A graphic series by Donald Judd makes a bold statement in the living room, where the walls are upholstered in silk.
A statue by Manuel Neri flanks the fireplace in the living room.
A cup sculpture by Zach Duncan-Tessmer tops an antique pedestal table.
A tone-on-tone palette sets the mood in the foyer.
Drysdale grounded the three-story octagonal foyer with a muted color scheme.
A light and airy ambience prevails in the dining room.
In lieu of dark paneling and leather, Drysdale outfitted the library with gray walls, abstract art and antiques.
Red accents enliven the family room.
Drysdale designed a fresh and inviting guest room with a tufted bedstead by Kravet.
The home's wooded grounds are graced with a luxurious pool, spacious patio and trickling fountain.

A Fresh Approach

In the McLean home of long-time clients, Mary Douglas Drysdale gracefully bucks tradition

Some of the best client-designer relationships evolve to a rarified state in which dialog is superfluous and words are replaced by an instant understanding of what resonates with a homeowner. After collaborating with a couple on five houses for a total of nine projects over 20 years, designer Mary Douglas Drysdale and a Virginia couple have reached this stage. “It’s truly a gift when you find people who both support your creativity and feel as though you get them so well that when you see things it’s just clear: They’re going to like this,” Drysdale explains. “We have this wonderful visual relationship.”

After the couple purchased a stately brick home on five acres of manicured grounds in a quiet McLean neighborhood, it was a given that Drysdale would help them appoint the interiors in their casual but elegant style. The designer drew on the owners’ existing collection of furniture and art—which she knows so well—and, when necessary, searched out new pieces to complement the mix. Almost instinctively, she manipulated color, either toning down the existing palette or in some cases adding richer hues. The end result is a welcoming residence where the owners can host dinner for 50 on a dime but also cozy up for family suppers over a football game on an autumn afternoon. 

The main entry hall leads to an octagonal foyer that soars three stories high. Though previous owners heightened the drama of the room with murals on the walls, Drysdale went for a muted effect. Now painted a soothing gray, the walls beautifully offset a series of photographs by Washington-based Maxwell MacKenzie and abstract works by Maggie Michael. The designer covered an octagonal table with a linen skirt banded in satin. Tone-on-tone accessories and a light-colored settee provide contrast.

The designer took a similar approach—putting novel, unexpected spins on traditional vocabulary—in the spacious rooms emanating from the octagon. “I call myself a ‘new traditionalist,’” Drysdale explains. “I love to bring fresh color and an uncluttered sensibility to my work. There has to be directness to the space. It’s not minimal—there’s just enough there.”

In the living room, silk-covered walls and billowing drapes offer a perfect foil to upholstered furniture and an orange-and-white series by Donald Judd positioned above the main seating arrangement. The owners’ modern art—including a painted bronze statue by Manuel Neri standing next to the living room fireplace—sets a bold, irreverent tone. Drysdale, who calls her clients’ collection “colorful, simple and engaging,” points out that this house defies the notion that modern art only works in contemporary homes or industrial-style lofts.

An abstract painting by Ross Bleckner plays off the deep gray, glossy paint color Drysdale selected in the library, which faces the formal dining room inside the front entry. Since other rooms had been reserved for her clients’ home offices, she broke with the norm and proposed that the ground-floor room serve as a receiving room or overflow dining space. With its steely gray backdrop and lacquered black console and pedestal table, it is at once striking and inviting. 

Though Drysdale confesses to a “what have I done?” moment after selecting the paint color, she is pleased with the outcome. “There are plenty of things that you have to do that are conventional,” she reasons. “You have to follow code. But it’s fun to do something that’s slightly unexpected and have it be successful.”

The dining room faces the library, which is painted a paler blue. Slipcovers in Rogers & Goffigon striped linen on the owners’ existing chairs convey a less-than-formal vibe. “We wanted it to feel light and comfortable and airy,” says Drysdale. A painting by Jacob Kainen above the sideboard reinforces the hue.

The designer transitioned to a darker palette in the family room, where the owners and their children gather to watch television. Reds prevail in the carpet, the animal print fabric and accessories. French doors spill out to stone terraces, walkways and a pool—all secluded by mature landscaping and woods. “There’s not a bad view out of any window,” says Drysdale of the property. “There’s the sense that you’re in a protected place, close to the city but with your own magnificent landscape and yard.” 

Though the master bedroom is a work in progress, Drysdale recently completed a guestroom that reflects the home’s unfettered attitude. A tufted Kravet bed with nailhead trim creates a casual tone; the black-and-white striped rug and playful ceramics are “simple and unpretentious,” she says.

This project is a testament to buying good, solid furniture with staying power. “There’s a very practical side to this,” says Drysdale. “People don’t throw out everything they own. They reinvent it and give it a new freshness so it works just as well in the new home as it did in a previous one.”

In this case, the process was especially rewarding since Drysdale has been there since the couple first feathered their nest decades ago. “We complete each others’ sentences,” she marvels. “And sometimes you need fewer and fewer words as the years go on! It’s a very gratifying experience.”  

Photographer Angie Seckinger splits her time between Potomac, Maryland, and Spain.