by Beth Brown Ables
photography by Forest Clonts
“A house is almost a maternal being, the way it shelters and holds people,” Whitney McGregor muses, “it will tell you what it wants to be, if you listen.”
The Greenville-based designer’s reverence for place and intuitive listening comes from her mom, Chris Whitney Arthur. Growing up in a household committed to the arts and elevated experiences, McGregor was gifted an almost spiritual sense of space and color.
It’s a legacy she continually reaps the benefits of in her flourishing design business, and when her mother found a cottage in Augusta Circle, she seized the opportunity to transform the space into a sunlit, art-filled testament of their creative bond. A collaboration, you could say, that was years in the making.
Throughout her childhood in Columbus, Ohio, McGregor and her mom were more like “buddies, almost like roomies,” Arthur remembers. The two spent days creating artwork, rearranging rooms, designing and dreaming.
“We have been collaborating for as long as I can remember,” says McGregor. “I’m the youngest in my family by ten years, and for most of my growing up everybody was out the house. It was just me and my mom getting in all kinds of trouble doing house projects.”
Alongside such conviviality bloomed a deep level of trust, and freedom reigned. If 16-year old McGregor wanted to paint the floor in her bedroom? Just make sure to clean up the mess. Fly to Chicago to see Mikal Baryshnikov dance? Spend Sundays at the Columbus Museum of Art? Yes, and yes. “Mom was forever pushing the arts and experiences on us, and I complained about it all. But now I’m so grateful for it,” McGregor laughs, and her mom agrees, “Oh, she hated it!”
The effort didn’t go unappreciated. The experiences were a stretch financially for a single mom. “We didn’t have a lot, but we got to see and do so much because of her,” says McGregor.
After graduating from Clemson and a life altering half year in France, McGregor settled with her husband-to-be, Tommy, in the Forest Acres neighborhood of Columbia. “We were hellbent on buying a house right after college, and somehow made it happen.”
The couple found themselves in the middle of one of the worst economies in decades, making it impossible for McGregor to find a job. The house became her occupation, a true design laboratory with childhood days bubbling back to the surface as she dabbled away at projects, documenting the projects on her blog The Avarice. “It was little by little, a lot of IKEA, a lot of testing things out, real lipstick-on-a-pig moments.”
As the couple planned their upcoming nuptials, people often were in and out of the house. “They’d ask, ‘did you do this yourself? can you do this for me?’” McGregor remembers. Her first clients were her wedding planner and photographer. It seemed kismet, like she fell into design, but believes everything was leading her to that moment.
Publications, blogs and projects quickly followed, and soon Whitney McGregor’s reputation for styling, editing and timeless spaces was widely known.
Mother & Daughter, Together Again
McGregor’s business continues to unfold, with each undertaking more exciting and just as personal than the last. With projects in multiple states and a flourishing young family, life continues to inspire and surprise. In the midst of this, she and Tommy purchased a 1950s ranch nestled on several acres in the mountain landscape of Highlands, NC. This ongoing project came to be a bit of an Instagram darling and serves as a bespoke vacation rental she’s christened “The Halstead House”. The home is an influencer’s dreamscape with national magazine exposure to boot, a space which reflects McGregor’s “grandmillenial” style of juxtaposing modern edges alongside chintz, tufting, and ultra feminine touches.
A call two years ago shifted the tenor of her life yet again. Arthur discovered an investment property in Greenville, near where McGregor and her husband, Tommy, had moved with their three children, Lilly Grace, Liam and Lucy (aka Biddy). “I went to see itthat very night,” McGregor says of the two- bedroom, two-bath 1950s bungalow. “It ticked all the boxes: great neighborhood, great size. If she didn’t buy it, I was going to.”
When assessing a space, McGregor’s practicality wins out. “I look for a good foundation, so while the house was in bad shape, it was also workable: good roof, cabinets, floors. We didn’t have to pour all the money into ripping everything out and starting from scratch.”
The mother and daughter envisioned a cottage that Arthur could use from time to time to visit the grandchildren and McGregor could utilize for studio space. But Arthur soon fell in love with Greenville and the house just felt like home. McGregor calls it the ultimate design compliment.
She began with the end in mind. “I know my mom’s style so intrinsically I didn’t even really need to think about it, and I also knew her furniture,” she says, “I knew where each piece would work, what colors she likes, how the place should feel.”
Practicality aside, a deeper sense of place prevailed, she confesses, rooted in her artistic upbringing. “I’m a little woo-woo about houses. To me, they have souls, personality. The cottage started out a jumble of paint colors, it cried out for simplicity and freshness,” she says.
