Build a Skyline in Your Space like Brian J. McCarthy Does

Shortly after we married, Chris and I lived in a condo with a two-story vaulted ceiling in the great room. It was a good-sized room but a bit on the narrow side, a stone fireplace stacked all the way up the longest wall and lots of tall, narrow windows with transoms. By comparison, our low sofa, chairs and cocktail tables looked utterly lost, like debris from a shipwreck bobbing in a sea of blue wall-to-wall carpeting.

The solution? We brought in an antique china cupboard from the adjacent (cramped) dining room.

The height of the cupboard made all the difference in that great room. It became the bridge that connected the line of sight around the room. I’d never had high ceilings before, and I remember being a bit awed at the difference it made AND that I’d solved my own design dilemma by following my instincts and experimenting. I thought of it again when I read this in the October House Beautiful:

Among the lessons I learned as a young designer at Parish-Hadley was to build a skyline to inspire the eye to travel around a room. My own method is three-dimensional: If I’m sitting in this chair, what do I look at? If I enter from that doorway, what grabs me first? What’s happening overhead? A plan that considers objects in the round brings a room to life.

– Brian J. McCarthy

What better way to see this idea at work than in some of McCarthy’s own rooms? Each is a design lesson in itself, and multiple photographs of individual rooms also give you a feel for his three-dimensional approach.

Upper-east-side Manhattan apartment

The part of the living room visible through the doorway becomes part of the foyer skyline. You can imagine the idea works in reverse if you’re seated in that red-striped Louis XVI-style gilt chair looking out.

A wall tiled in mirrors behind the sofa subtly reflects the fireplace and faux-painted ebony pilasters on the opposite wall. That, along with the painting hung over it, add to the room’s “skyline.” Even the tall brass candlesticks with their tapers contribute to a layer.

Here you get a better look at the fireplace, and from another angle, you would likely see the Milton Avery nude reflected in this mirror, as well as an intriguing infinity effect of mirror facing mirror.

In the master bedroom of the same apartment, a glossy black defines the architecture, while the simplicity of color and pattern allows the subtle textures and lux finishes to stand out. What a delicate use of chartreuse in the accents!

The fretwork-patterned carpet introduces a vitalizing element, while the custom-designed paisley fabric in the drapery panels and chair upholstery connects graphically to both the zebra pattern and the rug.

The ebonized-wood bed mimics the glossy black moldings and the slim line of the desk. I love the subtle blue down the middle of the zebra-print bench and how the prints over the bed pick up that same dreamy color.

McCarthy’s own Upper East Side Manhattan apartment

This secondary seating area in the living is visible as you enter the apartment McCarthy shares with husband Daniel Sager, in much the same way as the living room in the previous apartment. In every room, McCarthy achieves his “skyline” and “in the round” sensibility while combining furnishings from wildly differing periods in unexpected arrangements that work so well they seem fated to be joined.

“For me, decorating interiors is like painting,” McCarthy says. “You begin with your canvas on an easel and a point of view. Then you start sketching, building up layers, until eventually it takes on its own natural form.” As an art lover with a wide-ranging collection of contemporary paintings and photographs, he doesn’t use that analogy lightly. Unusual artwork invites visitors to take a closer look. “Art brings a heartbeat to a home like nothing else.”

“In my own living room, details like the coffee table’s crystal feet, a wall bracket, chunky dentil molding, and a chocolate-brown ceiling create visual interest at every level,” McCarthy says. “The large gestural painting is a striking foil for the otherwise quiet, traditional scheme. It’s a dynamic presence that injects the room with sophistication and creative energy.”

McCarthy and Sager’s apartment is in a pre-war building across from Carnegie Hall. This northwest corner window overlooks Central Park.

McCarthy’s Kerhonkson, NY, farmhouse

McCarthy’s “skyline” is evident in he and Sager’s country house in the Catskills. To McCarthy, it’s not about “decorating.” It’s about furnishing a room with things you love. And in the case of a country home, it’s “all about bringing light and the outdoors in.”

“Spring Cleaning” by Kati Heck hangs opposite the fireplace in the living room. The Directoire daybed establishes a foreground and pulls you into the scene. Me? I like those kitty-cats, and I’m wondering where their coats went. Is that why they’re eyeing the pillow on the daybed? The entire scene looks like something out of a fantastical dream—what fun!

McCarthy also designed the gardens surrounding the property, evidence that his approach works just as well outside as in.

Many of these photos appear in McCarthy’s book, Luminous Interiors. His collaboration with Bunny Williams, The Parish-Hadley Tree of Life: An Intimate History of the Legendary Design Firm, is just out.

See/read more about designer Brian McCarthy here:

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