By Kathleen McCann   Published Jan 09, 2002 at 5:21 AM

Note: Transformations has moved since this article ran and is now located at 5706 W. Vliet St. Call (414) 476-9970.

Michael Patrick McKinley's card states that he is owner, designer and buyer of a new interior design firm and retail shop, but he is just as proud to list the half-dozen other jobs for which he is responsible -- including everything from accountant to custodian. The opening last summer of this one-man business, appropriately named Transformations, added another dash of sophistication to Jefferson Street.

As you ascend the distinctive, curved outdoor staircase of the Italianate townhouse designed by the city's most celebrated 19th century architect Edward Townsend Mix, you know you are someplace special.

As soon as you enter the shop at 777 N. Jefferson St., the traditional exterior gives way to a calming and water-gardened oasis that hosts his retail shop -- candles, lamps, frames, mirrors, pillows and cushions and throws -- along with the tools of his full-service design business such as big books of textile samples and swatches of wall coverings. Here customers can sit down and get ideas on how to transform their own space. He does in-home consultations, and the store specializes in custom upholstery or re-upholstery and window treatments.

His retail inventory, which changes with the seasons, are well-chosen pieces bought from Chicago and soon New York and Atlanta. McKinley calls them "somewhat traditional" and says he will bring in some "hipper and more contemporary" pieces in the coming year.

But make no mistake, the blanket and throws here are no grandmotherly afghans. Customers can find works by local artists Bridget Lyle Wolfe and Daniel Stauff. Strewn about are cushions, impeccably constructed and stitched in England, that would sit perfectly at home on the floor next to a low table or on window seat. Vance Kitira's pillows are a stylish India-meets-English garden integration, covered in patterned or floral fabric and then wrapped in a liquid, translucent layer of copper or gold voile. Another grouping of pillows, these by Stacey Abillie, are encrusted with fields of bold fabric flowers.

McKinley's customers are looking for something unique and "a little more inspired" than what can be found at the local Pottery Barn. Not that he derides such mass marketers; he says they serve a lot of needs, but hopes his store can fill some of the gaps.

"I think the demand for a store like mine in Milwaukee has grown as the sophistication level has grown. And the residential development downtown, such as lofts, dictates the need for new interiors."

It's also a return to what downtown shopping used to be, when exclusive couturier shops lined Milwaukee Street, Wisconsin Avenue and others. "Clients were served champagne while their drivers waited," chuckles McKinley. Although the service is personal, his shop is neither stuffy nor intimidating, with an owner who clearly enjoys interacting with people who stop in Transformations to browse.

"People can milk me for free information while they're in the store and I love that. They can bring in floor plans and I'll give them ideas. That's why I'm here," he says.

The goal of his personal design service is to take a customer's concept and help bring the elements together using fundamentals of good design such as space planning, color, textures and light. A good designer, he says, can help any client, even if the client's taste doesn't match that of the designer's preference.

McKinley, who grew up in central California, always had an interest in interior design, but didn't pursue it professionally until 1998 when he enrolled in MATC's associate degree in interior design program. He had moved to Milwaukee in the early '90s in search of a place where people are friendly and where he could enjoy the change of seasons. "I love it," he says, so convincingly he could make any native embarrassed at their inborn inferior-city complex and weather complaints.


When he's not working with clients or at his shop, McKinley has been for the last year and a half renovating and rejuvenating his Washington Heights home. Respectful of its well-crafted wood built-ins and stained glass, he has incorporated Asian elements and mid-20th-century design in a mélange of corals, coppers and nutmegs.

Color, says McKinley, is the biggest and the least expensive way one can transform their own space.

"Buy a can of paint. You can transform a room in an afternoon. And if you don't like it, you can start over."

The paint advice goes for ceilings, too. McKinley's passionate plea to break with the cult of white ceilings is similar to fashion experts who have been for years preaching that it's okay to wear white after Labor Day. One gets the impression that if he could yank every can of "Ceiling White" off store shelves, he wouldn't hesitate.

As for furniture, he advises clients on a budget to find a style they like and buy well-made neutral, textured pieces and then use the walls and accessories such as pillows and throws for color. It's less expensive to change the look of the room with accessories, than buying new furniture.

Above all, says our expert, one's interior should exude a sense of comfort and home -- it's an extension of who you are. It's all psychology. We need stimulation of color and texture and sentiment. Our home is our refuge from the rest of the world and, although trends come and go, that has always been important.

Call Transformations at (414) 220-9944.