Today, I am delighted to welcome a very special guest to The Glam Pad… Ann Pyne, president of McMillen Interior Design and Decoration, the oldest design firm in America! McMillen is celebrating its 95th anniversary this year, and Ann is graciously sharing an in depth overview of the company including anecdotes from Albert Hadley, Mark Hampton, and Kevin McNamara – a few of the most important designers of the late 20th century who got their start at McMillen.
McMillen Inc. was founded in 1924 by Eleanor McMillen Brown when she began selling 18th century furniture from her Manhattan townhouse sent to her from Europe. Mrs. Brown went to both business and secretarial school after having studied design for three years at the Parsons School in New York and Paris. “I thought if I was going to do it at all, I’d better do it professionally,” she once said. “That’s why it’s McMillen Inc. and not Eleanor McMillen. I wasn’t one of the ‘ladies.'” By the late 1920s McMillen Inc. had become a full-service decorating business with an independently-staffed drafting department as well as a business office. When Mrs. Brown decided to retire in 1976, Betty Sherrill (Brown’s protege) and other of the firm’s employees purchased the company. Mrs. Sherrill stepped down as president in 2002 handing the reins to Luis Rey, head of the design department. She continued to serve as chairwoman until her death in 2014. Ann Sherrill Pyne became the president in 2012. Elizabeth Pyne Singer, Betty Sherrill’s granddaughter, is also a decorator at McMillen. She was named as one of the “Next Wave” Designers by House Beautiful in 2015. Good taste runs in the family!
Today’s post is a long one… it is after all a 95 year history. I could not bear to edit such rich detail, so please sit back and enjoy, and welcome Ann!
Q: As the oldest interior design firm in America, what is the secret to McMillen Inc.’s longstanding success?
- Employees of talent were willing to spend their entire careers at McMillen. Mrs. Brown (Mrs. McMillen), founder, owner etc., 54 years. Miss Fakes, 30 years head of design department. Ethel Smith, decoator, 62 years. Marion Morgan, decorator, 35 years. My mother, Betty Sherrill, 62 years. John Drews, head of design department, 36 years. Currently still here: Luis Rey, head of Design Department, 47 years. Mary Louise Guertler, decorator, 51 years. Katherine McCallum, decorator, 37 years.
- Because these careers almost all overlapped each other, it was inevitable that decorators reached maturity before their mentors retired.
- Brown made it her policy never to hire employees who had not attended the New York School of Fine and Applied Arts (Parsons School of Design since 1940s), which emphasized the classic values of symmetry, restraint, proportion, harmony etc. (Seven of eight of above employees were students at that school).
- McMillen’s first 90 years saw it run by two women, Mrs. Brown and my mother, who had the genetic coding of engineers and architects. This enabled them to understand instinctively how a ‘machine worked.’ ie., relations of parts to a whole — not just in a room but in a company. They were “accidental” decorators, if you will, and quite different than decorators such as Rose Cumming, for an example, whose careers were known for ‘show cover’ effects.
- Lastly, a conservative approach to salaries and expenses.
Q: Eleanor McMillen Brown founded McMillen in 1924 as a young married woman at a time when it was relatively unheard of for married women of means to work outside the home. What was her inspiration, and how did this help pave the way for future female designers?
A: Her inspiration was to do something to distract her from being an unhappily married young woman in New York City. As she described her decision to attend the NYSFAA, “I was having lunch with a friend who was taking courses, and she suggested I go with her. I thought to myself, I was always a better student at school than she was, so I thought, ‘why not?’ Likewise, with Ethel Smith, whose family were financially distressed, had never heard of such a thing as a “decorator” when she was sent to the NYSFAA by her Aunt Loo. Likewise, my mother, who had lived in New Orleans all her life, was unhappy living in New York — both as wife and as a new mother. Likewise, Marion Morgan, who was a particularly unhappy person, and abandoned by her husband. What they had in common, aside from the discomfort in their lives at the time of becoming ‘decorators’? they were all incredibly smart. Did they influence other women? — I think not. I think Sister Parrish did, and Rose Cumming did — the window-dressers, I will call them. Not perhaps the answer you wanted…
Q: How did Mrs. Brown differentiate herself from the other “lady decorators” of her time? Elsie de Wolfe, Rose Cumming, Ruby Ross Wood…
A: On a symbolic level, she called the firm McMillen Inc. in order to seem trained and professional, at least so she claimed in hindsight. More important, she had a personality that understood the importance of architecture and business, and made her entry in the field of decorating (selling furniture for William Odom out of her townhouse) turn quickly into a ‘full service’ firm. (Elsie de Wolfe, Rose Cumming, Ruby Ross Wood, etc. were purely decorators — not so Dorothy Draper). In terms of ‘full service” — what was meant is that McMillen had an ‘in-house’ accounts department, and an in-house interior architecture department. That is, Mrs. McMillen intended to do more than “window-dressing,” and a staff that could support her intention.
