Inspiration: Lilse McKenna Inc.



Photos Courtesy of Lilse McKenna, Inc.

In our new "Small Businesses that Inspire" series, today we highlight Lilse McKenna Inc, the eponymous interiors firm based in Manhattan recently launched by Baltimore native Lilse McKenna. 

You recently launched your own firm.  How have you pursued your path in interior design that ultimately has led to your own firm?

 Aside from a few classes here and there at the New York School of Interior Design, I don’t have any formal schooling in the subject.  I always had a passion for interior design, which stemmed from my close relationship with my grandmother, who loved all aspects of design.  After graduating from college I realized that it was something I wanted to pursue as a career, and I cold called a few of my favorite designers to see if they needed an intern.  I interned for Lindsey Coral Harper before landing a job with her, and then later took a position working for Markham Roberts.  While I was working for Markham I was approached to do a couple of projects on my own, and eventually a project came along that was too large for me to do well while working full-time for Markham.  It was a difficult decision, but I knew I could not do my best work for both Markham and the client simultaneously, so I decided it was a sign that it was time to take the leap and start my own firm!

We love your style. How would you describe it in five words or less?

 This is the hardest question to answer for designers (I think because so much of our job is honing my clients’ various styles) but looking around my own home I’d say: collected and layered, but tailored.

Who has been your most important mentor or influence and what have they taught you? 

I learned so much from both Markham and Lindsey, but I have to say that my late grandmother, Bobbie Rodgers, is my most important influence.  When I was growing up she taught me so much about art, antiques, architecture, laying out a room, fabric, paint, linens. . .  really everything that became the basis of my knowledge of interior design (and allowed me to jump into the profession!).  She wasn’t a designer by trade but she designed her own homes and read every design book and magazine cover to cover.  When I’m stuck on a design decision I often ask myself, “What would Bobbie do?”

You are a Baltimore native.  How has Baltimore influenced your style?

I grew up in one of those great old houses in Roland Park, and was so lucky to be exposed to all of the beautiful architecture and landscape design in that neighborhood.  I’ve always been inspired by the Victorian homes there, which are all so different from one another.  Baltimore is notoriously preppy, and while I’m not always drawn to the preppy trends I see come and go, I do love the tried-and-true classics.  That classic sensibility has definitely influenced the way I decorate.

Lilse's beautiful wedding on Maryland's Eastern Shore.  Photo courtesy of The Knot.

How important are antiques and vintage in your work?  Do you have to convince clients to use antiques and vintage? 

I love nuanced rooms, and they require pieces of various styles from different time periods that can enhance one another when placed together.  I am very lucky that most of my clients don’t have to be talked into buying antiques- they already love and collect them! My younger clients also have all been wise enough to see that they need to mix in some antiques in order to create a room that they will love long after the current season of catalogs is recycled.

Who are your style icons in fashion and/or interiors?

There are too many to name! I am constantly referring to Markham’s book and photos of his work for inspiration.  His rooms are so smartly layered, with so many references to different styles, and yet at the same time incredibly livable.  I could study Marella Agnelli’s homes by Renzo Mongiardino all day long.  I look to photos of the de la Renta’s homes and Bill Blass’ apartment for timeless design, Furlow Gatewood for relaxed elegance, Gil Schafer for classic architectural details, Jacques Grange for haute bohemian. . . I really could keep you here all day listing my favorites!


What has been the most challenging aspect of starting your own firm?  What has been most rewarding?

I learned so much about how to manage the frustrating aspects of this job from Markham and Lindsey, so really the most challenging aspect for me has been turning off work.  Studying interior design started as a hobby for me.  I used to read shelter magazines when I needed a break from studying, or I’d flip through design books while relaxing at my grandparents’ house. Now when I want to relax I still reach for those things, but I end up making to-do lists and sending emails at the same time!

The most rewarding aspect is definitely having the opportunity to enhance part of my client’s lives by designing living spaces that perfectly suit them.  It probably sounds melodramatic, but I subscribe to the idea that our settings have a major impact on the quality of our lives, and nothing is more rewarding than knowing that a client is living well in a space that I designed.

We love your use of fabric and print!  What is your launching point when selecting fabric?  Do you have a favorite print? Favorite color? 

 Thank you! I am definitely a fabric addict and typically start collecting fabrics for a project from day one.  There are so many beautiful prints and weaves, it is hard to choose one, but most of my favorites have a painterly, handblocked, or crosshatch effect. 

 As far as color I’m naturally drawn to anything in the blue, green, or blue-green family, but part of what I love about this job is being challenged by a client who says, “I’m dying for a (insert random color here) room!” It is always exciting to explore a shade or a style I might not have considered otherwise.

Where would you like to see your business in the next three years? 

If the next three years are anything like this past year I will consider myself very lucky! I have the most gracious clients and engaging projects, and each day is different. 

Four Favorites...what is your Favorite:

Room of all time?

I love so many rooms- this answer changes by the day! One that comes to mind today (while I’m packing for France!) is Hubert de Givenchy’s great sprawling study at Château du Jonchet with the octagonal Giacometti table in the center, vaulted ceilings, and wicker furniture with white upholstery.  

Givenchy's study at Chateau du Jonchet

Room to design/decorate? 

I love living rooms- especially in New York- because they often have to serve many functions.  They are spaces for entertaining, reading, sometimes dining, and they end up with the most interesting furniture plans (and furniture for that matter!) as a result.


I have three (and all of them feature gorgeous homes!): Father of the Bride, You’ve Got Mail, and Sabrina.

Long Island elegance.  Audrey Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart in "Sabrina", 1954


I can never decide between cities and islands.  I love museums, restaurants, and antiquing, but I could sail around or sit by the ocean and read for weeks on end too! Our next trip will be a bit of both: Paris, Provence, and Saint-Tropez.  Hopefully that is the perfect vacation!

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