Designer Q&A: Marie Flanigan

With architectural training, more than a decade leading her namesake interiors firm, and an active home life that includes three young children, this Houston designer brings all her experiences to the table to create houses that are not only elegant but also eminently livable.

Text: Karen Carroll

Southern Home (SH): Who or what most influenced your creativity?

Marie Flanigan (MF) (@marieflaniganinteriors): First and foremost, my parents. My dad was always good at nurturing the gifts of his kids, and even as a little girl, I was creative. We lived in a small Texas town, and on Saturdays, he’d take me for an ice cream soda before we’d spend the afternoon at the local art gallery. For a long time, I wanted to be a painter, but I ended up studying architecture in college.

SH: What prompted your pivot from architecture to interiors?

MF: I felt a loss of control handing over a set of plans and never seeing the final details followed through. Both disciplines are so integrated and woven together, and one can be elevated when the other is thoughtfully put in place. After practicing for a few years, I was offered a job doing interiors, and once I got into the work, it was truly what I wanted to do, which was to directly impact how people actually live in their houses. Today, both backgrounds serve me well. I always respect the architect, but I love getting involved in the architectural phase to hear the vision and how I can help implement that through the interiors. I’m also another set of eyes and ears for the homeowner. Is the room actually going to fit that huge sofa they want to bring in, or hey, have we thought about how art is going to be lit?

SH: Please define your style in a few words.

MF: Layered; tailored; a modern take on traditional.

SH: We’ve heard you say home is a place better felt than described. We’d still love your perspective on how a home should feel.

MF: Home should be a refuge; a place to escape, heal, and gather. Simplicity and nature play important roles for me. Simplicity comes from editing, while nature influences everything, whether through texture or color, which doesn’t mean I always use neutrals, though I frequently do. I generally don’t like to shake somebody awake when they come into a room; however, there should be spaces to inspire and drive you to be energized or to work.

SH: What’s the most important intangible that makes a room feel great?

MF: The way a room greets you and welcomes you in. Natural light often does that for me. I consider windows a house’s ultimate luxury.

SH: Where are you willing to go with a bolder palette?

MF: There should be a moment of surprise in every house, and color is one way to achieve that. In a house with an open floor plan, I prefer to keep the palette and the majority of the walls simple and textural—frequently I’ll use plaster in different tones of white. But when I have a defined, confined room, such as a study, I can go bolder without affecting the rest of the layout. That’s the perfect opportunity to do something fun and unexpected to change up the language of the house. I love bringing in blues, greens, rusts, and camels, and even jewel tones or more vibrant reds. If it’s a color found in nature, I don’t think we tire of it.

SH: Share a design concept or element you have on repeat.

MF: Organic or hand-formed pieces that are imperfect. For instance, I’ll take old stone and turn it into a coffee table. I love to find objects that people might think are ugly at first glance and make them appear beautiful again or reimagine how they’re used. I have some rusty, crusty keys that my husband and I discovered in an antiques shop. They ended up in a drawer, but eventually I got around to having them matted on linen and framed, and now they’ve become a work of art that holds a special memory.

SH: How do you mesh a serious need for practicality with a desire for a gracious and sophisticated home? Given you have three kids under the age of seven, we’re sure you have plenty of firsthand experience!

MF: Well, whether or not my clients have children, I consistently hear that livability is top priority. People want beauty and all the things that make a fine home, but they also need to relax and not cringe every time someone spills a glass of wine. There’s a balance. Obviously, I don’t want my kids to tear through everything, but who wants a living room that children can’t go in? That’s outdated thinking—we don’t design rooms just for looks anymore.

More specifically, it’s about thoughtfully selected materials. Hide rugs, for example, are virtually indestructible. We definitely use a lot of performance fabrics, and I create depth with color. In other words, if a client wants a white room, I’m careful which items are the white ones—possibly the sofa is charcoal or brown, and the walls, accent fabrics, and accessories will be white.

SH: You’ve described your style as layered, but you also clearly value simplicity. How do you determine when to add more or take away?

MF: I wish I had a concrete secret to reveal. I always say there’s magic in the install. I like to send my clients on vacation, and then our team can come in and arrange the entire house. It usually takes a week and gives me the time and space to evaluate, change, and think about what needs to be added. Although we have almost every detail thoroughly planned, there’s that 5% you have to leave room for, which often can be where the magic happens. I call it the synergistic “and.”

SH: What are some of the final touches that create the most impact?

MF: I’ll go to antiques or vintage shops to find things with interesting patina. Now, if I’d shown the client a weathered door panel at the presentation stage, they probably wouldn’t have gone for it. But when we take that panel and hang it as art, it works. I might bring 20 throws to find just the right one to drape across a sofa. I’ll also ask the client to give me their accessories—family pictures, anything important or that they find beautiful—and I’ll create a little “store” in a corner during the installation. We select items from there and give them places of honor throughout the house.

SH: If a client has a sentimental piece that doesn’t fit into your aesthetic, do you always find a way to incorporate it?

MF: I’m not going to come in and say this is the Marie Flanigan stamp, and I’m only going to put what I want in your living room. But if something’s simply not going to work—for example, this morning a client was urging me to use a rug that 100% doesn’t fit in the room—I’m going to convince you it isn’t the right decision, because that’s why you’ve hired me. However, if it’s a brown wood chair I never would have purchased, how can I rethink or refinish it? Maybe it becomes an accent chair or the grandma-chic element in an otherwise contemporary room that makes it cool. People attach memories to things, and I never want a house to be void of that. Your home is your life story.

SH: What’s inspiring you lately?

MF: Oscar de la Renta’s new collection inspired by Modern Pressed Flower; Cox London’s floral chandeliers that are out of this world, and glass mosaics by New Ravenna based on Gracie wallpapers. I’m having a floral moment.

SH: Have you been binge-watching any shows for the set decoration?

MF:
Bridgerton. Oh, the hair, the gowns, the interiors, the flowers—it’s all so fabulous. And the Duke is the most gorgeous thing alive.

SH: Other than loved ones, what should no Southern home be without?

MF: A dining table that fits everyone and has character. I designed the one in our house, and with use, it has acquired dings and imperfections I have no desire to refinish. I see them as memories of good times we’ve had around that table.