What do you get when a multihyphenated maven — interior designer, style authority, entertainer extraordinaire — takes up residence in a former 1940s cheese factory in New York’s Hudson Valley? An unexpected and thoroughly relaxed home that’s a nexus of family, friends and fun in the heart of farm country.
On any given Friday, chances are you’ll find interior decorator Elizabeth Mayhew at her weekend house in upstate New York, baking a cake for a friend’s birthday, or prepping party details for eight—or 26. Or 40. The former magazine editor is a lifestyle and design columnist for The Washington Post, a contributor to the Today show and an inveterate entertainer. She’s the kind of live-your-best-life doyenne whom you text to crib her recipe for lemon meringue cake, or get her source for the plush table covering on which she sometimes sets her mix-and-match china (billiard cloth she buys by the yard)
Her command center is an airy, five-bedroom Hudson Valley escape that was once a commercial dairy, complete with drain-studded concrete floors. The structure is an anomaly for Dutchess County residences, where Greek Revival piles or postcard-perfect farmhouses are the norm, but from the moment she saw it, she recounts, “I knew I could do something amazing.” The agrarian-industrial building boasts become the living and dining rooms. “People walk in and get this Alice in Wonderland feeling, because the proportions are so unexpected,” Mayhew says. Not to mention all that natural light: “Even if it’s 12 degrees outside, it’s sunny in here. I’ve never had orchids do so well.”
The space had already been a residence, but friend and architect Gil Schafer helped Mayhew further shape it, adding a bedroom suite and opening things up for a freer flow. She chose plain sisal for many of the floors, the upholstery is mostly small-scale prints and neutral stripes, and floor-to-ceiling curtains are in subtle patterns and colors, “so as not to detract from the expanse of green outdoors.”
The paint hues she selected are nuanced too, to complement a serious collection of art. “Every room is a different gray,” she says. “Like gray flannel slacks, the walls look good with any color, and pick up changes in the light. The house responds to the time of day and season.”
In terms of floor plan, the key word is flexible. “My husband calls the place my dollhouse, because I’m constantly moving furniture and art, ” Mayhew says. “Just because something is in a certainplace doesn’t mean it has to stay there. I patch walls all the time.” That nimbleness is important for someone who keeps 50 ballroom chairs at the ready and doesn’t think a guest list smaller than eight actually qualifies as a dinner party.
In the dining room, the oval Saarinen table sits front and center, but folding tables can be pulled out of storage to accommodate a larger crowd. “I can set up four rounds throughout the room, or one long table for 24,” she says. “I pull up various chairs and banquettes, and the Saarinen becomes a sideboard for buffet-style suppers. Everything is adaptable and easy.”
The same could be said for Mayhew’s outlook, period. She is practical to the bone. Her favorite sources for glassware and china? Ikea and World Market. “If I’m having 30 people over, I set the tables the weekend before. I cook in stages. My kids and husband help me plate and serve.” In other words, like any hostess worth her gougères, Mayhew understands that the distance between panicked and polished is simply a matter of planning ahead.
Produced by Carolyn Englefield