Resetting to simple whites and neutrals created an ideal backdrop for her mom’s vivid and varied art collection. Collected over travels and places she’s lived, art became even more precious when Arthur evacuated her Louisiana home before Hurricane Katrina. “When we found out the levees weren’t going to hold, I packed my car with the family dog, our photographs, and my art and left that day.” The rest was completely destroyed in the aftermath.
McGregor sees art as an extremely personal choice, and rarely chooses pieces for her clients. Her mom is fond of fine art photography by Clyde Butcher and Alan Klug and a Nancy Hammond giclée found a spot in the new house too, and while they may be lesser-known names to some, each piece holds meaning to Arthur. “Mom’s collection is based on what she likes, they all evoke a feeling in her, and are important to her because of that,” says McGregor. The colorful pieces add interest and emotion and personality to the space, they tell a story. Arthur and her daughter know full well that a home is more than things or a building.
“We moved a lot when I was little so home became this really sacred thing to me,” says McGregor. “My mom always told me ‘it’s just a house, we can make a home anywhere.’ Watching her do that again and again really had an influence on me.”
An Open Armed Welcome
Entering the cottage today, a trellis-like entry is papered in Great Vine Leaf (by Cole and Son). It’s muted ivy print opens into a sun-lit living room and feels as if the house embraces you with light. A wide-arched dining room frames French doors that lead into the back yard; the small house opens its arms wide to all who enter.
McGregor refinished, repaired, and reupholstered her grandmother’s settee for the dining room. When she visits, she says it’s where she sits and it feels special to have it there. The ceiling in both the dining room and kitchen were painted a delicate green blue, Pavilion Blue (by Farrow & Ball).
While a traditional cottage might seem fractured and dim, this one hits the right notes with soft textures and patterns applied to its many inviting nooks; there is a soulfulness that typically takes years to establish. Pops of yellow act as visual grace notes: the marigold print on the settee, a mixing bowl in the kitchen, the wallpaper in the main bath. A delight.
McGregor didn’t shy from using some larger furnishings. “Don’t scale everything down, it’ll end up feeling like a dollhouse,” she says. “You need some items that are human-scale.” She points to the sofa. “My mom’s sofa is huge, but you wouldn’t know that because we’ve created context with the large mirror above it.”
The mother and daughter have a myriad of future plans for the house. At some point, the bathroom and kitchen will require an overhaul, but while these spaces wait for their next step, design will be life-paced, giving time to listen for what the house needs.
In the bath, McGregor added inverted pleated flax linen skirting to cover existing cabinetry, adding a sense of both elegance and whimsy. It’s a revelation. Skirting has become a trademark of her personal style, “I say that if my husband stood still long enough, I’d skirt him.”
Block print wallpaper tricks the eye, disguising a dog leg turn into the bathroom. The pattern is Plasencia (by Gaston y Daniela), a current favorite of McGregor.
The kitchen contains its own clever fixes, Whitney points out. “Knowing that we will need to completely renovate the kitchen one day, we were creative and made do. ‘Making do’ is honestly one of my favorite things,” she says. Painting, accessorizing and removing the top cabinets made the space feel fresh and on point. Horizontal shelving spans the length of the room, even across the window, creating visual depth without sacrificing light. When they took up the floor to re-tile and found white pine sub floor, McGregor stenciled it herself.
The bedrooms, connected by a little hall, are painted All White (by Farrow & Ball). It’s a warmer gallery white neutral that pulls this side of the cottage together, along with its hall bathroom. A guest bedroom sits at the front of the house while Arthur’s bedroom is more private, sheltered at the back, featuring a queen-sized four poster bed. You might not expect it in a smaller home, but McGregor says, “Choose pieces that you really love, and you’ll find a place for them, you can make them work. There are rules you can break.”
Cleverly, ceiling fans in both rooms are white in a near match with the ceiling paint, a visual trick that makes the room feel taller.
It’s a sweet spot in life for Arthur, watching her grandchildren grow up and her daughter flourishing within her calling. “She is going to do so much more. She doesn’t even know her full potential, but I see it all the time, everywhere. I am just beyond proud of her.”
The cottage is a reflection of both what has been and what is to be. “I have Mom to thank for everything, how I view the world, my creativity, my fire and my drive to make home. Just like this project, she fully trusted me,” McGregor says. “For any kid, that’s a good start in life when you feel like your parents implicitly and fully trust your ability.”
Arthur says she never had any reservation about working with her daughter as decorator. It was as it has always been, just like the Columbus days. “I trusted her completely,” she says, as her eyes sweep the living room, resting on the rescued artwork and photographs. Knowing that a house is made of replaceable things, but it’s the irreplaceable feeling of home that is set here: a generational gift, an ode to a legacy handed from mother to daughter and back again.