-Eleanor McMillen Brown, from Sixty Years of Interior Design
Christine Grace and Elizabeth Pyne head up McMillen Plus. Together, they take a younger clientele through the design experience, guiding them to stylish and fresh fabrics and furniture replete with the service and attention to detail McMillen is so known for. Established in 1924, McMillen is one of the oldest American design firms still operating today. By combining great style with business acumen, Eleanor was one of the first ladies of her generation to study interior design, and became a force in the industry. After three years at Parsons in New York and Paris she put out her shingle in a townhouse on 55th Street. One of her great strengths was the way she arranged furniture in a welcoming way. Albert Hadley, Mark Hampton, and Kevin McNamara worked there, and she allowed them to get credit for the work they did. With this history and service, McMillen has a way to attract the sort of client they always have. But now they are speaking to a new generation, the client that wants great design and ideas while leading a less formal lifestyle. You may have seen the House Beautiful article about the firm, explaining their important historical influence.
I joined McMillen seven months ago in November.
What did your grandmother teach you about design growing up? What is the best advice she ever gave you about design?
My grandmother has never sat me down to “teach” me. (That has been my mother’s role. And she is a fantastic teacher!) However I have learned by observing my grandmother in action:
My grandmother is always dreaming up new schemes. Ever since I was little, I remember her making additions to her houses and coming up with new projects. And she is always acquiring new objects for her houses (and all of ours), and building onto existing rooms. She changes her mind quickly and even at her age, she embraces new ideas that I never thought she would.
My grandmother (and mother) instilled in me the importance of longevity in design: One of my earliest memories is of choosing my bed (lace canopy) for my room at 580 Park Avenue. I was dying to have a bed where the canopy was gathered into a huge gold crown. And I remember my mother saying to me, “You can have it if you really want, but I think that you will tire of that gold crown in a few years, and then you will be stuck with something that you don’t like.” It seems very simple, and obvious, but I never forgot it. Whenever I buy something for myself, or I am looking for a client, I really try and think of the long term: is this a fabric that will get tiring after a while, is this a rug that can be reused in another space? And this type of thinking is most important, I think, for my clients, some of who are in rentals or are in smaller apartments. I encourage them to invest in things now that they can see themselves with for a long time and that could be transferred to other spaces.
How did growing up in and around beautiful, well designed interiors affect your sense of style and eye?
It spoiled my eye! I can’t help liking things that are well crafted. I used to lie in my bed in the mornings and run my fingers up and down my wallpaper, feeling the raised pigments. Today, I am so disappointed with wallpapers that are flat-feeling. Now that I’ve learned something about textiles and wallpaper, I realize that my old wallpaper was made with something like 28 screens. I think that I am more able to think of things in terms of schemes. Whenever I see an object that I love I immediately think: but how could I fit this into the scheme that I am working on? I am fascinated by the way things are made. When I was a little girl, I used to unravel the bullion fringe of our living room ottoman because I was so curious to see how the threads were twisted and woven together.
Your tastes run classic with a penchant for French 30's and 40's accents. Where do you think that came from?
I like those pieces because they are modern in feel, but they are also whimsical, with little hand-made details.
You studied abroad and traveled a great deal in Europe. What inspired and influenced you most?
What fascinates me about Europe – Italy especially – is the way that masterpieces are a part of the fabric of everyday life. And in Europe I get a sense that there are layers: civilizations and generations building upon one another. In Venice for example, the church of Madonna dell’ Orto is a 14th and 15th century structure; inside of it there are these huge canvasses painted by Tintoretto in the 16th century; the organ over the entrance of the church was built in the late 19th century; and now, in the 21st century, they continue to hold services there. And I love interiors that incorporate works of art and that have that sense of layering.
Art was, and still is, my passion. I love beautiful things. But I don’t think that my passion was just for old masters, or even paintings. Art for me is anything that is beautiful and moving: whether it’s the brilliant hues in a masterpiece by Bellini or the deep purple of a Manuel Canovas linen. I was drawn to interior design because now I have a chance to create beauty in interiors, instead of just studying it, or selling it.
With the starting of a younger division McMillen Plus, what are the goals of the new team and what is your focus?
The goal of McMillen Plus is to capture a younger client. One of our problems is that people, especially my age (29), think that McMillen is a little too “venerable” for them, and we are trying to counter that reputation.
However, we also think that we can offer young clients a lot of expertise that a lot of young decorators cannot offer their clients, i.e., I am working with, and having my ideas vetted by, designers and architects who have been doing this for thirty years.
McMillen offers a white glove experience. How do you think people's lifestyles have changed from when your grandmother began?
We still aim to offer a white glove experience, as I think all decorators should. Our job is to make decorating as smooth and as painless as possible for our clients. I think that is a major reason for someone to hire an interior designer: to have someone else chase vendors, supervise an installation, etc. And I don’t think that that will ever change.
One thing that I think has probably changed is that people are more comfortable with casual and simple looks, as opposed to overly formal and elaborate. This is even apparent when you look at what I wear to work: when my grandmother first started the older ladies of the firm would actually wear white gloves to work, whereas now I wear blue jeans all the time. But that’s not to say people want sloppy. I think people will always want an elegant and coherent look, and that is something that McMillen has always excelled at.
What does home mean to you?
Home is a place where I am surrounded by things that I love.