Meet Fifi Duffy, interior designer and renovation expert, of Fifi McGee

Fi Duffy and Neil Shaw are behind Fifi McGee, a great web resource for those considering or planning their first home renovation. Their mission is to inspire others and provide straightforward and practical advice to help homeowners improve their homes. After documenting the transformation of their first renovation project, which quickly attracted the attention of others who shared their interest in renovation, they developed the first UK-wide online course for home renovators, which has guided hundreds of homeowners to achieve superb results. As of 2020, their latest venture, Fifi McGee Interiors, offers affordable interior design support to homeowners at all stages of their redesigns and renovations focused on Modern Country Style. In our interview with Fi, she shares her experiences and tips with home renovations, interior design, and plans for the future.

How did your journey in home renovation start?

I guess it properly began back in 2016 when we flipped our flat, giving us a tidy sum to invest into our own renovation project. Back then, property prices in Brighton were eye-watering – they still are! So my other half (and now business partner) Neil and I took the leap to buy a more affordable property that needed a lot of work rather than something already done not to our taste.


We landed our beloved 1930s renovation and documented every single inch of the transformation on our website, from the tear out of our storage heaters, the reveal of pristine pre-war newspapers under the carpets, all the way through to the final licks of paint.


A project of this scale was pretty intimidating (the place didn’t even have central heating),  but we were eager to prove we could transform a really dated property into our dream home, and so the dusty road to renovating began…


It was tough and a steep learning curve, but every minute prepared us for the work we do today. 

The project taught us first hand how little support there was out there for first time renovators + decorators, which baffled us. There are huge unknowns like who to hire, what order to do work in, how to design everything, how best to spend your money, and how to do everything legally and safely – so we began our mission to change this. 

Fifi McGee became an interior design and renovation company born to give newbie renovators a leg up to prevent mistakes and get wow results with their projects. 


We have so much content, easy-to-follow online courses and a buzzing Reno Club community, to help renovators combat overwhelm and create their dream homes with confidence. 

5 top tips for first time home renovators?

I have so many tips, it’s going to be hard to choose just 5!

  1. Take your time. If it’s a forever home you’re renovating, this applies to you. Get everything exactly how you want it and sit on your decisions for a while. 
  2. Plan, plan, plan. The success of your renovation depends on it. The more planning you put in place before work begins, the less stressful and smoother your project will be. Get support from people who have been where you are. We have free guides and online courses to give you direction.
  3. Try to live in your property for a while to understand light and space. Take the time to understand how your new property flows. What are the good sides and what needs improving? It could give you ideas to remodel the space you have rather than extend, which could save you a lot of money in the long run (read about our epiphany moment when we realised we didn’t need to extend!)
  4. Don’t rush into any decisions that you aren’t 100% sure is right for your lifestyle now and in 10, 20 years time. Go for timeless, practical solutions you know work with how you like to live and your plans for the future.
  5. Keep a tight grip on budgets – it might sound like an obvious one but 2 in 5 renovators overshoot their budgets simply because they haven’t budgeted sensibly. Where you can, learn from other people in the industry and other renovators to swap notes on cost saving solutions. We’ve packed our free guides and online courses with all the knowledge and learning we’ve experienced working as an interior designer and through supporting hundreds of renovation projects. 
What do you and Neil suggest looking for in a house when embarking on a new renovation project?

Great question! We actually wrote a guide all about what to look for when buying a fixer upper. To add to some of those nuggets of advice, I would say look for a property with good ‘bones’ such as period features like chimney breasts/alcoves, stained glass windows which bring character to the overall design. 


Also heavily consider the layout before you purchase and contemplate how straightforward it is to get the layout working for you. If there are any real headaches arising early on, such as relocating a bathroom upstairs without space to do so, or if the main bathroom can only be accessed via a bedroom and your budget is pretty small, really consider if it’s something you’re happy to live with if your budget can’t stretch to remodel. Hiring an architect will support you to no end if you need to reconfigure rooms (we have a guide all about hiring an architect and what their costs are too) but these are just some pointers you can be thinking about to give you a head start. 

