Mary Miller, of Abode Home, has been in the interior design business since 1983. One of her best kept design secrets is mixing textures and styles to achieve a fresh and modern look. Read more about what inspired her and shop her favorite picks on Sotheby’s Home.
How did you discover your passion for design?
My major in college was art history and design, so I was heading in that direction. Then, my father thought it would be a great idea for me to get an MBA. While in business school, we upholstered the walls of our apartment in tin foil, added a black light and a disco ball, and invited our friends for a Friday night dance party. It was a tremendous success, so much so that an even larger crowd showed up the following night. Clearly, I needed a little creative outlet from the statistics courses. I decided to take my two-thirds of an MBA to New York, where I pursued interior design.
What is your favorite decorative object at home?
A beautiful hand-painted historical scene of a port city in France. It was my mother’s, who is sadly no longer with us. The tranquil painting with exquisite colors reminds me of her, and was literally the jumping-off point for the design of my entire house. I framed it out in my living room cabinetry, and everything else got layered in from there.
Is design an art or a science?
It’s absolutely BOTH! The artistic and creative elements are obvious, but designers need to know how to price out items to fit clients’ budgets appropriately, and apply the rules of size and proportion to every design project. You have to know, for example, the height of a dining table versus a kitchen counter and the appropriate seat height for each. It is critical to know proportion and scale so that you purchase the right furniture (the first time around). Designers must also understand which walls are structural when giving ideas for home renovations. They must be able to read floor plans that are to scale, and understand the plumbing and electrical layouts. Traditionally, having this working knowledge is what distinguishes an interior designer from a decorator.
Do you have any go-to color or pattern combinations?
It changes with each client but I usually start with their complexions. People tend to gravitate toward colors that flatter them. They are either summer pastels, autumnal oranges, blues and greens, off white, black, or spring colors, which are usually brighter in nature.
When do you consider a completed project a success?
I could layer a project until “forever” as I do in my own home, but I can’t do that with my clients. A project is complete once the furniture, carpet, decorative light fixtures, drapery, and, most importantly, the FOCAL POINTS are in place. We put the best artwork and light fixtures in the most visible, strategic places for visibility. Then, the icing on the cake is layering the accessories until my client is satisfied and feels truly “at home”.
Share your biggest design secret.
IT’S ALL IN THE BALANCE AND THE MIX! I’m obsessive-compulsive about the mix of textures and styles to achieve a fresh and cohesive balance. Many clients have heirlooms that have sentimental value that they want to include. These mostly traditional items sometimes need a modern counterpoint to make the overall look current. Also, know your showstoppers and where to place them for the most impact, and let other items acquiesce to them.
What is the most common design mistake you see?
A very common mistake is when people buy what they love instead of what they need/what fits in the actual spaces in their homes. They might love acrylic or anything with gold, but too much of either can throw off the desired look. This is basically our job security, because we can advise them on such purchases and make sure selections are the right size and mix of materials to achieve a successful room. We can advise them to go light on the trendy and put their money in the classics. Another common design mistake is using a rug that is too small for the space. If you want to buy that beautiful old Turkish rug, either get the appropriate size for the room or be comfortable with placing the too-small rug on top of another rug, such as a sisal that fits the space. A too-small rug makes a room feel cold and small, since visually a room appears to be the size as the rug.
How do you balance style, comfort, and functionality?
Comfortable, upholstered conversational seating with stylish accents. These accents are the Wow Factors: fabulous original artwork, amazing light fixtures, unique accent chairs, and/or antique rugs.
Is there a specific item you typically use as a starting point? (ex: rug, artwork, statement piece, furniture)
Some clients collect art or have rugs that they love, so we start with the palette of those pieces to get the ball rolling…unless the palette doesn’t complement their complexion. Quite often, clients want a new look altogether, and though they’ll re-use a few things, they want to start fresh. In this case, we brainstorm with the client using “flash cards” until I determine the appropriate palette and style that fits them. I feel strongly that their home should ultimately reflect their style, not mine.
What do you think about Sotheby’s Home?
I think it’s genius that you have interior designers curate their favorite pieces from your website. Everybody wins! Interior designers, who obviously source furniture, rugs, lighting, and accessories on a continuous basis, will become familiar with your entire inventory as they carefully hand-select their assemblage and will have a new resource to add to their arsenal. Sotheby’s Home, in turn, hopefully gets that designer as a new client. The consumer wins because they see what a specific designer would put together. The exposure is wonderful. I worked in New York for three different designers while I lived there. This has been a fun exercise for me, as I was lucky enough to work at Sotheby’s part-time for evening and weekend sales. An amazing brand that just keeps getting better.