysdale’s personal style is relaxed and open, and while she is in command of her projects, she is quite casual and comfortable with her clients and contractors. Mary Douglas Drysdale’s interiors are thoughtfully developed, and her designs are memorable. Let us hear it from the master herself.
RE: Please tell us about your background, your family and early influences for choosing your professional path.
Drysdale: I was born and raised in Charlottesville, Virginia, where my father had received both his undergraduate and his law degree, from the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. The University of Virginia is a core of the intellectual community in this wonderful town. The classical architecture of Thomas Jefferson and of other early founders of this nation, influenced the character of the buildings in Charlottesville and surrounding communities.
My mother was a stay- mom, and we had a lovely house on Oxford Road which backed up to a much larger historic home owned by the University of Virginia. Behind that historic home was a large
forest where I played and enjoyed making forts and tree houses. I think that I have always been interested in building. Most of all, Charlottesville was a charming second city where neighbors were
cherished and known. We didn’t lock the front door and we didn’t lock our cars. I often walked to school and took ballet classes. My parents renovated our house several times in my young years, and I was hooked on building.
RE: Tell us about your education and training. Are they directly related to what you do?
Drysdale: Long after my years building tree houses and the like, I graduated from high school, in DC, where I lived through another of my parent’s renovations. After my freshman year in college, I decided to spend a self-organized summer abroad. I vaguely wanted to have a Grand Tour of Europe with Paris as my center. At the end of my first summer in Paris, during which I studied at the Alliance Francaise, I decided that I really wanted to extend my stay in France through the academic year. I returned to the States and entered into an agreement with my parents allowing me to extend my studies abroad. I then managed to pass the exams to get into L’Ecole des Sciences Politiques. But I also monitored classes at the Ecole des Beaux Arts. That was my aha moment to be inspired and to embrace the idea of pursuing my studies in drawing, planning, history and architectural design.
RE: Do you have a memory of a funny story from your time in Paris?
Once a decision has been made to work together, we enter into a contract that has phases. In the initial phases, we explore in drawing or sketch form, various ideas to respond to the initial goals that the client has set forth. Almost always we discover new suggestions that solve their problems, which are sometimes different from what they imagined
Drysdale: Yes, actually this is both funny, and I think clever for a young woman that I was then. In order to maintain my legal status in France, I needed to leave the country every three months for a short
period of time before returning. So, I came up with a wonderful idea. Having rented a few cars from Hertz, I realized that these rental cars ultimately needed to be returned to their original destination.
So, I went to the Hertz in my neighborhood and voila! I learned that they had a car that needed to be returned to Germany. And that is how I spent the next three years, on my self-organized Grand Tour, from the needs of Hertz Rent a Car by taking their cars to another European city where they were supposed to be dropped off. My plan worked for Hertz and allowed me to travel extensively during my years abroad. I was able to stay and to continue my studies in architecture and the French language. And I had the good fortune of landing a job working for a group of young French architects.
Later, I came back to this area, and given my deep interest in design, I decided to take courses in interior design and went to Mount Vernon College, which was transitioning to a school of Interior Design. Later, I moved to New York and took classes at The Parsons School of design and subsequently did a master class with Hans Kreiks, an industrial designer. I then married an architect and worked for him for several years.
RE: What inspired you, as a young woman, to achieve your current status in design?
Drysdale: What inspired me as a young girl? I think my main inspirations stemmed from my surroundings and what I observed on a daily basis. First the beauty of Charlottesville and many historic and magnificent buildings, notably Monticello, and, of course, the University of Virginia, now recognized as one of the most beautiful campuses in America.
Second, I lived through a number of renovations, and I liked the process. I realized how exciting it was to bring improvement and quality to homes and to the people who live in those houses.
RE: When did you start the Mary Douglas Drysdalevfirm, and as Director of the firm, what are your responsibilities? Do you have partners and employees?
Drysdale: I began Drysdale Design Associates in the early 1980s. Over the years, I have experimented with both commercial and residential design and also with varying sizes of staff. I am much happier with a smaller staff because I like to work directly with my clients, rather than assigning project managers to control the project.
RE: Your personal style is described as “relaxed and open,” how would you describe your approach to design?
Drysdale: As a designer, I am not really “style centric,” I have always seen myself as a problem solver. For example, if the work is in an existing building, one has to make every effort to blend the old with the new. Although I might describe my personality as “relaxed and open,” my work is client focused, striving for excellence and always trying to create value. When I describe what I do, I think of it as creating useful beauty.
RE: Tell us the process of working with clients who commission you for a house planning or renovations, and what are the major areas of your focus?
Drysdale: The first thing is to understand potential clients’ expectations, including scope of work, possible budget for the project and the time they expect or hope to get the project completed. Next, it is important to get a dossier or tear sheets from potential clients to see if their visuals match their words. I ask them to go through my portfolio and tell me what they like and don’t like. Once a decision has been made to work together, we enter into a contract that has phases. In the initial phases, we explore in drawing or sketch form, various ideas to respond to the initial goals that the client has set forth. Almost always we discover new suggestions that solve their problems, which are sometimes different from what they imagined. Once we have an approved plan and concept, we develop the plan with the client’s involvement in all stages of the development. We will find contractors or work with contractors of their choosing.
When the project is completed and installed, we review it to make sure that our client is happy and satisfied with the results. My strengths are in planning and detailing, in addition to color and project management. We do a lot of renovations of older properties as well as the design of kitchens and baths, all of which require excellent architectural planning and detail skills.
RE: Do you establish a long-term relationship with your clients?
