Designing in Style
Mary Ferry Bigelow mixes eras, colors and patterns in her glorious home
Many interior designers establish a singular style. Others move with agility from monochromic postmodern to Louis XV in the blink of an eye, or at the whim of a client.
Most are comfortable showing their latest work to a customer, but few throw open their doors to give a glimpse of how they decorate for themselves.
Mary Ferry Bigelow’s doors, flanked by large, silver obelisks, the same objects that she collects in various periods, sizes and materials, give only the slightest hint to the visual excitement that awaits inside her seemingly simple 1906 University section cottage.
“While my house doesn’t represent the sort of work I do for all of my clients, it does reflect a lifetime of collecting and works in progress,” says Bigelow, whose body of work includes plantation homes, a massive apartment at One River Place, Garden District mansions and numerous starter and second homes.
“I like bold colors tempered with traditional pieces. You would definitely describe my style as eclectic,” says this native New Orleanian, who after stints in Charlottesville, VA; Mill Valley, CA; and New York—she attended the prestigious New York School of Interior Design—returned home and eventually moved back into her childhood home.
The living room has several conversation areas defined by Bessarabian carpets. A small settee at the entrance is mirrored by an oversized, down-filled sofa piled high with pillows. Both are covered in a vintage Clarence House fabric in a pattern of great swags of roses and ribbons on a black background. A small sofa and matching club chair covered in Pierre Frey’s bold black-and-white zebra print cotton, a pottery garden seat and coffee table made from an 18th-century plant stand, sets the stage for parties.
Walls are ragged, sponged and painted throughout the house. The silver used for the obelisks is repeated in moldings and ceilings in the living and dining room. When asked about it, the designer says with insouciance, “It’s a mixture: Ralph Lauren on the ceilings, industrial hydrant paint for the crown moldings.”
A punctuation point in the room is a small slipper chair, which is the height of Belle Epoque chic. “I got it for $10,” says the decorator. “By the time I had it reupholstered with Brunschwig & Fils fabric and Scalamandre fringe, it wound up costing about $1,000. So much for my big bargain!”
Color is one of Bigelow’s strongest suits. Her dining room walls are ragged with a bold raspberry paint. One wall hosts floor-to-ceiling bookcases; others are accented with botanical and architectural drawings, collected for years and found in groupings throughout the house. Faux malachite chairs surround a round table covered with yards of Clarence House fabric—a repeat of the fabric on the living room sofas and settee.
There are two very important pieces in the room: an English Regency sideboard from Keil’s Antiques on Royal Street and a Mario Villa metal console. Typical of her style, their significance isn’t overplayed.
One advantage of being a decorator is that you know every trick, craftsperson and resource in the trade. Ordering wholesale means you can really go for it in certain areas.
Bigelow used 100 yards of Brunschwig fabric to drape and cover her antique childhood tester bed and to create matching curtains for her guest bedroom. Artist Nicolas Crowell hand-painted the walls. A bench is covered in an amusing Pierre Frey fabric. It’s almost as amusing as the leopard-patterned Clarence House seat cover on her exercise bike!
Bigelow turned a third bedroom into an office. A daybed is piled high with sample books, as is the huge, wildly organized walk-in closets flanked by seven-foot-high upholstered screens. For added whimsy, the room’s ceiling is painted like the sky and her computer and printer are accented in purple.
The kitchen is a clever mix. “The bubble-gum pink walls, garden green trellises, a floor painted in a bold checkerboard pattern, the prints of fish and vases with their French matting, all draw the eye away from the 1948 details in this room,” says Bigelow, who remains astonished by the interest in her vintage stove.
The decorator’s house is definitely an evolutionally process. With a bed from her childhood, bookcases from the early stages of her marriage, through the many faux finishes, the collections of obelisks and antique prints, one can hardly say this is a house done overnight.
“Oh, I am traditional and sentimental about things. When you are a decorator you know things—like malachite finished chairs—take a long time to get done. So you want to live with them for a while, too.”