Designer Janine Carendi MacMurray lives in that elegant, tranquil apartment we all want—the kind of place that fuels those fantasies in which we own a few beautiful things and nothing more. It’s an aesthetic that requires discipline although she did say that they had hidden all her kids’ toys behind a door that Jeff wasn’t allowed to open. Because her father is Swedish and her mother is Mexican she grew up in Mexico, Colombia, Sweden and then Connecticut, a childhood of difficult transitions that she says made her more flexible. Although she loved the vibrancy of life in Colombia and Mexico, she is most drawn to the quieter Scandinavian design sensibilities, “… if you look at Swedish design, it’s very purposeful; there tends to be a purpose for everything … I feel more comfortable with quiet.”
I wanted to start off by asking you about something I saw on your website, which is that you have a number of ‘before and after’ photographs—I was wondering why so few designers have those kinds of photos to show?
I don’t know if it’s partly because we specialize both in the construction management and design, so I think some designers might focus on the furnishing and hire an architect to do the construction. I think if you were to include photos of the clients’ furniture, before and after, people would be afraid of being judged. I think it might be a little embarrassing.
How do you get over that problem about how fearful people are of being judged for their taste? How do you get to the bottom of what they really want, not what they think they should want?
Actually we just came back from a final interview with some clients … [breaks off] Don’t even open that door. That’s where we hid all the toys that we didn’t want you guys to see … anyway … a lot of the work is getting to know the client. Sometimes they think that they know what they want and are very sure about what they want—but in reality, they want something very different. We walk around with them and see how they react to things, perhaps in the D&D building—or if we go to a restaurant, we see how they react to noise levels and light. One of my clients told me, “I want tons of color” but as I got to know him, I realized he didn’t like color at all.
How did you figure that out?
I would show him things like textiles with lots of color and he would brush them aside and then, because he traveled a lot, I asked him which hotels he liked and he liked the Mandarin hotels—the ones that were [decorated] in more neutral tones.
Where did you grow up – it was like all over the place wasn’t it?
Yes, I grew up all over the place, so I think that’s influenced a lot of my aesthetic. I think the disciplined [look] maybe comes from my Swedish side—my dad is Swedish and my mother is Mexican. They met in an elevator and they married ten days after they met. It was a very romantic story until the divorce—but the marriage lasted 35 years.
How much time did you spend in Sweden?
So, I was born in Mexico and I lived there for four or five years and then we moved to Colombia, which was fantastic. My Swedish grand-parents who lived all over the world, were there at that time, so we had a multi-generational family and friends. I loved the people and the warmth and the music but it wasn’t the best time to be in Colombia because of the cocaine wars. Then we moved to Sweden … very different. It was cold, we didn’t speak the language and there the nuclear family is important but the extended family not. And it was a shock.
Did you go to a Swedish school?
They tried [to send me] but it didn’t go well. We didn’t speak the language and my mother would dress me in, like these poufy dresses and everybody was wearing H&M. We ended up going to international schools there. Now, I love going back. Some of my best friends are Swedish—they’re the most loyal, human and caring people. I feel very at home in Sweden although my dad lives in Geneva now.
Where does your mother live?
Here and she has a house in San Miguel de Allende. When we lived in Sweden, she loved going to Swedish auction houses and I think I bought my first antique there when I was nine years old.
What was it?
Actually my daughter is going to get it. It’s a little toilette dressing table with three mirrors, Gustavian style but made in the 1920s. I wanted it so badly!
And then at fourteen, you moved to New York?
No, to Connecticut. And that was another shock.
What have you learned from all these difficult transitions?
I have learned to be flexible. I can understand people from all different backgrounds—I think I can read people.
How similar is your style similar to the style of the houses in which you grew up?
It’s different. My dad is very much influenced by mid-century design. I didn’t appreciate it at the time, I was like, “Oh it’s all so dreary!” and now I’m like, “Where are those pieces?!”
I can’t deal with it. I just can’t. I grew up with an avocado oven …
Er, I don’t think I could go for an avocado oven.
And your mother’s taste? What was that like?
She loved more of the Gustavian, sort of French. Our house was a mixture of Swedish and French. So growing up, my bedroom was all antiques. I loved them. My mother is very bohemian.
You don’t strike me as very bohemian.
No, my family is generally pretty formal—I think my dad has had the strongest influence.
Where did you train or go to college?
I went to Parsons but I went to Wesleyan [before that] and it was just a phenomenal experience … it had a huge impact on me, all that questioning of everything. I remember my mother showing up in a full fur fox coat … and a hat. I was like, “Mom, what are you thinking?” I thought somebody was going to throw something at her.
She sounds great!
She’s definitely an interesting person.
So if you have the formal Swedish influence on your work or indeed on your personality, where is all the exuberant Latin or Mexican side of things?
My house is more quiet and I think it’s because I feel more comfortable with quiet … actually I think my personal taste is pretty masculine. Also if you look at Swedish design, it’s very purposeful; there tends to be a purpose for everything.
Yes. You’ve got the Lutheran side but perhaps less of the Catholic!
I don’t know. I can explain the concept for other people’s apartments more than I can I explain the concept for my own apartment. Here I’ve just picked up things over time that I have liked.
So how did you start your own business?
Actually, I used to raise funds for children’s charities. I got burnt out and I then I got a job at Lehman Brothers … and I lasted, I think three weeks. It was for event planning and it was horrifying because literally you had to use a certain green, a certain font, a certain number of words. It was very, very formulaic. I’ve never quit anything before.
So what did you do after you quit?
I went from there in my Lehman’s outfit to Parsons. School was starting in two days and I just sat in the admissions office. They told me there were no spots but I said that I was just going to sit there for a while longer. Then the woman had me come in and talk to her and I had to fill in the application form right there. Within six months of studying, I started getting work from friends.
So when you’re not waking up and texting or emailing three o’clock in the morning, what else do you do?
Other than design? My kids. I don’t cook. I’m a terrible, horrible cook. I burn pasta.