Always invest in the most in-depth survey you can too. You need to be going into your renovation project with your eyes wide open and understanding possible maintenance costs. 

What are the most important lessons you have learned so far on your renovation journey? Any horror stories?

Thankfully we have no major horror stories that have happened during our projects but we recently saw a public forum post from a renovator who under-budgeted by £50K+ and can no longer access further funds to complete their project. Totally gutting for them and I do think this is more common than people think – especially if unknown issues arise during construction. 


The approach we take to our projects, and the encouragement we give to first time renovators, is obviously to set a healthy contingency, but more than that to really consider your lifestyle needs, the layout of the house, and your funds available. Do you need your project to be so big? The first port of call should always be “how can I use the space I have to give me what I need from this property” and if an extension or conversion is a must, then proceed. But always exhaust the option of working with the walls you have, first. 

Another big one that’s overlooked is security on site. Many renovation properties are burgled by opportunists looking for workmen’s tools and supplies. Try to make your property look lived in if there is nobody on site (leave a light on),  don’t allow workmen to leave tools overnight, and consider CCTV installation as your first job.

How do you feel when a renovation project is over?

There is no feeling quite like it when you’ve completed a project. I always say it’s like a cocktail of emotions when the renovation work is in full swing – there are a lot of ups and downs. But when it’s done, you just can’t stop staring at it! Pride, elation, gratitude. So many emotions come into play when you’ve just transformed a home to be exactly how you (or a client) want it. I’m hooked on that feeling!


Congrats on launching Fifi McGee Interiors in 2020! What is your biggest inspiration as an interior designer and what do you love the most about modern country style?

Thank you! It felt like such a natural step for me to formalise my experience and train as an interior designer. For me, inspiration comes from being outdoors in the countryside (the South Downs are on our doorstep!), visiting National Trust properties and analysing how interior elements like joinery and tiling have been built and schemed throughout the years. 


Modern Country design is driven by nature. I tend to propose natural materials like stone, linen, and wood, as well as colours inspired by my walks on the South Downs like taupe and sage green, to create a timeless design. I just love how Modern Country design allows you to create a practical yet stylish home that’s going to be as homely in years to come. It’s also such a complementary look to create in homes of all eras. It’s sympathetic to both old and new. 

What is the most important factor when designing a room?

Great question! There isn’t just one important factor. Everything feeds into the design – from the flooring, to the paint, to the window dressing. But if you start by doing an ‘audit’ of the room to work out what you love and what you hate, you can then begin to build a full design plan with all features in mind. 

That said, if I had to whittle it down to one or two things to really place your focus it would be getting the layout right, and then getting the colours right. Lighting is also SO important but even in the darkest of rooms, the right colour scheme will determine the design.

Which P&P products would you choose if you were designing a client’s home?

The Juno Side Table – Great for matching bedsides or beside a sofa with a lamp and small vase of flowers perched on top.

I also adore the Aldona linen armchairs. They look squishy and they’re a neat size for moving around open plan spaces. You can easily angle them towards a TV or push them back when not in use. The pretty spine backs make them perfect to round off an open plan lounge area. 

I’m a big fan of extendable tables, again, the Juno Extendable table has a timeless look paired with a mix of matching chairs and a bench. Benches are fantastic for space saving as they can be so easily tucked under the table out of the way of a busy walkway. 

In terms of accessories, I love Perch & Parrow’s throws. They’re such a reasonable price for the quality and warmth they bring to a room design. I own the Irene Herringbone Tassled throw in Ink Blue which is perfect for all seasons. I style this on the end of a bed or across the arm of the sofa. 

Where do you both want this exciting journey to take you in the future?

At the moment we feel so grateful for the opportunity to support and work with so many first time renovators at such an exciting time in their lives. On a personal level, being able to run a business with my fiance and best buddy Neil every day is more than I could wish for! But of course, we have lots of dreams for the future. We’ll take on another renovation project soon, I’m sure of it, but right now we’re focusing on our client roster and supporting some really exciting projects across the country.


Image Credit: Fi Duffy and Neil Shaw