Q: Your mother (Betty Sherrill) joined the firm in the 1950s, eventually becoming president and chairwoman after Mrs. Brown’s death. How did she get her start, and how did she help lead the company into the next century?
A: Before addressing her ‘start,’ I have to say that my mother had a ‘head start’ — a mother-in-law who for some reason had hired McMillen Inc. in New York City to help her decorate her house in Pass Christian, Mississippi. (was she social-climbing in her ‘small town’ neighborhood? did she already dream of how to help my mother?) At any rate, when it became clear to my grandmother that her ‘beloved’ son’s wife needed help coping with her new life in New York City, and the infant in her apartment (me), she sent my mother off to McMillen asking for a job.
My mother was turned down twice by Mrs. Brown when she presented herself for a job. But my mother kept trying to get in the door, until finally Mrs. Brown needed someone, no doubt someone attractive, to open the door at the Paris ’52 exhibit of French Designers. And from “getting her foot in the door,” as my mother liked to say, she went on.
As far as my mother leading the company into the next century, I think it was her business-getting ability. Multiple people I have interviewed have asserted that she was “the best business getter ever,” or words to that effect. Also, she had a large social presence, as Mrs. Brown did, but in a different way. And she was able to project to clients that McMillen was the best firm ever, and that to have a McMillen interior would be to have an ‘interior’ that was ‘comme il faut,’ which in the 50s and 60s and 70s and 80s meant ‘not too serious.’ Luis Rey, when I interviewed him formally, told me that when he first worked at McMillen it took him a while to understand the power my mother had over men. At the time he was speaking of, he was designing the interiors of Morgan Stanley’s new office floors on sixth Avenue, and no matter what he proposed, the only thing the men would say to him was, “What does Betty Sherrill say?”
Q: Many leading interior designers got their start at McMillen including Albert Hadley, Mark Hampton, and Kevin McNamara. In what ways did Mrs. Brown serve as a mentor and role model to them, and to your mother?
A: Albert Hadley told me on tape that Mrs. Brown was very intelligent, very disciplined, and – his key point – abled to follow the classical dictums of the NYSFAA but give them a modern twist. He went on at length about these qualities of hers and posited Sister Parrish as the opposite of Mrs. Brown, and also himself. (It is unclear from the text of my interview if Albert believed he had learned these qualities that a decorator could possess from Mrs. Brown, and would have been different had he not encountered her, or whether he considered that those traits were the traits he recognized in himself and that he himself possessed.)
I never interviewed Kevin McNamara, or talked to him much about McMilllen (he did give me one amusing quote, about working for Ethel Smith…He said that Mrs. Smith would be walking around (an antique show, a dealer’s showroom, I don’t know) and Mrs. Smith would say to my mother, “Look at those beautiful blanc de chine figurines,” and my mother would say to Kevin, “Look at those beautiful blanc de chine figurines…” — and I think that is a little parable about how most learning was done at McMillen — by being around each other. Tom Buckley told me that when Kevin was at McMillen he was very cheerful and out-going and well-liked but not so serious. Tom recounted saying to Kevin when he started, “if you are smart you will shut your mouth and look at what is going on around you.” Tom Buckley also told me about an episode in Hyannis Port at the Kennedy compound when the President was coming and Kevin rushed down to the hardware store to buy a saw because the box spring for the king-size mattress was ordered in one piece and had to be sawed apart before the president got there, which Kevin did (sawed into two pieces) right out on the front lawn, just minutes before the President arrived. Tom considered that Kevin’s mature work was 50% McMillen and 50% Parrish Hadley, where he went to work after McMillen.
