August 3, 2021

10 Questions With… Margaret McMahon

Margaret McMahon, founder of Wimberley Interiors. Photography courtesy of WATG. 

Celebrations are in order. Let’s blow out the candles on Wimberly Interiors’ 10th anniversary cake. And while we’re at it, clink glasses in a toast to Margaret McMahon, founder of the studio, which operates under the aegis of the venerable WATG. It was established in Honolulu in 1945 and had an interiors studio in operation from the 1990s to early 2000s. McMahon is at the top of her design game, especially when it comes to hospitality. She was managing director of Wilson Associates, New York, for more than 30 years. Now under her leadership, Wimberly Interiors—collaborating both with in-house and outside architects—has grown to a global entity. Its team of 80 is spread through main offices in New York, London, Los Angeles, Singapore, and Shanghai plus a satellite presence in New Delhi. Projects are concentrated in the hospitality arena, particularly luxury properties. Recent openings include: the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express; Fairmont Taghazout, Morocco; Viceroy Kopaonik, Serbia; and Hotel Del Coronado, California. 

McMahon is a self-described “Queens girl,” the youngest of four, who “worked that angle to the nth degree.” She grew up racing sail boats. Schooling was both domestic and international: State University of New York Albany, then political science studies in Denmark followed by studies at Parsons School of Design once she started her interior design career. She lives in a Brooklyn brownstone with her husband, Mike, and three dogs, as her Instagram followers know. Part of her story is a tribute to women.

Interior Design: What are your earliest memories of design?

Margaret McMahon: My mother used to take us to Straus Paint in Bayside [Queens, New York], and we’d select the wall coverings for our bedrooms. My father was a doctor, but he had four hungry kids to feed so we didn’t have an interior designer. I was going to be a lawyer, but my dad wouldn’t pay for law school. During the summer, I needed a job and went to the temp agency Kelly Partners. I was able to type and cut matte board, as they asked. They sent me to 39 East 67th Street, the office of Trisha Wilson Associates. I helped put together a Bankers Trust project, organized the sample room, typed memos, and answered phones.

ID: Wow. Kismet. What pushed you to enter the field, and who were your mentors?

MM: Trisha’s office was a beautiful brownstone with a bedroom for her to stay. She came to town one day, and I brought her Entenmann’s donuts. She must have said to her studio manager, “keep her.” After six months, I said to Trisha, “My mother said I’ve got to get a real job because I’m a temp.” She said, “We’ll hire you.” That’s how my career started. Trisha was my greatest mentor.

My first mentor was my mother. She went to Georgetown and was brilliant. She was a former accessories editor at Harper’s Bazaar before having us kids. Even though she was a stay-at-home mom, she was completely switched on. Later on, Ann Sacks was instrumental in helping me move from Wilson to WATG. I had three amazing women guiding me.

Fairmont Taghazout. Photography courtesy of Fairmont Taghazout.

ID: When you came to WATG to establish Wimberly Interiors, you had to make some tough and even controversial decisions. Tell us about them.

MM: I was assessing which studios were doing work at the design level we needed to be on, which really meant we needed to run in the same circles as the architects. Some offices and individuals were; some weren’t. I really wanted people to like me, but I told our CEO that we needed to close the Honolulu interiors studio and move the interiors group out of Irvine, California because I couldn’t find the talent I needed. After that we merged with SR3, opened the Beverly Hills studio, and then relocated to DTLA along with the WATG team. Most difficult was shifting the talent. It resulted in only one of our original team staying, Rachel Johnson, our studio director in London. Since then, the company has grown exponentially.

ID: How does Wimberly Interiors work within the umbrella of WATG, and what are some keys to its success?

MM: Talent is number one. Being collaborative is another. Our architects were used to working with the world’s best design firms, and they realized that prior to 2011 the interior design studio was only dabbling in it. Now we create great work together. One of the reasons that brand has grown so quickly is being on the coattails of the architects. They opened the doors for us.

Jinan Kempinski. Photography courtesy of Jinan Kempinski. 

ID: You’re a hospitality maven par excellence. Obviously, this arena has suffered during the pandemic and will see major changes as the world opens up. What are some of them and how do they differ among cultures?

MM: There are some countries we absolutely can’t get into—China the biggest. This has been a seismic shift for us. Human touch is very important—being able to interact with clients and locations in real time. While we’re all over Zoom, we’ve been able to get to some areas we need to—the Middle East and Europe—as we have started to travel. Physically not being permitted to go somewhere, including the studio, has been the hardest. The simple act of sitting next to someone can spark up the most random conversation and lead to real magic happening.

ID: How are you and your team currently working?

MM: We’re back in the studio three days a week. We’ve been working full time, and our office has been open since July 6. At the time, we were limited to five [people] at a time. The design community and vendors have been incredible. Now, we’ve been traveling, meeting clients, and getting back to normal where we can.

Rosewood Bahamar. Photography courtesy of Rosewood Bahamar.

ID: What got you through the pandemic, both professionally and personally?

MM: Change of location was huge for me. Relocating to our cabin in Oneonta [New York] and being in nature helped me and my husband Mike. At the start, part of my inspiration came from everyday objects. Creating color boards—the idea of making something and telling a great design story helped a lot. Connecting with the team through weekly round-up calls was also huge. Talking about what they were cooking, watching, reading; how their dogs were; how their spouses were. I learned so much about my staff through this process, almost more than I did in 10 years in the office.

ID: What stimulates you design-wise? What are your personal interests?

MM: Film and fashion absolutely influence me. Art as well. I love hiking with my dogs, as simple as that sounds. I had forgotten how to mine for gold, meaning my designers are constantly looking for ideas and inspiration. I love getting into the trenches and rolling up my sleeves. When you’re a manager, you don’t get to flex your design muscles as much. I love getting back into that again when time permits.

Viceroy Kopaonik. Photography courtesy of Viceroy Kopaonik.

ID: Some of your favorites in art, books, music, movies?

MM: Post Malone for music. Alexander McQueen for fashion. Art-wise I’m excited for [Jean-Michel] Basquiat and the [Vincent] van Gogh exhibit. I’m a documentary junkie. I’ve just finished “The Four Winds” by Kristin Hannah, a book about the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression.

ID: If you hadn’t been a designer, you’d have been?

MM: It changes. Originally, I was going to be a lawyer, but I don’t know a single happy lawyer. I would want to be the concierge at the St. Regis in New York. I am fascinated by people and what their lives are. Or, I would be a professional thief.

Read next: Margaret McMahon and Cindy Allen Chat Over Instagram Live

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