Fiddle leaf fig trees and fab flea market finds usually finish off any design by Mary Elizabeth Darling. Often spotted rocking red lips, polka dot pumps and plenty of personality, the California native is breaking the mold in interior design — and not just because she’s one of the rare few who will take a can of turquoise spray paint to a vintage secretary.
Even 3,000 miles away, Darling is readily available to UCF clients who want to learn all about her aesthetic — not on HGTV or in Better Homes and Gardens, but on her YouTube channel Hey Mary Elizabeth, which is steadily climbing to 350,000 subscribers.
Darling’s journey began at the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles, where she met her future business partner Leah Ashley. Focused on fashion design at the time, she began pulling wardrobes and personal shopping for friends and friends of friends. One day, a client tasked Darling — still in college and in the midst of finals — to redecorate her entire house in just one week.
“And I somehow busted out this whole house in a week using my mom, my cousins, my friends, whoever would help me, and that’s kind of how I started,” said Darling, 30, of her transition into interior design.
After graduating from FIDM in 2007, just as the housing bubble had burst, Darling was left looking for a different channel into the design industry.
“I graduated college at a time when traditional jobs didn’t exist in the same way,” she said.
In 2012, Darling and Ashley launched a web series called Tipsy Tuesday on their channel A Fab Life, where watchers could pick up a “girly life hack” and a delicious cocktail recipe. Impressed, Meredith Video Studios recruited the duo to host “Door Knock Designs” on its YouTube Network Digs. Darling and Ashley would show up at a viewer’s door to tackle his or her design dream in just one day.
Before long, the FIDM pals and yearlong roommates were redesigning the homes of fellow YouTubers, including Tyler Oakley, Ingrid Nilsen and Connor Franta, resulting in some of their most-viewed videos. The nooks and crannies of the channel were filled with fun tutorials ranging from how to open a beer bottle with a napkin, how to hang art with a comb and how to tweeze eyebrows with eye glasses.
It wasn’t unusual for the Fab Life hosts to deliver their wisdom from a sudsy bubble bath or while sporting a head full of curlers. And behind the camera was Vanessa Rud, of Los Angeles, who still films and edits for Darling.
But the pair split in December 2014 when Ashley went on to costar on ABC’s FABLife, which was canceled just this past January, leaving Darling with the channel, which she renamed Hey Mary Elizabeth.
“[ABC] wanted to use that name … they wanted to buy it outright, our entire company, buy our YouTube, buy everything. For me personally it didn’t really make sense. It was a really hard decision,” said Darling. “I think a lot of people’s eyes light up when they hear ABC, but here’s what I know: There’s a lot more 18- to 35-year-old eyeballs on YouTube than there are on any other network. They wouldn’t want to buy the channel unless they wanted to cash in on this thing.”
Since going solo, Darling has redesigned spaces for YouTubers and New York Times bestselling authors Grace Helbig and Hannah Hart, among others, each room a fresh can of worms when it comes to style — although white marble, gold accents and gallery walls can be spotted in many of her designs.
“Yeah, Mary has this unique style that kind of bridges all of her makeovers, but ultimately I think what’s so impressive about her is her ability to take the needs and styles and desires of the person she’s making over and really honoring that,” said Rud, who met Darling nine years ago at — where else — a yard sale. “Whereas I feel like shows like Trading Spaces and things like that, they just come in, ‘This is me and I’m going to design your room!’”
Never one to be behind the camera, Darling has tackled tutorials on spray-painting furniture and DIY compost bins, while decorating her own home, where you’ll find no room stays the same for very long. When she’s not spackled in paint, she’s answering viewers’ design questions for Q&As, sharing second-hand treasures on the segment Thrift Score, shooting guerilla style at local markets or getting deep in an installment of Note to Self.
Although making the jump to television is still a goal of Darling’s, she’s not in any rush to cut ties with YouTube, a platform she says allows for instant feedback from viewers and total control over her content. She now relies on her YouTube videos as her main source of income, although it hasn’t always been that way.
“Traditional media doesn’t really get it,” she said. “That’s been very evident to me. Wanting to buy something and take ownership of it and ‘I want this channel.’ That’s not how it’s built.”
Although not traditionally trained, Darling has always been immersed in a world of design. A devout worshiper of the Style Channel and The Look For Less, Darling subscribes to the same church of thought as her mother, who’d she’d accompany to thrift stores and flea markets as a child, digging for fabulous finds.
Paying that knowledge forward, Darling has become somewhat of a pioneer for stylists on the interwebs, but there’s more to the brand than a well-decorated space.
“I think there’s a holistic approach to life. You can have a perfectly styled coffee table or you can have the perfect outfit, but it doesn’t really matter if you don’t feel good,” she said. “It has to be a part of something bigger or it’s empty.”
Tips for furniture flippers
1. Ask yourself, “Does it wobble?” A loose leg might seem like an easy fix, but a slight wobble could mean major structural issues.
2. Ask yourself, “Does it need to be reupholstered?” A chair cushion is one thing, but a sofa could easily cost upwards of $1,000, and it’s not easy for an amateur to reupholster something like that.
3. Buy cheap. If you’re spending $150 plus putting in labor, maybe you should have just bought the piece new.
4. Look at the lines and quality of the piece. Do you like the shape? Color and nobs can be changed, but basic structure can’t.
5. Use a primer. Anything that’s shiny needs to be primed before you paint.
6. Swap out the hardware. Whether that means giving the current hardware a good ammonia bath, spray painting or buying new pieces, these accents can make a big difference.
Home decor trends for 2016
1. Two-toned paint > From contrasting top and bottom kitchen cabinets to a horizontal break from white to color on the walls.
2. Brass > A favorite from 2015, brass will continue to have its wow moment in the kitchen and bathroom.
3. Mixed metals > Combining chrome, brass, copper and rose gold works with the ‘70s and ‘80s influences found in fashion and interior design right now.
4. Eclecticism > It’s all about finding an eclectic balance with varying tile, raw woods, painted woods, polished brass, stone and more.
5. Earthy glam > Crystals, agate, designer dream catchers — design is all about bringing in the good vibes and right now we’re seeing this trend in accessories, side tables and even coasters.
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