Vineyard Haven designer still at it at 93
File photo by Lynn Christoffers
Cecile Mooney's life has been sparked by creativity, energized by an artistic drive that would not quit. Today, at 93, Ms. Mooney is as talented as ever, and though her creations may be smaller than her projects when she worked as an interior designer in New York and Washington, D.C., they are no less inventive, exquisite, and appealing.
"I was always looking for a way to express myself in an artistic way," said Ms. Mooney, seated on the couch in her bright living room last week.
Even her home, a modest apartment in Vineyard Haven's Havenside complex, is a work of art, put together with an unwavering eye for design. Her living room is all white slipcovers, gossamer fabrics, mirrors expanding the space to twice its size. A coffee table is painted a joyful grass-green. Her breathtaking Christmas tree is a silver-covered branch with sparkling and whimsical ornaments hanging from tiny twigs, each one different, each with a story.
Even her bedroom is stylish, with cool, soothing colors and a wall of photos and artwork. Front and center is a work table, a much-used sewing machine.
Ms. Mooney left the workaday world some four years ago after decades as a successful interior designer and came to the Vineyard where her daughter Sheila Muldaur and her granddaughter Dardy Slavin and her family live.
Though not working, Ms. Mooney was still drawn to creative pursuits. With a lifetime of design experience and boxes filled with materials she had collected, she began making one-of-a-kind gifts for friends and family. Recently, she has been putting together felt Christmas stockings, and dreaming up some new ideas too, She is never satisfied unless she is creating.
Petite and fashionable in slim black slacks, white blouse, deep blue cardigan, her hair and makeup just right, Ms. Mooney shared the winding route that brought her here.
Born and raised in Yonkers, N.Y., she loved ballet and studied painting in Greenwich Village. "I had to take classes, learn new things to do," she said. "I was filled with creative energy."
In 1941 she married James Mooney, a Navy man, also from Yonkers. She recalled their trip to Martha's Vineyard where James spent boyhood summers. It was the young bride's first visit to the island that decades later would become home.
The couple settled in Alexandria, Virginia, and had four children — three girls, one boy. Though she was busy at home, Ms. Mooney took a class in the esoteric art of 18th-century gold leaf painting design. "That kept me busy artistically, I loved doing that," she recalled.
They were living in New Jersey when James died in 1959, leaving his wife with three young children and a baby. Somehow she found time to attend the New York School of Interior Design. Moving back to Alexandria, Ms. Mooney was delighted when the YWCA asked her to teach a class on interior design. Her many woman students loved it. "I was really just one of them," she explained.
The class lead to a job as interior designer for a large Washington, D.C., law firm. That, in turn, lead to more work, more designing, more success.
In Key West she operated Shoe Fly, a popular boutique for shoes and clothing. Back in Manhattan she began the bridal registry at Barney's, oversaw a home furnishings shop at Bergdorf Goodman's — "divine stores" she said — and had the time of her life. Later she worked at Nordstrom in Washington, D.C.
Even while working full-time, Ms. Mooney began crafting and selling small gift items and home accessories.
She delved into her collection of grosgrain ribbons to fashion sophisticated bookmarks, combining hues and patterns, adding a button, a star, a tassel. Custom-made pillows were one specialty — as evidenced now by the blue patterned pillows accenting her furniture here at Havenside, and those gracing her granddaughter Dardy's new home.
Here on the Island she has continued to make unique gifts. One year those lucky enough to be on her list received stylish ribbon bookmarks. Another Christmas, Ms. Mooney used an intricate milliner's ribbon-folding technique to create elegant but jaunty pinecone ornaments in luscious color and pattern combinations. She gave some away and sold the rest at Rainy Day in Vineyard Haven.
This year's Christmas stockings are arrayed on the dining table in front of the big window. It was Sheila's suggestion, Ms. Mooney confided, and she got right to work. She cut large stocking shapes from bright colored felt and sewed them up. Again she turned to her treasure trove of embellishments — buttons, pompoms, jewelry old and new, ribbons and bows, even fabric with the Red Sox logo, to add a personal touch.
She pointed to each stocking, told who it is for, and explained why the color and details match the recipient. The fleecy white half-sized stocking bedecked with pompoms of course is for her youngest great-grandchild.
Even though the stockings are not quite done, Ms. Mooney already is caught up in a new creative project. She is using family photos scanned onto fabric as the basis for ornaments on stiff backing with loops for hanging. The possibilities fascinate her. "I'm crazy about them," she said. "I can't stop. They're so personal, so much fun."
Turning at last from the compelling bright pile of materials and creations-in-progress, Ms. Mooney gazed out towards Vineyard Haven Harbor.
"When I look back at it all, I had a good time," she said with a thoughtful smile.