As to Mark Hampton, although I talked to Mark over the years I never formally interviewed him; nonetheless I remember him telling me there was no one at McMillen for him to learn from during the years he was there…Which makes me think that Mrs. Brown was somewhat of a figurehead by then (the 1970s), and less of an inspiration than she might have been a decade before. (p.s. He does write of her in his book, “Legendary Decorators of the 20th century, but I am in Florida this weekend and the book is in New York…) And in hindsight, I can see that Mark really was at McMillen in a transition moment. The ‘gods’ of McMillen’s past had either left or were quite tired, and our new ‘gods’ were as young as Mark — Luis Rey, Mary Louise Guertler, John Drews. (And I don’t think Mark needed the skills my mother had, in part because he already possessed them — charm with people, an out-going nature, and business-getting skills)
As to my mother, my mother was besotted with Mrs. Brown (my memories are from mid-1950s to mid 1960s). I don’t know if it was because my mother was ambitious and Mrs. Brown was the key to her ambitions at McMillen, or if it was that Mrs. Brown represented to my mother a mother-figure that she wished she had had — disciplined and strong and totally expunged of the kind of taste that pervaded the south (my mother was from New Orleans), meaning Victorian furniture, long -stemmed red roses (American Beauty) and blue and red Oriental rugs for American market. (Ironically, Mrs. Brown expunged from her childhood those same tastes — she was a first-generation German immigrant and her uncle and father, who had founded the American Stove Company, later to become “Magic Chef,” lived in the rather grandiose Grand Rapids Splendor.) Indeed, Mrs. Brown and all McMillen interiors adhered to the dictum of Frank Alvah Parsons, which stated unequivocally that the only ugly period in the entire history of the decorative arts was the “black walnut period in America” (now considered the ‘late 19th century).
My mother claimed that Mrs. Brown wrote to her that she, my mother, was “the daughter she never had,” a letter that she had by her bed since Mrs. Brown had written it. Albert Hadley told me, “your mother was Mrs. Brown’s pet. Everyone could feel that Mrs. Brown was happier in her company than with anyone else.” and that this special relation “was very obvious to everyone.” Tom Buckley said, “yes, I think Mrs. Brown thought of your mother as the daughter she never had.” Ironically, when my mother died, her long-time housekeeper and I searched frantically for the letter from Mrs. Brown that said the bit about the “daughter she never had,” which my mother always claimed was by the drawer of the bed. Where was it? Who knows? I do think I remember reading it once.
Because I was talking to him last week, I asked Tom Buckley your question directly. His answer: “In summarizing Mrs. Brown’s influence on the above decorators, I would say to that Mrs. Brown was the critical ‘decorator’ of the 20th century in that McMillen promoted to succeeding generations of decorators in America the classic teachings of the NYSFAA.”
Q: How did growing up in the world of interior design affect you as a child? Did you always know this was the path you wanted to pursue?
A: As I somewhat suggested, the fact that my mother adored Mrs. Brown was an influence on my childhood, but I can’t say that influence was all positive — I would come home from school and wait and wait in our little elevator foyer to hear my mother’s signature two rings on the elevator door. But when she did come out of the elevator, she would rush into her bedroom and call Mrs. Brown, whom she had just left. And I would stand impatiently by the phone saying, “Hang-up, Hang-up, when are you going to hang-up!” Until I was screaming it. And by the way, Mrs. Brown was not a cozy figure — she pretty much disliked children, as her grandson outright told me. So one answer: interior design took my mother away from me, as I saw it from a child’s point of view. On the other hand, it made me proud of my mother. Even in the early 1950s I knew that a mother who worked, without needing to for money, was something special.
To address the second part of your question: I tried to find an extra room in any house we lived in that could be made into a secret room just for me. To create a “room for dreaming,” as Gaston Bachelard names interior spaces. For instance, my mother gave me her dressing room in our new house in Southampton to make into my “Emerald City Room (Wizard of Oz),” but when that didn’t work out (the green paint I applied to turn it into the “Emerald City Room” was a vile color and didn’t go on smoothly with my brush). So then she gave me a room in our attic to ply my dream with, with the same paint and the same brush. And when the walls my narrow little singles dorm rooms at Sarah Lawrence College were painted in September by my painterly skills, and filled with a piece or two of my Danish furniture bought at Bloomingdales, students in the spring would line up to get the room I had taken the brush to.
But that being said, I never thought to pursue decorating. When I graduated from Sarah Lawrence College I worked in a photography Gallery for a short stint, and then, for 7 influential and wonderful years, I was an English teacher to middle school, and then upper school students at Chapin School here on East 84th street, and then I went back to graduate school at Columbia (I had already gotten a master’s degree in English and American Literature while I was teaching) and got an MFA in writing poetry, and then I published a book of short stories with Alfred Knopf. Toward the end of her life, my mother told me: “I was shocked when you wanted to come to McMillen. I never in my wildest dreams thought you were interested.” And my father, pretty much mute as a result of Pick’s Disease, a form of dementia, gave me the last cogent words of his life, very haltingly, and difficult to hear, but I deciphered nonetheless, and will recite cogently: “Are you sure you want to do this? First you were a photographer, then you were a teacher, then you were a writer. Now you are 56 years old (I was stunned that he had counted up how old I was) and you don’t have time to make another change — you have only 14 years (again, stunned) of your life left to work — so you better be sure.”
