London-based Douglas Mackie is as adept at conjuring a stately yet cosy, Tudor-style mansion from a 19th-century residence in his city’s Chelsea as he is at transforming an 18th-century Thames riverfront house into a genteel bachelor pad. More than simply creating a style, he assembles furnishings, art and artefacts into three-dimensional compositions that are at once elegant, striking and original. The Englishman credits his abilities to the rigorous architectural training he received at Cambridge as well as to his gift for drawing, which, he says, “teaches you to properly look and quickly interpret what you see.” Early in his career, Mackie also had the good fortune to hone his talent at the side of Tessa Kennedy, one of London’s decorating legends. She showed him how to create daring mixes of antiques, colours and textiles, along with how to manage – and fulfill – the expectations of extremely demanding clients.
Today, some 22 years after setting up his own studio, the designer has built his substantial reputation on those core principles. In June, Mackie collaborated with Sotheby’s London, creating two distinct interiors decorated with art, objects and furnishings from the summer sales. Cross-referencing and layering objects from different periods, such as 18th-century commodes with ultracontemporary pieces by Mattia Bonetti, was “an interesting and a rather fun task,” says Mackie. Marisa Bartolucci chatted with the designer before he flew off to Milan to find tiles for one of his current projects, an estate in Switzerland.
DOUGLAS MACKIE AT SOTHEBY’S LONDON IN THE ROOM HE DESIGNED USING FURNITURE AND OBJECTS FROM THE SUMMER SALES. © CHRIS FLOYD.
How did you, a Cambridge-trained architect, become an interior designer?
I spent a gap year in New York between my undergraduate and graduate architectural studies, where I freelanced as a draftsman for interior designers – this was before CAD [computer-assisted design] took over. Through my work, I visited some extraordinary New York apartments, which were eye-openers to the way some people lived. I remember one that mixed 18th-century black-lacquered furniture with modern pieces, including a Lobmeyr starburst chandelier like the ones at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York’s Lincoln Center. The über sophistication of those interiors as settings for collections and artefacts deeply impressed me. I realised that spending one’s days attending to the lighting, fabrics and furnishings of these spaces would be infinitely more appealing than dealing with tedious door schedules, which is the lot of so many young architects. Interior design is much more fun.
IN THE DRAWING ROOM OF AN 18TH-CENTURY LONDON RESIDENCE, A 1961 SANDRA BLOW PAINTING HANGS ABOVE THE FIREPLACE, WHICH IS FLANKED BY A PAIR OF 1920S TORTOISESHELL CHAIRS. © SIMON UPTON.
Which New York designers did you most admire back then?
There were a number of them, but Billy Baldwin most of all – his fearless approach to mixing modernity and classicism made him stand out. That panache is what I most associate with the best New York decorators and what distinguished them from Colefax and Fowler, the firm that epitomised British style when I was young.
A REGENCY TABLE SERVES AS SCULPTURE STAND IN THE LIBRARY OF A HOLLAND PARK HOUSE. © GARY HAMILL.
What role does drawing play in your interior design work?
The drawing process is critical. It’s how I start interpreting the clients’ requirements, distilling the essence of those early conversations about the type of house in which they want to live and the type of art they wish to display. I am creating a logic and a setting that has a visual coherence, something that mixes the elements of design, objects, et cetera, in a way clients wouldn’t have thought – otherwise they wouldn’t be employing me. By drawing, I’m essentially trying to establish a certain aesthetic framework. That’s the point where ideally the best clients will say, “We understand what you’re doing and we like it,” or: “We don’t like it.” Once the feel of that drawing has been approved, the client tells us to get on with it, and the rooms generally end up looking rather like the drawings. Hopefully, we’ve made something very beautiful.
A 17TH-CENTURY FLEMISH VERDURE TAPESTRY DOMINATES A CHELSEA MORNING ROOM. © GARY HAMILL.
How do you feel about your clients’ art collections?
It varies. Some clients have a highly trained, very sophisticated view about art, especially people who are older, or, let’s face it, have had money for longer. Some of our younger clients, who are perhaps self-made, are only really starting out and quite literally have nothing at all. For some of these people, we are introducing paintings and objects for the first time. It’s wonderful to have a client who is receptive to looking at styles of painting they wouldn’t initially have considered. We’re also very happy to advise. Being a designer is about curating all these different elements.
A HOLLAND PARK DRAWING ROOM FEATURES A PAINTING BY CALLUM INNES ABOVE A SIMPLE MODERN SOFA. © GARY HAMILL.
How do you go about decorating a room?
It’s terribly important to think about the whole entity. What is the room? What is in it? The objects, the paintings, the sculptures – those things that make a room resonate, often by the proximity of different forms or periods, like a work of classical antiquity against a Lucie Rie porcelain vase. That ability to juxtapose is simply something one learns from experience. I’m constantly learning how x, y and z will actually sit together. When I go to a gallery and spot some unexpected object, I know it will work perfectly with a client’s Old Master painting or Damien Hirst or Oscar Murillo. It’s all about creating a dialogue within the room in order to make that artwork seem more vibrant.
A SILK VELVET DAYBED BY MARC DU PLANTIER MAKES FOR IDYLLIC LOUNGING BY THE BAY WINDOW OF AN ENGLISH MANOR’S BEDROOM. © JAN BALDWIN.
As acclaimed a designer as you are, you seem very interested in sharpening your skills.
I think the best designers are all enormously self-critical. You’re always thinking about how you might do something better next time, especially with regard to proportions. And you are always learning from the best contractors, lighting designers, craftspeople and upholsterers.
What are your current projects?
In addition to a property in Switzerland, I’m working on multiple projects in London and an estate in the Cotswolds.
Marisa Bartolucci is a regular contributor to Sotheby’s magazine.