A Conversation with Designer Brian McCarthy

A Room is Like a Cocktail Party, and all the Pieces Merely Guests

2020 has made designer Brian McCarthy grateful. “I’m one of the lucky ones,” he admits. “We have loved being in New York City during this past year, it has reconnected us with the city in a new way; when the gyms closed, I have had to adopt a new practice: walking. I go up to Riverside Park and use the parallel bars, it keeps me fit. I live in midtown Manhattan, opposite Carnegie Hall and it’s been dead. While most of my employees had the din of sirens, we had silence.”

Photography by Francesco Lagnese

One of the country’s top interior designers, McCarthy’s clients span the globe. A former partner at Parish-Hadley, he founded his eponymous design firm in 1992. McCarthy is a regular on the major design publications’ lists of the best designers, is the author of two books on design, Luminous Interiors and Parish-Hadley Tree of Life, which he co-authored with Bunny Williams, and has won numerous awards for his work, so he is not used to sitting still. “If I didn’t have my office I wouldn’t be able to do my job,” he says. “Everyone in my office was working from home. And like everyone, we were doing Zoom meetings, which take a lot out of you.”

Library of home in Southampton – Photography by Thomas Loof

But with all the adjustments of last year, McCarthy has not seen a dramatic change in his design sensibility. “The idea of a home being comfortable and practical has become more important for people, because they have been nesting, and they are looking at things in ways they didn’t before. We didn’t look at our homes endlessly before. For me it was great fun, but it raised questions for clients because they were looking at the same things so much.”

Living room of home in Palm Beach – Photography by Fritz von der Schulenburg

Looking forward to 2021 and beyond, It will be curious to see what habits we retain from this pandemic and how industries will change the way they work. “For decorators, thinking about our offices, we can do a lot more online,” says McCarthy. But, he explains, with interior design, it is tricky as it is such a visual and tactile industry. “During lockdown you couldn’t go to the D&D building. Seeing is believing; unless you really know furniture, it’s easy to make a mistake; seeing something online is not the same as holding it, touching it. Interviewing young designers, they are so used to looking at a computer screen, it is troubling.”

Dining room of home in Palm Beach – Photography by Fritz von der Schulenburg

For clients, McCarthy sees a subtle shift. “Most of my clients have big enough houses, but some could function better. A line of questioning that would occur today is what would make your life function better? If it’s a scenario where someone may work at home, they may need a change in the day to day. I think it’s been interesting to see families who were empty nesters now have a full house with kids home from college. There is a new stress on the use of house,” he says. And for most homes, there are some rooms that get the most traffic. “Not in terms of distribution of time, but for sure we focus on where the majority of time will be spent—which is usually the family room. It all depends on how they live, whether they have help. Incorporating smart thinking that will affect their quality of life, bathrooms, good closets, he says.”

Living room of home in Southampton – Photography by Thomas Loof

Setting the Stage

The most important element in the room is not always the same for McCarthy. “I talk about what the key pieces should be. You have your leading man/woman, then the co-stars, and the supporting cast. The lead doesn’t have to be the most expensive piece. To throw art into the mix–if art is a component of how you see your lives moving forward–if there is a wall that may get a big painting, that will contribute. Art becomes this very important part of a room. We think about the foreground: what are the silhouettes of the furniture? What is landscape in the mid-ground as it relates to the art on the wall? It is all connected.”

Living room of home in Palm Beach – Photography by Fritz von der Schulenburg

On Timeless Decor

“You live long enough, you live through all these different swings and styles,” says McCarthy. “I was incredibly blessed to start at Parish-Hadley. I had a start in the classics and traditional. That has shifted–it is now a new classical–we are always referencing it. Twenty years from now there will always be some aspects of design that will look tired. But I don’t follow trends, I create what inspires me; it’s about being true to yourself and true to your clients.

Dining room of home in Los Angeles – Photography by Fritz von der Schulenburg

The benefit of getting older is the experience, but my team is always looking at new artists, new designers. All the galleries we work with are constantly showing us new work. I need the young energy—they see things differently. I definitely find inspiration from other people’s work, but I’m not so much looking for that when I’m looking at what people do.

Media room of home in Palm Beach – Photography by Fritz von der Schulenburg

The Times They Are Changing

The design world has changed dramatically in the last few decades in terms of the technology available. For McCarthy, the most profound change is the use of 3D modeling. “we can now draw a house and have the whole thing modelled—we do this with all our projects. Our clients can walk in the front door and though the house; it takes all the questions out of the equation. In the past you would be looking at renderings, and 2D. At this point in time, the most important technology for me is 3D. For clients who need a visual aid, it is incredibly helpful, and the beauty of it is, that we can go into the 3D and update things as we make change.

Main Lounge final installation – Photography by Thomas Loof

The Process

Every project has a starting point, and for McCarthy, it is gaining an understanding of his clients’ needs and desires. “One of my first questions for any client is if they keep an image book. Do they save images of things they love? If not, I ask them to gather together as much as they can: what they love, and what they don’t like—all of that starts to sharpen the point. Start with magazines and tear out pictures. Some people are great at keeping digital images; Pinterest is great for that. Rugs, patterns, colors, no detail too small; it’s all incredible food for thought. A lot of people can’t verbalize what it is that moves them; a picture can do that. And that can help me ask questions. If someone can show me their current home—and the things they want to take to the next home, that helps paint the picture. I love a collaborative client with a strong point of view,” he admits.

Inspiration to Design

Inspiration to Design

What’s Next

Looking forward, McCarthy has several projects on the horizon, including a 9,300 square foot duplex in Manhattan with 15’ ceilings and unbelievable views and a 510’ tri-hull boat, “the main deck is 80’ wide–enormous,” he says. “It will be super modern, an entirely different direction for me.” Also in the works is a project in Monaco. “We’ve worked on this apartment in the past, we just finished last year redoing the owner’s suite, and he is now is ready to gut the whole apartment, but we know it very well so in that regard, the current travel restrictions don’t prevent us from moving forward.

Grand Salon in Chalet in Switzerland

On Rooms and Cocktail Parties

McCarthy has a charming tendency to turn design into a living breathing thing: a room is the stage and the pieces in it merely players. Or, put another way, he says: “I draw the analogy between decorating and a good cocktail party—who’s on the guest list? You want to make it animated, lively, smart. Each client has their own taste. The one component I bring is introducing them to the guests—the ideas—that may relate to what they know they like but bringing something new to the conversation. It’s like everything, it’s part of building the relationship; you establish a dialogue when you discuss different ideas. You don’t have to play it safe, you want to find something that’s really great. It’s all about presenting things in a way that helps them decide—it has to be their decision. Nothing is too good to be true, there’s always something else, frankly you might find something better. It’s all about discovery, particularly if you’re curious.”

By Ariane Maclean Trimuschat

Ariane served as Show Director for the San Francisco Fall Show for 7 years through 2019. She is now the show’s international liaison as Director at Large, living in London with her family.  Follow Ariane on her blog, SOJOURNEST, where she focuses on all things home, design and travel and on Instagram @arianetrim.