SAUGANASH — Mary Cook-Gallagher believes in the power of inspiration.
The Sauganash resident is president of the interior design firm Mary Cook Associates Inc., which serves clients in 28 states and has helped spice up residences inside some of Chicago's marquee buildings, including Trump Tower.
"Being creative and visual is just in my blood, it's just what I do," said Cook-Gallagher, who founded her Lakeview business at 4001 N. Ravenswood Ave. in 1986. "I love it."
Justin Breen introduces us to Mary Cook-Gallagher:
She will share her passion for interior design during a presentation at NeoCon — North America's largest exposition on design and commercial interiors — which runs Monday through Wednesday at the Merchandise Mart.
Her book, "The Art of Space" — which was released earlier this year and Cook-Gallagher said is marketed to "educators, professionals and design enthusiasts at all levels" — also will be for sale.
"I have years of experience, and we're really good at what we do," Cook-Gallagher said. "We've been able to maintain a high caliber of quality."
While building a multimillion-dollar business, Cook-Gallagher also has raised a family that includes her husband, Gerald Gallagher, a Chicago Fire Department captain at O'Hare, and their three children: Katie, 18; Peter, 15; and Bridget, 11. She waited until she was 37 to have her first child and was 44 when Bridget was born. Katie's first year was spent traveling with her mom to her various clients, which are located as far east as Massachusetts and far west as California.
Much of the housework — and shuttling the children to their various sporting events (they are all accomplished athletes, and Katie is heading to the University of Illinois to play softball) — was left for Gerald, who works 24 hours on and then is off for 48.
"I love our arrangement," said Gerald Gallagher, who also works 20 hours a week in accounts payable for his wife's company. "It's interesting to be around her and see how she thinks. She's pretty much thinking of new things all the time.
"And she gets on the kids a little more, and I'm more laid back, so it works out."
A twist of fate led Cook and Gallagher to meet. After returning from a three-week Catholic mission trip to India, Cook was asked by the priest in charge to give a package of letters to a man going on the next voyage. That man turned out to be Gallagher.
Ironically, Cook-Gallagher never sought out a career in interior design. After graduating from Hinsdale Central High School, she was on her way with friends to Utah State to study food nutrition. But her friends decided to forgo the Beehive State and instead attend the Harrington Institute of Interior Design in the Loop. Cook-Gallagher tagged along.
"As soon as I got into the program, it sort of clicked," she said. "And I started to do well."
After graduating from the three-year program in 1979, she spent seven years honing her craft before founding her company. When applying for a business license, Cook-Gallagher didn't know she needed a name for the company, so she just used her own.
The business began with Cook-Gallagher as the lone employee but soon expanded. She said the company now earns about $5.5 million in revenue annually, providing interior designs for homes, condominiums, lofts, country clubs and yacht clubs.
"I’ve known of and judged her work through the Greater Chicago Home Builders Association for many years and always recognized their work as different," said Dan O'Malley, Vice President of Product Development for M/I Homes. "It had a certain look that was impactful and successful. ... The end product is something that’s very appealing visually."
Peter Brennan, the president of Foxford Development, has known Cook-Gallagher for 20 years, and her firm designed models for his company's Van Buren Lofts project in the city. Brennan's daughter also competed with Katie Gallagher's St. Ignatius College Prep basketball and volleyball teams, and he was always amazed that Cook-Gallagher was able to attend games.
"Mary is not only a tenacious business person but a very loving and caring mother," Brennan said. "Mary made it to virtually every single game. She may have been coming right from the airport, but she made it there."
Life, Cook-Gallagher said, has been about finding that perfect balance between work and home life.
And, she said, inspiration always plays a part.