Drysdale: I have been lucky enough to have several clients who have hired me for follow-up on projects and new houses, often out of town. For one family, I have actually done 11 projects. I strive to always remember whose house it is theirs, not mine. Strive to teach and engage your clients and make the project theirs. I believe that good work is always recognized, not only by your clients, but by the professional community in
which we practice.
RE: How do you manage a balance between your opinions and your client’s opinions and styles?
Drysdale: As designers, we need to remember that we are designing for others, so having them
first and foremost in your mind while designing is essential. In every project, and with every designer, there are suggestions made by the designer that are made and not taken. My responsibility is to just come up with another idea. The goal is to meet the clients’ needs while not compromising your own standards of quality and excellence.
RE: As Director of the firm what are your responsibilities?
Drysdale: I am in charge of all aspects of my business from marketing and management to art and design direction, the development of drawings, coordination with the clients and contractors, hiring and firing, and publications as well, as social media.
RE: How do you coordinate and work with contractors and other consultants?
Drysdale: Collaboration is essential in my field whether it is with a structural or mechanical
engineer, general contractor or specialty subcontractors, such as cabinet makers or tile and stone installers and fabricators. And the same can be said for furniture manufacturers, window treatment makers, rug designers, sound and lighting. You have to work as a team and recognize the value that others bring to the project. Work. It
takes a village, as they say.
RE: How long does it take you to finish a project considering the scope of your work and the variety of projects?
Drysdale: Projects take from six months to several years. It really depends on the scope and
complexity. I was once involved with a 16,000 square foot historic mansion. It needed everything from documentation of the existing conditions, to re-planning the floors of this house to update it to the needs and expectations of today. And ultimately, I oversaw the construction during an 18 months period. On the other hand, projects that do not require a lot of renovation or building, will be much shorter.
At this point in time, the interiors industry is in a major backlog, as much of the products used in the world of decoration are manufactured outside of the United States, in countries such as India or Vietnam. The Covid-19 pandemic has had a dramatic impact on deliverables. Historically, deliveries have averaged from 8 to 10 weeks and this has changed to 20 to 30 weeks, in many instances. However, in my view, it is often the client who can speed up or slow down a job, given their ability to make decisions and stick with them.
RE: Is your bulk of work mostly with home planning and renovations or with businesses?
Drysdale: Currently, I have about 2/3 residential and 1/3 commercial.
RE: Tell us how your approach. Is it different and unique?
Drysdale: I believe my extensive education and knowledge of related design fields such as
architecture, industrial design, decoration and historic preservation are great assets, which result
in thorough planning and a high level of execution of the projects. In that sense, my approach might
be different or to some extent unique.
RE: What is most satisfying in completing a project?
Drysdale: Making useful and beautiful living spaces for others by utilizing my skills and my passion for architecture, design and decoration.
RE: How do you define your design, modern, contemporary or eclectic?
Drysdale: I would not say that I have one style. I learned a lot from the French. Historically, they have blended perfectly the old with fresh and modern concepts to achieve a historic and hip style. My architectural interiors are classic, and my decorations practical and comfortable, often accented by modern colorful art and artisan made features. I think that architectural layout is influenced by building type and furniture choices and art selections may reflect the times in which we live.
RE: How do you market your business? Do you have referring clients as well?
Drysdale: The main venues for marketing are publications, social media and public speaking.
RE: How did you manage the pandemic lockdowns and a year of downtime for business? Did you take advantage of virtual connections such as Zoom to connect?
Drysdale: Covid-19 pandemic taught me to communicate via Zoom. There has been a much greater emphasis on social media, but I still prefer in-person communications.
RE: Tell us about your awards and media mentions.
Drysdale: I am in the regional Interior Design Hall of Fame, and last year, I was named by Interior Design Magazine as one of the top 50 practicing female architects and designers in the US. I have just received my 73rd magazine cover for ASPIRE Design and Home Magazine, the Show House issue. My projects have also appeared on the covers of Architectural Digest, Veranda, House Beautiful, Home and Design Magazine, Traditional Home, Kitchen and Bath Business, Trends, Departures and Interior Design Magazine.
I have been on the Gold List at Luxe Magazine, voted twice in the annual Andrew Martin worldwide competition, as one of the top 100 designers in the world. I was named in 2019 one of the top 100 designers in the world. I can’t wait until September to find out the outcome of this year’s competition! In addition, I have been a repeated winner of NKBA (National Kitchen and Bath Association) competitions for both kitchens and baths. There have been a lot of trophies and many inspirational clients.
RE: Any major projects or exhibitions on the way in the near future?
Drysdale: I have been selected by Interior Design Magazine to present one of my projects to be included in their Best of the Decade book, which will be published in September. Also, I am working on a post Covid-19 alternative to the big box hotel: The Gate House Dupont, a luxury short term rental.
RE: Do you have a showroom for your clients to see your previous design works?
Drysdale: Not a showroom, and my studio is not open to the public. It is by appointment only. I have a website and very active social media pages such as @MaryDouglasDrysdale on Instagram and Mary Douglas Drysdale Interior Designer on Facebook.
RE: As a designer, what advice can you give to young designers?
Drysdale: People are re-evaluating the need for owning really expensive things. The vision of buying a house and staying there for 30 years is no longer the dream of many of the younger generation. Think about flexibility and design elements that will work somewhere else down the road. And as a designer, always remember that it is not your house, but your clients’ home and that a true professional puts their clients first.
RE: Please provide contact information.
Drysdale: Website: http://www.MaryDouglasDrysdale.