Flower: You don’t have a traditional background for an interior designer. Tell us about your upbringing and work experience.
Denise McGaha: I grew up in rural Texas and was involved with agriculture through the 4-H club. One thing I learned at a young age was the value of hard work, and that has brought me to where I am today. I majored in agricultural economics at Texas A & M, but fashion has always been a big part of who I am. I interviewed at Neiman Marcus, but they told me I needed retail experience. So I went and got it by becoming a general manager at a landscape retailer. I was eventually hired at Neiman’s and started at the bottom working my way up, and I loved it. I was lured away to Sprint by a big salary. It wasn’t really me, but we had the income to build a home. That’s when I became enthralled with the whole process, from the foundation up. Then 9/11 happened five days after the birth of our first child, and I needed to reinvent myself. I knew I wanted to return to a creative field with more flexibility.
What did you come up with?
While I enjoyed building our home, I was very frustrated as well. I realized I could help that industry streamline their processes, work better with deadlines, and make the home-building experience more positive for everyone. I became a consultant for the industry and opened my own business, which combined my practical business sense with my eye for style. The tagline for my firm is “Designing with a Deadline.”
What is your approach when working with clients?
I know designers say this a lot, but I strive for projects to feel authentic, like my clients, not my viewpoint (although I certainly state my opinion!). I want to be a storyteller and tell their story, incorporating their collections and heirlooms in the design while stretching them to go beyond the expected.
What are some ideas we can expect from a McGaha-designed room?
I really strive for tension—high and low, found and fine, with layers and textures throughout and the push-pull of hard and soft in finishes and fabrics. I think every room needs a few rough edges. I am a huge believer in lighting. I think it can make or break a room.
How do you achieve this tension?
I view decorating like a recipe. You can follow the recipe verbatim, and it will be fine, or you can put your touches in it—the secret ingredients—and it will be fabulous. I think 80% of design is planned and 20% is improvisation—that’s where the magic happens. When clients understand that and see how I use my secret ingredients—those things that speak to me—they become more educated, trustful, and better understand the value of using an interior designer.
“I always do a mood board at the beginning of the year, and for 2020, the word ‘maximalism’ was at the top!” — Denise McGaha
The project we are featuring—a guest suite in your own home—is a testament to that thought process. Tell us about it.
A guest room is a great place to relax, have fun, and break rules. I wanted this guest suite to be a mix of things I love, such as the dramatic upholstered headboard and custom lampshades. The room also combines classic elements such as floral-print window treatments with more modern pieces such as the side tables. Above all, guest rooms should always be comfortable, so I include amenities—a coffee maker so they don’t have to go to the kitchen in their robes, a bedside charging station, snacks, and an Apple TV so they can watch their current Netflix obsession. And flowers are essential.
Tell us what’s next for Denise McGaha Interiors?
I’m opening a new design studio on Dragon Street in Dallas, which will be part showroom as well. It’s going to have a presentation space with upholstered Fortuny walls and many other special features, but I don’t want to give away everything—you’ll have to see it for yourself!
By Alice Welsh Doyle | Photography by Stephen Karlisch | Interior design by Denise McGaha of Denise McGaha Interiors, denisemcgaha.com
An excerpt from California designer Kathryn M. Ireland’s book, Kathryn At Home: A Guide to Simple Entertaining, gives advice on how to make your overnight house guests feel right at home. Read more.