“Where’s Tim Burton?”
That was my first question for tour guide Patricia, as she opened the front door to the Mackenzie-Childs farmhouse and asked us to slip on paper booties.
From the exterior, the late 1800’s farmhouse looks like any other that you’d find on a field in Smalltown, USA. But inside? The design inspiration comes from a zany riot of color, shape, pattern, and texture. If asked to assign a name to the style, I’d go with “Tasteful Psychedelic.”
Mackenzie-Childs is a home decor line featuring wild patterns and outrageous color schemes. The company was launched by husband and wife potters, Richard and Victoria Mackenzie-Childs, in the early 1980’s in the tiny town of Aurora, located in New York’s Finger Lakes. The company filed for bankruptcy and was acquired by Pleasant Rowland, founder of the American Girl doll company, in 2001. There was some unpleasantness that followed, including the dismissal of the founders and a trademark lawsuit, but Mackenzie-Childs is currently thriving, operating the Aurora facility and retail locations in New York City and Palm Beach, Florida.
I was disappointed that visitors can’t tour the production facilities at the Aurora location for additional design inspiration, but there’s a gift shop where a 15-minute video gives an idea of the level of craftsmanship dedicated to creating each Mackenzie-Childs piece. Designers create initial sketches and then work with ceramicists to create the production process which may include fashioning multi-part moulds for slip pours. Each piece is hand cleaned, painted, and kiln-fired in different stages and decorated with the festoons, ribbons, decals, and thingamabobs. Every artisan stamps his or her mark on the piece before it is affixed with an astonishingly high price tag and offered for sale.
Also on the Mackenzie-Childs grounds is an outdoor cafe for light refreshments, a country garden set aside a pond, and the 15-room farmhouse, which is open for free tours. I tagged along with a group of Long Islanders celebrating a 50th birthday and seeking design inspiration. Our tour guide Patricia directed us to the porch and then she ducked around back, so she could open the front door to formally welcome us.
Patricia joined the Mackenzie-Childs family 11 years ago after a career as a financial analyst. She originally considered joining the production team but realized quickly she s suited to life as a painter, since she can’t paint nor sit still and keep quiet for hours on end, as is required in the assembly facility.
She was an excellent tour guide, primarily because she’s a passionate collector. And her family is too. Her husband loves the Mrs. Powers line of wrought iron outdoor products because he remembers the namesake; she operated a local eatery. Patricia sent her son off to college with a set of Mackenzie-Childs plates in the company’s popular black and white Courtly Check pattern. As he was unpacking, one of his roommates exclaimed, “Dude! You’re into NASCAR.” He politely corrected them. “It’s not NASCAR. It’s Mackenzie-Childs.”
We wandered gape-mouthed through the Mackenzie-Childs farmhouse as Patricia pointed out the current and discontinued patterns on display: Tourquay, Frank and Mustard, Butterfly, Lemon Curd, Maclachlan. Each room had so much design inspiration going on though, you couldn’t really focus on one thing. I started to get a headache from sensory overload so I hung back to look at each room like a Seurat pointillist painting, letting all of the individual items blend into a pleasant whole.
The colors are appealing and the individual Mackenzie-Childs pieces are like grownup dollhouse furnishings. The entire group swooned in unison when Patricia opened an armoire to reveal a complete mini-kitchen with sink, refrigerator, and storage. “I want that!” I hollered and then Patricia mentioned that the price tag was over $20,000! Yikes! I also wanted the adorable vanity festooned with rabbits. I considered grabbing it and trying to escape, but knew that Patricia would tackle me before I got to the landing. If I ever have a granddaughter though…I know where to look for design inspiration.
I’m currently entertaining the fantasy of buying a rambling old farmhouse to putter around in. Why? Primarily to indulge my HGTV-inspired passion for interior design. I’d like the farmhouse to have 7 or 8 bedrooms that I could decorate in different styles: ladies’ dressing room, mountain lodge, beach cottage. My visit to the Mackenzie-Childs farmhouse only added fuel to my real estate fire. Each of the bedrooms had cute names stenciled on the doors. I lingered on the front porch, contemplating the names I’d give my farmhouse bedrooms and fantasized about how good a frosty lemonade would taste while rocking and gazing at my imaginary chickens. I can’t afford to buy Mackenzie-Childs, but the dreams are free!
If You Go:
The Mackenzie-Childs Visitor Center is open year round from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.. Regularly scheduled farmhouse tours are at 11 a.m., 1 and 2 p.m., with additional tours during the summer. Admission is free.
The gift shop offers the full line of Mackenzie-Childs products for sale. As noted, most of these items are VERY expensive. Once a year, the Aurora location hosts a 4-day barn sale, offering substantial discounts of 50-80% off. Die-hard collectors camp out in the field to ensure early entry and the best selection.