‘I am a colour person as you can see – and I think the Irish have a gift for colour,” says Paris-based Irish designer Mary Shaw, gesturing to the green walls, earthy tweed armchairs and autumnal curtains in her classic French apartment in the 15th arrondissement.
Despite its homely appearance, roaring fire and stacked wooden logs, this is not actually where she lives, but has been purposely decorated to look the part and show off her interiors. “My style is timeless but at the same time has to be very sharp and elegant,” she says.
Since she founded Sequana in 1997 (the Latin name for the Seine), Shaw, a long-term French resident, has forged an enviable international reputation for her use of texture and colour selling fabrics, furniture, glass and ceramics specially made for her by artisans in Ireland, Scotland and France.
“I wanted to present my ideas like a home, an
art de vivre
, a concept of living. At the time there was a lot of chrome, black leather, green plants and white walls. I wanted to display something completely different, to do colour, texture and creative lines of product – it was a completely new concept at the time,” she says recalling the reaction. The effect was sensational. “It hit a nerve. People said they had never seen anything like it because they had never seen saturated colour before and so much texture in the middle of Paris. It jolted them.”
In the kitchen, coloured glassware in shades of plum and damson – colours with which she has been long associated – are alongside medieval style terrines, plates and tiled tables. In the hallway a bronze tipped metal tree is an elegant but functional coat stand and illustrates ways in which she has brought ideas of nature into the home, like curtains printed with Virginia creeper motifs. “When you are living in an urban area, not everybody has space or gardens – my idea was to bring the interior space alive in this way. I am into creating atmosphere rather than decoration.”
Luxury goods and fine art
From Saintfield in Co Down and a graduate of Trinity College, Shaw worked for seven years in London in the luxury goods and fine art world before moving with her French husband to Paris in 1979. "We left London the night Margaret Thatcher came into power," she says. Her first project was a knitting company with her sister, Joan Millar, during which she supplied Kenzo with Irish-made knits before the idea of Sequana took hold. "I had been going all over the UK, Ireland and France finding crafts and seeing if people could produce what I wanted."
Her big break came within two weeks of launching Sequana when retailing magnate Neiman Marcus asked her to reproduce the concept in 31 of its stores in the US. Enormous publicity followed and business boomed. Requests came in from top interior designers in France, Japan and elsewhere. “It was a defining moment,” she recalls.
Despite a major commercial setback a few years ago with a licensing deal that went wrong and latterly the death of her husband, her reputation continues to thrive and a book about her work called Deco A l'Ecole de Mary Shaw, published by Hachette, is due to be republished in English. Her fabrics can be found in five-star luxury hotels in London, New York and France such as the Plaza Athenee in Paris and L'Apogee in Courcheval as well as in the upmarket homes of private clients whose identities are kept that way.
What advice has she for young people starting off? “I always say, get a mood board and put things down that you like, the colours that you like. A house is a reflection of yourself and not a fashion. Don’t do three walls white and one colour – no half measures because you are nowhere then. Put fabrics together and see what works, and then get started with paint colour. You have to have shade correspondences (connections) which should push you from one room to the next without frontal assault. It should be subtle.”
Her ideas about colour include the notion that all greens work together as in the countryside, that blues are richer when you put three or four together, that if you have prune, plum or damson in a sofa, bring in pistachio or violet for contrast on cushions, curtains or backs of chairs, what she calls “tonalities”. All shades of red go with pink and orange. Velvet lifts tweed. “I enjoy working with interior designers because they can take a different approach. If you put one colour into tweed, linen, ceramics or glass, it is never the same colour – it always comes out differently.”
Doing her own thing
She has been working with Magee in Donegal for nearly 20 years and praises textile designer Gill Mudie to whom she sends colour references for fabrics. In January 2010 Shaw received the prize Decouvert at Maison et Objects Fair in Paris, for the originality and quality of her fabric. In the US, she is represented in design studios in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington and now top Russian interior designers are seeking her out – on a recent visit they took away 350 copies of her book. “I try not to monitor trends. I try to do my own thing and bring out a collection when I feel I have one. Colour is very big now but I have been into it, after all, for 18 years.”