Few designers are as skilled at working with color and pattern as Mally Skok. The South African-born designer spent over 25 years imbuing Boston-area homes with her vivacious signature style before moving to Palm Beach, where she continues her creative journey today. She’s also a prolific fabric and wallpaper designer, with a line of tabletop pieces (available right here on Chairish, naturally), and a new book that was just published last month.
We spoke with Mally about her design philosophies, her love of the Florida heat, and what it was like working with her daughter Gabriella on her New York apartment. See what she had to say, and be sure to shop her exclusive assortment of Chairish favorites.
You’re known for colorful, pattern-rich spaces. Tell us about your personal design aesthetic.
If I’m designing for just me, I love to pile on the pattern, layer upon layer upon layer — it quiets my mind oddly. Usually there are others that need to be heard in the design process, and I am happy to tone things down for clients that have a less busy aesthetic. If it’s a fun project, I love to do all the design!
What do you say to clients who might be timid when it comes to embracing more color or different types of styles they’re not accustomed to? How do you work with them to create something great?
I always start the project with something they really love — something they just instantly grab and say, “this is it!” It could be a fabric, a wall color, a rug… it doesn’t matter. What matters for me is that you start from a place of 100% positivity and build from there; then the layers get added and the client is in their comfort zone. I like them to take it at their own pace… Sometimes it’s they that beg for more!
Living between the Boston area and Palm Beach, how do you feel these different settings influence your work? And how do your years in London and South Africa come into play as well?
When I first arrived in Boston, I was shocked at how little people embraced their houses. I came from crazy festooned London, where everyone that has a little cash to spare goes to Peter Jones and buys a couple of yards of fabric to make up pillows or a set of curtains for their house. Arriving in Boston 25 years ago, the houses I went to consult at were almost bare. Some had their actual futon from their Harvard days still in their living room. These were grownups! Boston has a very educated population and they like to get things right, so sometimes they just do nothing at all! Things have loosened up a lot these days, but I still find there is a certain reserve in interior design; people don’t really like to color outside the lines much. That always bothers me a little.
On the other hand, I love the design world in Palm Beach because people are so house proud. My South African heritage makes me bask in the balmy heat of South Florida — I guess that living in that sunny atmosphere loosens people up quite a bit in all aspects of their lives. I love seeing the 90-year-old guy in his tatty t-shirt pedalling along the Lake Way with his transistor radio duck taped to the handle bars blasting NPR as he mozies along. People are having a good time, and there is no shame in it! Even the most modest little bungalow has a beautifully trimmed hedge and colorful pots at the front door. I don’t know why, but that makes me very happy!
You designed your daughter Gabriella’s New York apartment. What was that experience like for you both, and how was she as a client?
As a client, Gaby was not a pushover. I am a big listener when it comes to clients — I suggest, but I really try not to impose my views unless I am absolutely sure something won’t be right. I find this takes the projects into some interesting waters, which I love. I used a lot of this technique with my daughter. She’s a Taurus and has some pretty firm views on things, which I admire. I was really against the dark burned orange for her walls — I thought it would be gloomy, but she was right. It makes her apartment… and what do you know, that color is now trending, so there’s that! Gaby and I have spent hours together mooching in junk stores since she was a toddler, so watching each other and seeing what the other person chooses to buy tells you a lot about their aesthetic. We both go, “come over here, you’ll love this!” We are usually right.
Your book, Mally’s Little Handbook, just came out. Tell us a bit about it.
My little handbook was born before the pandemic hit, in a time of complete innocence. A friend was staying with me at my house at the Cape… He came down to breakfast and said, “I love staying with you, it’s so comfortable, and welcoming. Not everyone can do that, why don’t you write a little book?” so I started it that very day! After I wrote the book, I stalled; it seemed so wrong to bring out a book on having overnight guests, dinner parties, and flea market shopping trips when we were all stuck in our houses. One day, I talked to my friends in the office and some work mentors and we decided to go ahead and just make sure in the preface to let people know that it was written in another time. I found the perfect illustrator right in my town of Lincoln and we were off to the races. It is not really a “how to” lecture-y type of a book, but a friendly chat about the things I’ve learned over the years and am happy to pass on to my readers. They can choose what they like, and toss the rest!
You’re also known for your colorful tableware, fabrics, and wallpapers. How do you design those pieces, and do you have other items in the works?
I wanted a project in South Africa and thought I could use South African makers, but after a few shaky false starts, I moved to a US operation. The quality control wasn’t there for the US audience… and the shipping! I painted the designs at my dining room table, looking out at the beach in Plettenberg Bay. I really don’t know when I will get back there, so the designs are very dear to me. And no, I don’t have any other pieces in the works, but the brain is always searching for the next thing.
On Chairish & Vintage Shopping
What do you find most compelling about Chairish?
The site is so easy to navigate — your search engine is a thing of wonder!
How does sustainability factor into your design choices and love of vintage?
The sustainability factor is everything to me. That, and that fact that a piece has had another life — it gives it soul.
Are there any dream vintage/antique “gets” you wish you could have? What’s a dream piece for you?
When I sat in my Kips Bay showhouse space, the passing parade of fragrant, well-dressed visitors had jewelry exactly at my eye level, and it was pretty mind boggling! I noticed that the elegant women of a certain age all had the most marvelous, jangly, vintage gold link bracelets. I think that will be my new passion; I’m going to be saving my pennies for a couple of those!
What are three of your favorite pieces on Chairish now?
Some Design Favorites…
Favorite way to create a statement-making moment in a room:
One good piece and one inexpensive piece that seems like it shouldn’t be there.
Favorite decorating “cheap thrill:”
Paint — it changes everything.
Favorite iconic piece of vintage design:
Favorite paint color:
Chalky white, so you can pile everything else into the space
Favorite piece of decor in your home:
All my paintings in my house. Most of the artists are people I know, or have researched, and the rest is inherited and is a roadmap of my life.
Favorite designer or artist from the past you most often turn to for inspiration:
I love the pieces that are put together by Mark Hampton.
Favorite style icon:
Design destination every creative should visit at least once:
Best piece of career advice you’ve ever received:
I never listen to any advice! My poor husband!
Some Lifestyle Favorites…
Favorite vacation destination (the next time travel becomes an option):
Greece — I want to do more islands, and I love Mykonos. I love the Greeks… They don’t get up in your grill, everything is so laid back, and it all seems to work somehow!
Favorite hotel that’s inspired your work while traveling:
Ham Yard by Kit Kemp in London
Favorite small museum:
I’ve yet to get into those. I listen to books on Audible and I love a gritty murder mystery, especially set in the English countryside.
Favorite Instagram accounts to follow:
@thefeedfeed; @kristjanaswilliams; @twowebster; @housebeautiful; @plainenglishkitchens; @rio_hamilton; @ottolinedevries; @graciousopulence; @lizroache; @wellmadehome; @dudedad; @mindfulmft; @marinarust; @jerrysaltz; and of course the amazing @annabrockway!
Favorite hostess (or thank you) gift:
Flowers from the garden, or the supermarket, in a vintage container that the hostess can keep and that I chose especially for her vibe.
There isn’t a flower I can’t love!
Favorite adult beverage:
Italian white wine
Favorite way to unwind at home:
Trashy reality TV!
Favorite entertaining essential:
Over-catering in the extreme — there must be lots, and even more coming out of the kitchen.
Lead image by Brittany Ambridge