Canvas in Tempe, Arizona
Mary Cook Canvas in Tempe, Arizona

Mary Cook, president and founder of Chicago-based Mary Cook Associates, has led the national commercial interior design firm for over three decades, working with developers such as CIM Group, Murphy Development Group, BNE Real Estate Group, and Toll Brothers Apartment Living. Cook worked with Toll Brothers on its Canvas student housing development in Tempe, Arizona, which is a 2022 MFE Awards merit winner. She shares her must-have features for common areas and a unique design detail at Canvas.

MFE: As we head toward 2023, what design trends are you anticipating for the new year?

Mary Cook, president and founder, Mary Cook Associates
Mary Cook, president and founder, Mary Cook Associates

Cook: We’re going to continue to feel a ripple effect from the pandemic with an overall emphasis on wellness in design. I’m not talking about the things we heard a lot about in the earliest days of COVID—like spaces designed for social distancing or incorporating touchless features and antimicrobial surfaces—but rather a broader awareness of the important role our surroundings play in physical and mental well-being. We’ll see this impact design in a variety of ways, from co-working amenities created with ergonomics top of mind for our physical comfort to thoughtfulness around how incorporating natural light, different colors and materials, and even biophilic design elements can have a positive effect on our emotions, stress levels, productivity, and more.

Another big design takeaway from the past two years has been the importance of flexibility in amenity design. Owners and managers have had to quickly pivot as the needs and preferences of residents changed. Thanks to the work-from-anywhere lifestyle, multifamily residents are spending more time “at home” and are relying on amenity spaces to serve more functions throughout the day than ever before. From a design standpoint, that’s inspiring us to infuse amenities with a variety of seating options—from nooks, pods, booths, and pocket spaces that allow privacy and separation to communal tables and long islands or bars that promote socialization and interaction—as well as incorporate features like sliding barn doors that can open or close spaces to one another, and even garage-style door systems that create flow between the indoors and out.

MFE: What is a design feature that creates the best first impression for prospective renters?

Cook: That really depends on not only the project, but also the individual and what will make that prospective renter say, “aha, I can really see myself living here!” Our approach is based in psychographics—the values, attitudes, interests, lifestyles, and aspirations—of the end users. Rather than designing with the goal of appealing to everyone, which results in vanilla, watered-down spaces, we dive into the specifics of the target renters and think about how they really live and what matters to them. So for some, a space like a podcast studio or other amenity specific to a hobby or pastime will hit home. For others, a well-designed co-working space where they can envision taking Zoom calls against a beautiful backdrop will really resonate.

Of course, there’s no denying the ability of a truly one-of-a-kind design element with high visual impact to make a great first impression that will differentiate a property from others in the market and keep it top of mind with prospects. At Dey & Bergen, a multifamily community in Harrison, New Jersey, we channeled our overall midcentury-inspired design concept and placed a vintage 1964 Austin Healey Bugeye Sprite as the centerpiece of a speakeasy-style social lounge. It’s an incredibly distinctive and memorable feature that helps the property stand out in a very competitive rental landscape, with prospects who tour able to recall it as “the building with the cool car in the lounge.”

MFE: What are the top three must-have elements for common areas?

Cook: I’ll give you five, which I refer to as “The Five Ps:” Plug-ins, referencing the new reality of remote work and how amenity spaces must meet high tech standards to support that lifestyle, in addition to offering a variety of collaborative workspaces; pet-focused amenities and spaces top the must-have list for many residents given the rate pet ownership climbed during the pandemic; privacy, as in opportunities to carve out personal space for specific activities; play, referring to demand for recreational spaces and those that promote fitness and health habits; and packages, since the increase in delivery-based consumerism has made space and solutions to accommodate packages of all shapes and sizes a new priority for both management and residents alike.

MFE: What’s today’s hot interior paint color?

Cook: For a general overall wall color, one of our go-to choices right now is Sherwin-Williams’ Drift of Mist, a warmer, lighter neutral. Trim is more tonal, with less contrast. And for accents, two of our current favorites are Sherwin-Williams’ Iron Ore and Grizzle Gray.

MFE: Tell me about a unique design detail in a recent project.

Cook: We recently worked with Toll Brothers Student Living to design the interiors for Canvas near Arizona State University. For the lobby, we wanted to incorporate an element that would communicate the property’s brand while also engaging current and prospective residents on social media as well as in person. Our answer was an interactive wall featuring the Canvas logo comprising hundreds of pegs, which residents autograph when they sign a lease. It’s become such an incredibly popular “Instagrammable” moment for residents to share that we are creating similar features at other Toll Brothers projects. Gen Z is a group that craves connections—both online and off—that is something that will increasingly influence the design of market-rate properties as that demographic becomes a significant percentage of the resident mix.

MFE: Favorite thing about fall?

Cook: Fall means back to work and back to school, and for many of us we are now bringing our activities back indoors. We again anticipate a return to routine and the formalities and festivities of the winter months. My favorite thing about fall are those formalities. Our dinner group resumes, holidays are ahead of us, the fireplace goes into full swing, and the activities centered around home, family, friends, great food and wine take center stage. One of the silver linings coming out of the pandemic has been an appreciation for a slower pace, the importance of home, and the value of good friends and family. I believe we will keep those habits in the forefront of our priorities.

MFE: Pumpkin spice latte: yea or nay?

Cook: Nay—I’m more of a cappuccino girl.