A designer hits the sweet spot between livability and looks—perfect for her young family and a wake-up call for a once-dark Tudor.

Liz MacPhail in front doorway with her three sons
Credit: Andrea Calo

The marble-top coffee table in designer Liz MacPhail's living room says as much about her love of vintage as it does her family's laid-back lifestyle. On any given night, she and her three boys—Xander (Alexander), 12, and twins Elliot and Griffin, 10—cover it with a board game and get busy. On hot days, rescue pup Simca stretches out across the cool stone. So clearly the table isn't meant to be a showpiece. Nothing in the Austin, Texas, house is. "There's no off-limits; just treat things with respect," Liz says. "That's a big part of the ethos with my home."

Liz MacPhail playing game with her sons in living room
In the living room, the vintage coffee table shifts into a game table, something Liz tries to include in some form in every home she designs.
| Credit: Andrea Calo

When the family moved in five years ago, Liz painted walls and trim white to give the 1920s Tudor a fresh start and her decor a clean canvas. As the boys got older, she set some ground rules regarding the furniture. Her teaching tool? Their Pokémon trading cards. "I noticed they would hold them preciously, and if I'd take one they'd be like, 'Mom, hold it on the side,'" she says. "I started using that as an example: Just take the same care with our house. If something breaks or gets ruined, that's life—accidents happen. But let's treat everything with the same care you treat your cards with."

Similarly, Liz has a knack for finding middle ground and harmony with the pieces she brings into her home. She gravitates to old—houses, furniture, art—which she then mixes with contemporary surprises. "I'm constantly trying to play on the balance of old and new, intricate and streamlined, traditional and contemporary," Liz says. "I love the balance." To her, a mod and quirky Wonder Woman art print is right at home above an ornate French buffet topped with two Chinese lamps. Her rule is simple: If you love it, it will work.

buffet with lamps under wonder woman print
A figurative print of Lynda Carter's 1970s Wonder Woman saved the day by making the formal buffet and lamps that belonged to Liz's mom seem less froufrou. "I just cracked up when I saw Wonder Woman in rollers looking so confident," Liz says.
| Credit: Andrea Calo

Many of Liz's treasured pieces belonged to her interior designer mom or were scavenged in nearby Round Top, Texas, which is known for its antiques fair, as well as at estate sales or flea markets. "I'm a collector," she says. "It's not like I set out with some sort of moodboard or clear vision for my home. I just put things together that speak to me." Both the vintage pieces, such as a graphic French poster with torn edges, and new items, like contemporary light fixtures, give the spaces life. "The most interesting rooms have pieces that keep the eye curious and moving around," Liz says.

framed graphic french poster above blue table
The graphic French poster—with torn edges that Liz says add character—came from the Round Top, Texas, antiques show, Liz's favorite. "That poster has moved around in lots of different spaces," she says.
| Credit: Andrea Calo

And sometimes even the furniture itself moves around. Liz acts on her designer impulses by swapping pieces and art between rooms. She once even sold the sunroom furniture on the spot to a neighbor who complimented it. After she was settled in her house, she also began playing around with color on some of the walls, trim, and ceilings. "I'm a bit of a Border collie," Liz says. "I need to stay busy and I need to be able to create. I find happiness in expressing myself with my home."

So even though most of the rooms in her house are done, they're not, actually. "My house will never be finished," Liz says. "That isn't the goal. To me, there is really no start and no end to a home."

pink sofa in sunroom
The early-rising Liz often starts her day on the sunroom's pink sofa—her first piece of "real" furniture, which she has reupholstered three times. (The boys call the space the "relaxing room.") Plants have become a key part of her decor, and they're a signature gift she gives to clients.
| Credit: Andrea Calo
Liz MacPhail dining-room
Previous owners left the dining room table; with the smoke-glass leaves in, it's a handy place for building with Legos, decorating cookies, or hosting dinners.
| Credit: Andrea Calo
bamboo étagères in dining room
Bamboo étagères Liz nabbed for $30 each on Craigslist are side-by-side workhorses in the dining room. They store dishes and display treasures, including paper dinosaurs her kids made and a Tiffany silver piece that belonged to her mom.
| Credit: Andrea Calo
fireplace with gray mantle and black brick
Paint was Liz's budget update for the house. "I'm a big proponent of white walls," she says. "They're the perfect blank canvas." She later painted the trim, ceiling, and fireplace gray, for subtle contrast, and the reddish fireplace bricks black.
| Credit: Andrea Calo
MacPhail boys and dog in entryway
The entryway is equal parts fashion and function, with a couple of clever design tricks. Peel-and-stick FLOR carpet tiles cover dated laminate and give the kids a soft spot to put on shoes. "It was an affordable way to not have to deal with the laminate right now," Liz says.
| Credit: Andrea Calo
blue and white stripes and plaid in Elliot's bedroom
Stripes, plaids, and checks happily coexist in Elliot's room. The $50 four-poster bed was previously Xander's "big boy bed," painted his chosen bright green (Sherwin-Williams's Grasshopper). With the previous gray now showing through, Elliot is bucking for a new paint job.
| Credit: Andrea Calo
close-up of playful artwork on wall
Playful art—including a drawing of a dragon by brother Griffin—adorns a closet wall and sets a fun tone when entering Elliot's bedroom.
| Credit: Andrea Calo

This article originally appeared in our Fall 2021 issue. Get the magazine here