So what made me come to McMillen? I will partly answer in your next question, but in response to this question: I was fifty years old on August 22, 2001, and a few weeks later 911 happened and I thought to myself, “what will I regret at my death? And the answer was crystal clear. That I had not worked at McMillen for the simple reason that I was a coward — I was afraid I would fail to be a business-getter and, and would be heartbroken if McMillen’s employees left to work for others, or even themselves. And I reluctantly recognized that not to work for McMillen because of being a coward wasn’t a good enough reason for someone who loved interiors, and loved decorating, and loved the decorative arts, and was desperate to see McMillen continue beyond my mother’s era of contribution.
Q: In what ways do you continue to honor the history and traditions of McMillen, and what are some adjustments you have had to make to keep up with changing times?
A: I try to honor the history and traditions of McMillen in these ways: pursue honest business practices; take an educated and architectural outlook to an interior; use restraint in overall effect; fight to make a client choose products of excellence; take responsibility for excellence of execution on the part of our vendors and crafts-persons; try to find (identify) the best of what is ‘new’ and talk a client into integrating it, somehow, in what they are doing.
Tom Buckley, whom I have interviewed extensively because he was head of the McMillen design department throughout the 1960s, recently described McMillen decorator Nathalie Davenport (who was Babe Paley’s decorator) as not having the McMillen look but the McMillen quality. And I would say that is one way of looking at what I in particular aim for: Something new/forward looking but that has, underneath its show-cover (a toney, museum-term for fabric) balance, authority, excellence of craftsmanship, and, well, hate to use word, “timelessness.” And by timelessness I would like to qualify — that which participates of a trend but will not seem trendy when that trend has become dated.
As to adjustments to our ‘model’ (I will even adjust my vocabulary to changing times!) from the past to the future, the most significant to me is the conviction that to clients it should be revealed (read: “clients should be given “transparency”) our business transactions. And I think this should be so for two different reasons: 1) pricing is more available to our clients than it used to be — the Internet makes pricing available and there is a lack of vendors today who are ‘open only to the trade.’ 2) because decorating has had a sort of reputation for marking products up beyond what they should be marked. And the only way, in my opinion, to undo this reputation is to expose how we charge to clients, and explain to them why our mark-ups need to be the way they are.
And the other adjustment is the means by which publicity is acquired — Instagram, websites, blogs, vanity books, panels… None of which existed 20, 30, 40 years ago. (Show houses, yes, from the beginning; and magazine features, yes.) And these things take time and resources to manipulate competitively, time and money that takes away from the act of decorating, and learning to decorate.
For me, the biggest change in decorating today is the speed at which certain transactions are made possible by new technologies — cell phones, computers, etc. This available ‘speed’ being countered by the obdurate lack of speed with which the human brain can compute with. A simple scenario of what I am talking about: I am in a taxi going down Park Avenue toward the office, my brain thinking about all sorts of things, not relating to decorating: Call from a client. Order this fabric. I send email via cell phone to fabric house. Call from office, give O.K. to start curtains this afternoon. I call curtain makers. WAIT A MINUTE — I wake up at night. No, the curtain design won’t work because no wall space between window trim and cornice! No, fabric is not going to look good with rug that came in different ‘blue’ than supposed to. In short, the ability to do all this in five minutes cannot be properly processed by the slow-to-work human brain, that is simultaneously being employed by several different employers within nano-seconds. In ‘the old days’ Marion Morgan of McMillen took all summer off to be in Europe. The Connaught in London hung her no-light lined curtains on the windows of her room, which were kept in storage every year for her annual summer returns. And her clients expected to wait for their ‘schemes’ while she refreshed herself by drifting back through 18th century London, Paris, and Venice — and finding treasures to sell them.
Q: With your 100-year anniversary not too far away, what would you say are some of McMillen’s most important historic highlights? (the Johnson White House, Blair House, Rosedown Plantation, “Interiors of Tomorrow,” Grace Fakes?)
A: I will add the house for Henry and Anne Ford in Detroit- it equates with Rosedown in that both were examples of very different periods of design — Rosedown, the despised Victorian period, beautifully done, and the Fords, the second half of the 18th century. And both were examples of the highest-end workmanship, objects, and collaboration possible in America in the 1950s. And most important, the Paris ’52 exhibit at which my mother opened the door. (McMillen didn’t sell much to its clients at that exhibit, but the exhibition was prescient — the names of artists represented there did not come into their own in American decorating until ten years ago: Adnet, Poillerat, Dunant, Nolle, Olds (Maxine), Jouve…Incredible, really.) And then, a footnote, an exhibit at McMillen during the second World War no one at McMillen now has ever heard about: American and French painting, held in Jan. 1942, at which the first work by deKooning was ever hung in public, and Lee Krasner met Jackson Pollack (also represented in the show). Rather amazing, no?
