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Born in Baltimore, Maryland, raised in Summit, New Jersey, and now based just a stone’s throw away from bustling NYC in New Canaan, Connecticut, designer Lilse McKenna is an East Coaster through and through. Her regional roots shine through in her interior style, which is also largely shaped by her familial ties. In fact, McKenna’s love for interior design started young, and much of her passion was ignited by her surrounding environment as well as her late grandmother.
Not only did McKenna’s late grandmother have incredible taste, but she also “made her home such a pleasure to live in,” McKenna recalls, an ethos that’s true to her firm today. She also taught young McKenna many important design lessons, like this little kernel of truth: “‘Every room needs a little bit of red.’It is such a simple concept, but I still think about it whenever I am designing a new room. I sometimes take this literally, and sometimes interpret ‘red’ as the hint of juxtaposition that every room needs to make it dynamic and capable of evolving.”
While being exposed to great design early surely inspired her career, at first, she “always thought of it as a great art, but just as a hobby until it was time to decide what to do with my life,” she tells HB. Prior to starting her own design firm, McKenna honed her skills under the mentorship of Lindsey Coral Harper and Markham Roberts. “I spend a lot of time thinking about my clients and their homes—the practical considerations of how they use the space, how their family will evolve in it, how they host guests,” she says. Though each project is as unique as her clients, McKenna’s interiors are marked by classic warmth and a livable attitude. You’ll also see her respect for history and her firmly-held belief in the home as living art—always personal, evolving, and full of joy—shine through her work.
Get to Know Lilse McKenna:
What project are you the proudest of and why?
This is like asking me to pick my favorite child! So I’m taking an alternate route; The project I am most proud of is Lilse McKenna Inc. Building a company is a very slow, methodical, painstaking art. With a house, you get to see the finished product—walk through it, feel it—and have a sense of accomplishment. With a company, the closest you will come to that is seeing the summary of a year on a financial report or having a celebratory meal with your team. The small habits of a company, like the rapport between the team members, require a lot of time and effort to build. I am very proud of the little company that I’ve created.
What sets your work apart?
I spend a lot of time thinking about my clients and their homes—the practical considerations of how they use the space, how their family will evolve in it, how they host guests—and also the less obvious elements of their current tastes and how those might shift over time. I consider interior design to be a large long-term investment and I want to give my clients spaces that they will continue to love for as long as they are in them. Part of creating that longevity is about layering a space and agonizing over the smallest details.
How do you want your clients to feel in their space?
I think all my clients have beautiful styles and tastes, and I want them to feel that their spaces reflect that and their ideal way of living, but also that they can continue to grow and evolve in their spaces. They can add a new piece of art, a new throw, or an interesting antique and it won’t detract from the room that we originally designed for them.
What or who was your first design crush?
My grandmother was definitely my first design crush. What a funny sentence, but it is true. I spent as much time as I could in her houses, studying all the details and enjoying the effort she and my grandfather put into making them such a pleasure to live in. Their homes were traditional and layered, collected over decades with art, antiques, and even silly accessories that they loved.
And your current design crush?
I think I’ll always have a design crush on Markham Roberts. His work is endlessly smart and dynamic.
What’s your favorite room, anywhere, of all time, and why?
There are too many to choose from that I have seen in photographs, but my favorite room I’ve ever visited in person was my grandmother’s Nancy-Lancaster-yellow living room. She entertained in it but it was also where she sat every afternoon to read the latest design magazine or book. It had a leopard carpet and a collection of furniture and fabrics that was very studied but looked completely effortless. It reflected her personality, her interests, and the course of her life so beautifully. When I design for clients I have the recipe for that room in the back of my mind, and I am always striving to create spaces that reflect my clients in the way my grandmother’s living room reflected her.
Where do you look for inspiration?
Pre-pandemic and pre-toddlers, travel was probably my greatest inspiration, but today it is my collection of books. I probably buy two or three design books a week and try to make time to study them. I fill them with sticky notes and take photos of their pages on my phone. Some of my real treasures are out of print and completely beat up.
What would we be surprised to learn about you?
I planned to go to law school after college but decided to go into interior design because I realized I was filling all my LSAT study breaks with shelter magazines and design blogs.
For under $100—or even for free!—what decorating trick has the most impact?
Drawing out your furniture plan is free and essential to giving a space intentionality. Walking into a room and saying “the sofa should go there” without really considering the ultimate goals and overall layout of the space is a mistake I see people make all the time that could be so easily resolved with a little forethought and planning.
What’s the first thing someone should do when they move into a new space?
Measure it and draw up plans! You can either do this on your own or hire someone to survey it and draw simple plans. The drawings on the real estate listing are typically not accurate enough for real planning. Even if you are not going to decorate the whole space at once (especially if you are not going to!) you will need these plans to draw out your ultimate desired furniture arrangement and purchase items that will fit accordingly. They are your map to planning your life in the space.
What’s overrated in decorating?
The latest greatest trend, whatever it might be, is always already on its way out.
What’s underrated in decorating?
Charm, livability, timelessness.
What’s your favorite—and why?
Thing to collect:
Interior design books for inspiration and research, and china for fun.
I am always inspired by the work of some of the great designers from the1960s and ’70s” Renzo Mongiardino, Parish Hadley, Billy Baldwin. The balance between their respect for history and traditional elements and the influence of midcentury modern design resulted in such diverse and timeless spaces.
Benjamin Moore Capitol White. It’s a white with just a hint of ivory and warmth.
Artist or piece of art:
Anything by Jean Dufy. His work is so full of joy, and his use of color combined with his painterly style transports me.
Local shopping destination:
Antique & Artisan Gallery, because they always have something perfect for a client (or for me!).
Chairish, because they have such a wide range of vintage and antique items.
Paris because of the museums, the shopping, the gardens, the food, the hotels… Everything!
Decor item you bought from Amazon:
Rattan trays for a portable desk lunch.
Follow House Beautiful on Instagram.
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