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Publication Date: 2011-12-12

Behind the Design

Q&A with Mary Foley and Michael Cox

Designers Mary Foley and Michael Cox are graduates of the same high-profile school—“Polo University,” quips Cox, referring to Ralph Lauren, where Foley was vice president of creative services and Cox was design director of furniture. Yet they were only acquaintances in 1998, when the company tapped them to launch a home division catering to select clients, ranging from celebrities to CEOs. “A colleague told us ‘you two are a match made in heaven,’” recalls Foley—which proved prescient when they founded their own New York City design firm, Foley & Cox, in 2000. “We often say we are the opposite of a designer who has a look,” says Cox. Rather than a particular aesthetic, “we’re known for our listening skills, follow-through, and attention to detail.” Last year, they opened an outpost on Warren Street in Hudson, New York, the town’s hot antique row, where they sell their own designs and a curated selection of vintage, artisanal, and antique pieces.

Q: Ralph Lauren has such a clearly defined aesthetic. Did it influence the work you do today?

A: Yes, but in substance rather than style. We became really adept at developing the lifestyles he envisioned. But now our job is to address the wants and needs of our clients, and they’re an extremely diverse group. So we’re always creating homes that reflect a broad range of cultural traditions and styles.

Q: How does color play into that mandate?

A: Our clients sometimes tease us that white and monochromatic palettes are our go-to game plan. But those hues let us create beautiful, clean, calm backdrops for the client to bring in their objects, art works, and collections. And those are the things that speak to the client’s personality and let their aesthetic shine through.

Q: Would you say a neutral or monochromatic palette is one of your signatures?

A: Not really, because we don’t believe in having one way, or “our way,” of doing things. We don’t want our spaces to be instantly identifiable with us. Our work is really all about the things our clients have, and how they want to live. If anything, we have a philosophy of appropriateness.

Q: Give me an example of how that plays out in your projects.

A: Take architectural integrity. It’s something we believe in strongly, but it’s also critical to update classical vocabularies to suit real living today. We may subtly tweak traditional moldings by enlarging them, or replace intricate carved wood balusters with sleeker ones of cast steel. These are switches that preserve the purpose and intent of a home’s architectural details, but give them a modern twist. For a client who wanted a second home in Austria to reflect his family’s roots, we even gave Tyrolean style a contemporary makeover, but it was still very much of that world.

Q: I’ve noticed you take the same tack of playing with silhouette and scale with your furniture.

A: Absolutely, because these elements go hand-in-hand. For instance, low-slung furniture can make ceilings that aren’t high soar. Or oversized furniture can make an outsized space feel more cozy and intimate. Scale is often an issue in our work, so we started making custom furniture to fulfill specific needs for our clients. There would be a piece we needed for a room, and it had to be a certain size, or embrace certain elements. Our Orsay Armchair is a case in point. It’s a contemporary take on the time-honored fauteuil, and very streamlined without being austere.

Q: Is that how you started your furniture line?

A: We ended up designing many pieces that were so effective at filling a void that we would use them repeatedly in various projects, but would vary the scale and fabrication to suit each client’s parameters. So the foundation of our line is these pieces, which are solutions yet also classics that people can live with comfortably in a spectrum of environments ranging from traditional to modern.

Q: Your pieces are very versatile, such as the Hamptons Console and Berkeley Table.

A: Exactly. The Hamptons Console, which has two roomy drawers and a trim shelf, can be used as a media center and a sideboard, or floated behind a sofa or a bed. And the Berkeley Table can be used as a dining table, a desk, and a console, or to fulfill several roles when a client needs a space to do double, or triple, duty.

Q: Do you have any personal favorites in your collection?

A: We’re quite proud of that Orsay Armchair. Mies (van der Rohe) famously pointed out that a chair is more difficult to design than a skyscraper, which is why Chippendale is famous, and when we designed this we really strived to reduce many classic influences down to a few elegant gestures. The chair is so versatile we’ve been able to use it in every setting imaginable, so it worked for our purposes.

- Lisa Skolnik

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