Why Legendary Decorator Ann Pyne Thinks “Taste” is a Bad Word

With a new exhibition opening at the New York Design Center, the McMillen matriarch gives us a piece of her mind.

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Bjorn Wallander for Siweb

In “60 Seconds With,” Siweb editor chats with creatives and industry leaders, getting the scoop on their life and work in one minute or less. In this installment, he chats with Ann Pyne, the ED A-List Grand Master and president of McMillen, America’s oldest and most storied design firm. An exhibition dedicated to the firm, entitled “,” opens today at the New York Design Center. Pyne’s one minute starts...now.


McMillen is America’s oldest design firm. Does that mean that McMillen is the best?
Of course! If you take all of our hundreds of years of experience, we would be the best. If I could own all the knowledge of the people who came before me here, I would be the best.

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The St. Louis bedroom of Mrs. Adolphus Busch of Anheuser-Busch, designed by McMillen.
McMillen

Definitely deserving of the exhibition opening today at the New York Design Center then?
Definitely. If you take our projects from 1924 to today, they reflect everything that’s happened in American design during that period. In the 1920s, we were historicist; the ’30s, Art Deco; in the ’40s, the war happened and things came to a halt. In the ’50s, big projects came up like Henry Ford in Detroit. Business picked up through the 1960s. We had eight brightly colored House & Garden covers in a few years of the 1960s, which are in the show. The ’70s were a bit schizophrenic, and the ’80s was full-blown chintz. You get the idea.

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The St. Louis drawing room of Janet Rhinelander Stewart Bush, designed by McMillen.
McMillen

How has McMillen’s approach to design changed since it was founded in 1924?
It hasn’t changed very much. McMillen’s founder always said that if you use a luxurious fabric like silk velvet, use it sparingly or else it will look vulgar. With each changing mode of American decorating, the work looks different with colors and types of furniture, but the underpinning of restraint, symmetry, and proportion that Mrs. Brown established stays the same.

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The Boston drawing room of Mrs. Louis Frothingham, designed by McMillen in 1928.
McMillen

What would you never use when designing a home for a client?
A mattress over 12 inches high. It completely ruins the proportions of a bed. I also hate glass covers on wood tables. Those are horrible, as are televisions mounted high on a sling arm. People want them all the time.

Strangest request you’ve ever had from a client?
To raise their seating furniture to see their view of the East River better.

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Original certificate of incorporation, McMillen, Inc.
McMillen

Make up a name for your least favorite color. For example, mine is Mountain Dew Green.
Yellow Bile.

You’re one of the few decorators to be designated Grand Master on Siweb’s A-List. In other words, you’re a living legend. Does the fame ever go to your head?
No, I think I represent McMillen, not myself, so it doesn’t go to my head.

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Inside an Upper East Side townhouse designed by Ann Pyne, the current president of McMillen.
Bjorn Wallander for Siweb

Your late mother, Betty Sherrill, was a decorator and the head of McMillen before passing the torch to you. Now your daughter, Elizabeth Pyne Singer, is currently a decorator at McMillen. Do you believe that good taste is hereditary?
Taste is developed, but a feeling of interiority is hereditary. What people call good taste is acquired in the process of making interiors. I hate the word taste. I think it’s a snobby way of telling people that if they weren’t born with it, then there’s no hope for them.

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Inside an Upper East Side townhouse designed by Ann Pyne.
Bjorn Wallander for Siweb

What’s some wisdom your mother imparted upon you?
If you’re upset when the new curtains come, don’t worry. Something else will come along to make it work in a way you hadn’t expected. Don’t send the curtains back in a panic. She also said on the subject of doing business with friends, “If they weren’t friends to begin with, they’ll be friends by the time the project is over, so what’s the difference?”

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McMillen’s 1920s foyer for Mr. and Mrs. Basil Harris in New York City.
McMillen

Do you have any plans to retire?
No. At some point, I suppose I won’t be suitable for working. But when I started at the company in 2001, I wanted to get McMillen to 100 years.

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