BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
“I want my clients to lead a beautiful life—but have a really good mud room as well.”
–Lake Forest Interior designer Cathy McGowan.
With a design philosophy that mixes luxurious silks with more forgiving fabrics that welcome children and dogs, Atlanta native Cathy McGowan is one of the North Shore’s most sought after interior designers. And her reach extends beyond our Lake Michigan shores, delighting clients from coast to coast and resort communities in the Bahamas; Door County; Palmetto Bluff; and Spring Island, South Carolina.
“I have strong feelings about bridging the design gap—holding on to our heritage and family treasures while embracing the bold creativity that is the new world of textiles and furniture design. It’s not black and white; when approached with an open mind you can make your grandmother and your grandkids think your home is absolutely perfect, while making yourself extremely happy at the same time.”
Having double-majored in design and journalism at college in Georgia, Cathy’s career was launched when friends began asking for her help to make their homes more beautiful.
“When my husband, Joe, and I were first married and lived Dallas, best friends asked me to come along with them to Calico Corners to choose curtain fabrics. Then, moms in my playgroup asked me to design their family rooms.
“Joe worked for American National Can, and we moved every two years. I had more design schooling along the way and then worked with friends I met in Richmond, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, working out of that fabulous design center there. I was gaining clients in each city where I lived, and when we moved to Connecticut, I made an office in my home and spent lots of time at design centers in New York.
“When we moved to Lake Forest, I decided to get serious and have dedicated office hours. I now design houses all over the North Shore and go back to my old haunts of Connecticut, San Francisco, and Los Angeles to do homes. This business would not exist without Joe’s help—he is my CEO, CFO, technology expert, and my rock.”
Described recently by a friend and client as “lovely, vibrant, extremely well-liked, and discreet,” Cathy proved to be a delightful companion for an afternoon’s conversation.
Is there a North Shore style?
I call it North Shore transitional, and you might say that it is somewhere between the Hamptons and Manhattan.
Who are your clients?
About fifty percent of my clients are friends with whom I have played squash or raised our children together, and about fifty percent are brand new. I try to listen to who they are. I am a real hands-on designer: it’s all about the client and me, and no one makes the decisions but us.
Would you say you have a signature style?
I hope not! Friends will talk to me about what they love. With new clients, I get them to articulate what they want, and maybe I get them to really reflect and draw back a little if they are contemplating something really edgy.
Sure, there are lots of trends, but I love the timeless, classic, and pretty. I definitely read the top line architectural magazines but remember thinking several years ago that the first pretty house I saw in them was Candace Bergen’s.
Do you have a favorite room that you most enjoy designing?
I would choose the main space: that great room in the house where life is going on all the time. Someone is doing homework, maybe the husband and wife are cooking together, the dog is on the sofa—this is the heart of a home. I love to do an awesome great room.
Where do you begin on a project?
In Winnetka, there is a lot of tearing down of old properties and starting from scratch. I have the luxury of starting alongside the architect, and I get involved with every tile on the floor, the roof material—everything that goes into the house.
In all projects, I try to get a clue from the person of what they love and build on that. It might be a fabulous oil painting that has been in their family for years. But I have some clients who just say, ‘Surprise me.’ If that’s the case, I’ll do every book, fork, glass, and work of art. For the books, it is all about the color of the spines.
Generally, I start with the family room where the majority of time will be spent. It is sometimes good to do a ‘phased living’ plan. People want to get their children settled, so we do those bedrooms very early on and do a master bedroom, which becomes a lovely oasis. Sometimes living rooms and dining rooms are only used at Christmastime, so they are later in the plan.
What about second homes?
I work on second homes all over the place—Arizona, Door County, and frequently in Naples. In some locations, it is all about getting more land—people like to go all out—and often prices are lower.
In Naples, it is all about the water and having a condominium on the Gulf. Some people want a three- or four-bedroom house in a golf community where there is good security.
In Boca Grande, I work with more cottages and historic bungalows. I stay with the architecture and the sense of place that the area’s history conveys. We like to keep what has been there forever.
In these second homes, I like to work with local furniture builders and use the woods of the area, such as South Carolina barnwood or wormy cypress when I am working in Palmetto Bluff or Spring Island.
In most, we use a lighter palette, and the style is really transitional. I was very lucky to live on St. Simons Island off the coast of Georgia at one point in my childhood, and I have a real love of vacation homes.
Who are your mentors and would you share some of their wisdom?
Alexandra Stoddard is a fabulous author and decorator. In Living a Beautiful Life, she really gives great decorating advice and starts you out in little ways. She recommends that you begin with your kitchen drawers and make them awesome by adding some pretty papers. She suggests tackling your laundry room next. The goal is to make every room sing to you.
What is your philosophy about color?
We fight a lot of gray in the winter, and it can often be very dreary outside. Because I am a real outdoors girl, I am inspired by the colors of nature. Grass, leaves, the sky—all their clean colors are like organized calm. Use color as well in accents like trims and pillows. Keep your canvas open as you look around your house!
What is the interior design field like in the Chicago area?
Everyone works so differently, and there is so much work to go around. There is really no competition. Designers often overlap clients, and we love to have the help. It is great to have interns and have the opportunity to train them. Only a small percentage of these kids just out of design school stay in the business—they soon realize it is really hard work.
Tell us about your own home.
We are downsizing! Joe and I are spending more and more time in Florida, and I am working all over the country. I want our new home to be very grown up and very sophisticated but ready at all times for dogs, children, and grandchildren!
For more information about Cathy McGowan, visit her website at mcgowaninteriors.com.