Designer Uses Holistic Approach to ‘Build Dreams’

by WOHe

Designer Uses Holistic Approach to ‘Build

by Daina Darzin

WASHINGTON, D.C. Mary Douglas Drysdale was born to design. “My hero
at age nine was Frank Lloyd Wright,” she declares. “I started
building forts and treehouses with roofs that didn’t leak. I just
liked building.”
This early enthusiasm hasn’t diminished one bit. The Washington,
DC-based Drysdale has built a successful business with her own
custom cabinetry and ultra-high-end designs that provide her
clients with a dream-come-true atmosphere. 

In American families today, the kitchen is the most important
room, Drysdale believes. More than just a room, it’s “a series of
spaces that interact. [It’s] the heart of the house. We cook with
our [kids] and our spouse, with our friends. I love bringing music
and sometimes, musical instruments, into the kitchen, and always a
home office. It’s a place where you can organize while being with
your family,” she says.

A strong base
Drysdale decries the lack of knowledge of architectural history
among the design community. “Most of today’s architects have no
idea what happened in America in a real way,” she complains. “They
have no idea about European architectural history, so what do they
have to build on?”

Her own education started at age 19, when Drysdale took off for
three years in Europe. She learned fluent French, studied at the
Ecole des Beaux Arts and Ecole des Science Politique, and worked at
a “three franc an hour” job at a French architecture firm. She
spent time exploring European architecture, visiting great
buildings from England to Spain 
to Beirut. 

Once she returned to the U.S., things happened quickly. “I
started doing very small things and, lo and behold, these tiny
little projects were ending up on the covers of magazines,” she
recalls. “I couldn’t have been more surprised. I found that, not
only could I do the design reasonably well, but I felt passionate
about it. 

“I lead a well-designed life,” she continues. “I want to be
surrounded by things I find appealing. I’d rather have nothing in a
room than have something that’s a [style] compromise.”

Holistic concepts
Drysdale emphasizes a holistic approach to all of her work. “When I
look at a design in my own office, if I have someone come in and
say, ‘how do you like this?’ I give them one of my smiles and say,
‘This? What project are you talking about?

Against what wall?’ There should be a single vision that directs
the process.” Everything, she emphasizes, exists in context.
To help adhere to this concept, Drysdale purposely keeps her firm
small (except for her two Great Danes, who accompany her to the
office). “We principally do projects where [we’re doing] major
renovations or [working] from the ground up. We design the
interiors. We also design a lot of the furniture, [and] have an art
curator on staff,” she notes. “We all work together.”

Drysdale subcontracts nearly all of her installations, including
the custom cabinetry she often designs for her clients. However,
she is always aware of the full picture. 

“I design fully integrated spaces,” she explains. “I don’t want
to have another basket rack on top of the kitchen cabinets. I don’t
want to have a bulkhead that’s a different color.” 

Awkward details, awkward design moments are anathema to her, she
explains, and 
custom-designed cabinets serve to eliminate all that often, at a
lower cost than high-end custom from a major

The standard sizes of cabinetry also make Drysdale tend toward
custom. “[The] sizes don’t always conform, and we like our
[cabinets] to fit perfectly,” Drysdale elaborates, “no filler
joints that people commonly use. We just feel it’s a higher level
of [design], a higher quality product. You don’t have the
complexity of dealing with numerous subcontractors, trying to fill
in the little patches of space that should have been attended to in
the first place.”

Additionally, “We make our own islands, pot racks, aprons and
potholders,” she notes. “At the end of the job, we have a stately,
fully elegant and coherent, rational space that people aren’t
afraid to entertain in. Some of my clients 
are happy to have a black tie event and have people walk into their

Dream designs
In business for over 20 years, Drysdale’s current projects include
a show house benefiting breast cancer research. Designed for
“client” Bette Midler, the project is an opportunity to display
Drysdale’s fervently held design beliefs and ideas. 

A dramatic arrangement of columns frame the entrance to the
kitchen. A SieMatic island with a birch top and a custom-designed
pot rack provide focal points, along with golden-yellow painted
cabinets; a dining room with very expensive Swedish painted chairs
leads one to the butler’s pantry for the effect of multiple
frameworks. A Steinway piano, handmade tiles and bowls, a fireplace
and lounging chair complete the complex, multi-dimensional space.
“All of the countertops are wooden I’m out of my granite phase,”
Drysdale quips. “I also put rugs in all of my kitchens. Often, I
[use] worn Persians.”

“We all have incredibly hectic lives,” she states. “We work very
hard. We deserve satisfaction out of our lives, and that’s
something I can do for people. I consider myself a ‘dream maker.’
There’s almost a spiritual essence, a peace, that homes have to
[provide]. I think you should be able to come home from one of
those really bad days, open your door and say, ‘thank God I live
here.’ That is what it’s all about.”

Drysdale Inc.

LOCATION: Washington, DC
PRINCIPAL: Mary Douglas Drysdale
SHOWROOMS: One, 6,500 sq. ft. 
HOURS OF OPERATION: By appointment only 
MAJOR PRODUCT LINES: SieMatic, Gaggennau, Sub-Zero, Viking,
SPECIALTY: Designs her own custom cabinets.
BUSINESS PHILOSOPHY: “My goal is to create a dream-like yet
practical kitchen space that is artfully integrated and coordinated
with the overall architecture of the house.” 

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