McMillen Inc. turns ninety this year, and the New York School of Interior Design is celebrating the august firm with an exhibition that explores its legacy of superior interiors. Writer Nancy Lazarus got a behind-the-scenes look at the country’s oldest continuously operating interior design firm during a recent visit to NYSID.
The white gloves worn in the 1920s, when McMillen was founded, are long gone, but the renowned interior design firm carries on many of the traditions that have accounted for its longevity, said Ann Pyne. As McMillen’s co-president and daughter of the founder, Eleanor Stockstrom McMillen Brown [Editor’s Note 06/11/2015: Please see reader comment at bottom of this article], Pyne shared her inside perspective at a recent NYSID panel discussion. The event coincides with a 90-year retrospective exhibit, on view until December 5.
“Walking into the McMillen office gives you the feeling that you’ve arrived at a company that knows its business,” said Tom Buckley, principal and founder of Brown Buckley, and a former head of McMillen’s design department. “Mrs. Brown had a very progressive mind and was a forward-moving businesswoman.”
As Pyne sees it, the firm’s design authority, non-negotiable business models, devotion to education, and attention to finishes are the cornerstones of its success. McMillen interiors also adhere to the “discipline of the room,” while promoting a sense of conviviality and coziness. That foundation has stayed with McMillen alumni long after working at the firm, noted Buckley.
Behind the carefully constructed façade was a cast of strong-willed characters, especially Grace Fakes. Pyne described her as “the secret genius” behind McMillen’s early years. Fakes trained two generations of the firm’s designers, and the archives are full of her designs. As one longtime employee said, “If Grace Fakes said it was right, it was right.” However, Fakes hated clients, and as Pyne noted, “She read the obituaries every day hoping one had died.”
McMillen’s roster of prestigious clients is on view in the exhibit, amid representations of the major world events like economic crises and wars that the firm managed to survive. The show is organized by chronology, and features watercolors, original renderings, photos, maquettes, fabric swatches, and archival materials like accounting ledgers.
Among the highlights of the early years are the Lorillard dining room from the 1920s, a miniature room exhibit that kept staff busy during the Great Depression of the 1930s, Mrs. Brown’s “Four Fountains” house in Southampton, Long Island from the 1940s, and the Ford foyer from the 1950s (pictured above, at left).
A highlight of the 1960s was designing Blair House in Washington, D.C. at Jackie Kennedy’s request. McMillen’s 1970s work was marked by a muted palette, and designing a party in the White House’s Rose Garden. The firm joined in 1980s exuberance and its “frenzy for chintz.”
In the 1990s each McMillen designer focused on site-specific projects, such as retreats in Vermont and Nantucket, and a redesign for Paul Allen’s yacht, Charade. The years from 2000 to the present showcase a variety of decorative styles, as well as the work of Ann’s daughter, Elizabeth Pyne. She is focusing on projects for younger clientele as she looks to carry on and update McMillen’s traditions.
Nancy Lazarus is a frequent contributor to UnBeige.