The designer with Isabella, one of her beloved dachshunds.Photo Credit : Sarah Winchester | Styling by Jennifer Figge
“They are such divas, have you noticed?!”
The two dachshunds, Rosie and Isabella, are scrambling at my feet, and this declaration rises and falls in an animated South African accent. Mally Skok is fairly seismic, her presence vigorous and enlivening—no surprise to the many clients familiar with her Mally Skok Design fabrics and wallpapers. Her collections evoke India, Africa … or a sudden plunge into fuchsia petunias. If Mally herself were rendered as a paint chip, no single color would do. A palette, most definitely, would be required.
We’re roaming through her home—the one she designed and built 20 years ago with her husband, David, in Lincoln, Massachusetts—admiring the view over Farrar Pond. This is a house where even the air has room to spread out and breathe. The ceilings are high; the windows drop to the baseboard, “like English country homes, making little pools of light,” she says. The wide entrance hall straddles the house, front to back—step past the main door and you see all the way through to the backyard.It is the antithesis of the sad little 1970s house that once sat here, though Mally did try to save that one. “I said, ‘I can fix this—no problem!’” she exclaims. “South African–style, we think we can fix everything. I hate waste, I hate throwing things away.”
But when the dwelling proved unsalvageable, she suddenly had designer’s carte blanche. “I’d never designed a house from scratch, because I come from this make-do part of the world. When you start doing the work, it’s so interesting what you’ve filed away subconsciously.” She nods toward the foyer. “I realized I love houses that when you walk in the door, you can see the garden on the other side.”
This “map in your brain,” as Mally calls it, also determined the flow of living room/dining room/hallway-in-the-middle, “like the old Dutch farmhouses in South Africa.” The butter-yellow kitchen has what Mally describes as “un-kitchen-cabinet areas.” The color has gone in and out of fashion, and she doesn’t much care (nor does she remember what it’s called). A warm copper sink glows in the center island, and potted foxgloves bring the outside in. She definitely wanted a pantry—again, like those country houses—and it is burnished with a brilliant shade of eggplant by Farrow & Ball. A huge fan of that paint maker, she notes, “There’s so much pigment, that’s why they’re expensive. The paints have got depth.”
But the memory map doesn’t stop here. Each room vibrates with evidence of a life well traveled. Born in Cape Town, Mally was 6 when her family moved to Johannesburg, so “Africa plays a big part in my world view.” It’s also where an overriding strength formed. “My dad died of a heart attack when I was 11 years old,” she says. “I think it’s part of my ‘don’t sweat the small stuff,’ because I know what something really bad is, and it’s that. It’s not that you don’t like the color of the chairs you ordered.”
From there, it was off to London and finally to Concord, Massachusetts, which was supposed to be temporary, but when she and David walked this property, “it was a life-shifting moment,” she says. “We decided to make a go of living here. And much as I love London and England, it doesn’t really matter where you live. You make your own little bubble.”
Her bubble is a mix of “high and low,” spanning continents and costs: a $10 pillow from a market in Morocco; Brimfield chairs covered in Mally Skok fabric; baskets made by the Himba, Namibian nomads; a child’s seat flashing an ikat pattern from Turkmenistan. There are also a few large pieces from her London days, bucking the current trend away from antiques. “I think it’s quite nice to have a bit of brown furniture in a room,” she says. “Everyone is throwing it out. It’s so sad, when you think about the craftsmanship. Plus, your eye is drawn to something that’s darker and more nuanced. It anchors a room.”
At the moment, though, I’m enjoying a free fall through color and the threads of creativity that weave through rooms decked out in Botswana trees and trails of turquoise flowers. “It’s never enough pattern for me!” she says gleefully, and then recounts how she got to this point, a collection that includes (at last count) 108 fabrics and 44 wallpapers, as well as furniture and tableware. It was 2007, during a trip to India with her sister, Julia. Mally was already deep into her own interior design firm (still is), but “there we were in the marketplace, and I kept buying fabrics. My sister suddenly said, ‘Why don’t you have your own line?’ When we got back, I just started painting—how I saw Indian patterns, through my lens. The first pattern I ever did is still our best-seller—it’s called Julia.”
So I meet a few more fabrics: Nichola, named for a friend; Gabriella, for the youngest of Mally’s three grown children; and Emmie, inspired by her mother. They sit on shelves alongside Mally’s own versions of traditional textiles: ikats, suzanis, and Kuba cloth. “Everything has an emotional connection. I don’t just design something for the sake of it,” she says. “They live in my brain for a long time. And I can honestly say I still like them all. They’ve got such different things to say.”
She reaches down to give Rosie’s head a rub. “My home is my palette,” Mally says, surveying a scene that is bold, and nuanced, and graceful. “You can’t go wrong if you follow your own instinct and heart. Some people don’t realize they’re not living a comfortable life. It’s your heart. It’s your house. Be fearless, don’t listen to your mother-in-law! It has to feel right for you.”To learn more about Massachusetts designer Mally Skok and her vibrant creations, go to mallyskokdesign.com.