In answering this question it is apparent to me that ‘shows’ and ‘exhibitions’ are more important as historic highlights than decorating interiors, which, no matter how stunning at time of execution, are fleeting, whether because they degrade over time, are not photographed, or not photographed well. To more comprehensively answer your question, a client list of McMillen from 1924 to present is perhaps the highlight of McMillen’s presence in American history . As of today, our client list includes some of the most interesting and visible and wealthy Americans as well as many of less visible and less wealthy. A combination to be proud of. (Just today I had to cut between two billionaire clients on the phone; neither aware that we are struggling to maintain a staff that can service them.)
Q: Brown once said, “If you get it right the first time, there’s no need to change.” Her apartment remained virtually unchanged over her lifetime with just paint and upholstery refreshed every 20 years. What is the secret to creating interiors that will withstand the test of time?
A: I have probably answered this in terms of the adherence to principles of balance and symmetry, and beginning a project by creating a proper architectural shell in which to deploy furniture and objects, and on which to place fabric and color. At the risk of repeating myself, I believe that the ‘bones’ and the ‘intelligence’ (meaning the decoration in relation to the space) are what Mrs. Brown was talking about when she said she “got it right the first time.” Because if you look at 1928 photos of her living room and compare them to the 1972 photographs, boy did the apartment change!!! Little white fur rugs replaced an expensive Aubusson, the color of the walls turned from a dreary white to a lemon yellow, etc. But what did not change were the pilasters she applied to the walls, which gave authority to the seating arrangements. Or the blocking off of a window in her dining room, and the woodwork that was created in the corners of the dining room in order to make of its existing rectangular shape an oval shape, indisputably more successful.
Q: Your daughter, Elizabeth Pyne, is now a designer with McMillen, Inc. How does her style differ from yours and your mother’s? What are a few examples of things her generation is looking for that are different from generations past?
A: I think her clients are looking for the same things that have always represented McMilllen: well-executed work; a look that will be appropriate; honest business transactions; a well-known decorator for themselves. (Words like “brown furniture” have never applied to McMillen, so the trend against “brown furniture” (a phrase I don’t really grasp anyway) doesn’t really apply to what clients want.) I don’t want to speak for her, but I think her clients are interested in their homes as places to be happy with their families and themselves, and as such, their decor choices reflect the personal ‘loves’ they have rather than decor choices that will suit the next buyer.
When I look at her interiors I see clear colors more than muddy colors. I see some of the furniture that she uses is less expensive than some that I use, given my druthers. I see the same room layouts — organized for easy socialization, and taking architectural elements into consideration. In general, Elizabeth is not interested in being as academic as I am in my approach to decorating. She is a better business getter than I am, and probably makes her clients feel happier about their homes than I might make my clients feel. But I am speaking for her, and would love to know her ‘take’ on this question. My mother and she are much more similar to each other than either is to me.
Q: What are the primary reasons clients have flocked to McMillen for nearly 100 years, and what does the future hold for the company?
A: I think I have answered the first part, so to add something different, or say it differently — we work like dogs to give our clients something of value in their lives. We also try to make their interiors represent not what they wanted yesterday but what they will want in the future.
Second part of your question: I hope the future for McMillen holds something that means we will still be around as long as I am alive. But if it doesn’t, I will remember the words my mother frequently used to comfort me in times of my distresses (I have always hated change, and so has my daughter, Elizabeth) “The old order changeth, yielding place to new, and God fulfills himself in many ways, lest one good custom should corrupt the world.” These are Tenneyson’s words, the great Victorian poet, but my mother also said, among her last words to me as she lay in bed, “Well, we’ll do the best we can, and then we’ll have a party.” (Mrs. Brown said something like “personal taste at its highest level reflects …[I have to get quote…] I will quote John Donne, “Let us make in sonnets pretty rooms,” the equivalent of a well-wrought urn being better than a half-acre tomb, meaning I believe in small carefully made spaces than those that are larger and gaudy. And McMillen has made, and I hope I have too, some beautifully wrought urns, and that we will continue to make them.
A truly fascinating history, Ann – I cannot thank you enough for this! Under the continuance of excellent leadership and vision, McMillen, Inc. is perfectly poised to continue creating beauty for the next 95 years. For additional reading, I highly recommend the book Sixty Years of Interior Design: The World of McMillen. Please visit www.mcmilleninc.com for more information, and you can follow @mcmilleninc on Instagram for ongoing inspiration.