Meet the interior designer and renovation expert: Fi Duffy of Fifi McGee


Fi Duffy and her partner Neil Shaw are the founders of Fifi McGee, an amazing online resource for people looking to embark on a home renovation for the first time.

It all started when the pair documented the stunning renovation of their own home - and now they help others by providing practical advice and inspiration, and now a full interior design service.

We spoke to Fi about how it all started, how she approaches interior design and lighting, and the things that every would-be home renovator needs to know...

When did you first discover your talent for home renovating?

I was always destined for an interior design career I think. I was obsessed with dolls houses and changed my room layout around more times than I can think! Even into adulthood and especially when we bought our own homes there were many mornings I’d wake up and turn to my other half (and co-business owner) Neil telling him I’d been dreaming about interiors again and woke up buzzing.

It all started when we bought a one-bed flat together, did it up a bit and then earned enough equity on the sale to be able to purchase a 1930s fixer upper that hadn’t been redecorated since the 1960s. It was our chance to take a property in need of love and make it completely our own.

Neil and I documented the entire project on our renovation blog from the moment we got the keys, to the grand reveal of every room. What I didn’t know then but I do know now, is that during those years, every conversation I had with architects, contractors and engineers and every decision we made, geared me up for a career in interior design, supporting first time renovators with their projects.

It was during those years of renovating my own home, questioning everything our contractors ever did out of complete fascination and curiosity that I learned about the different elements that make up a home. I became passionate about lighting installation, worktop finishes, tile patterns, sub floors, you name it. I trained as an interior designer since, but it’s certainly through real-life experience (and making mistakes!) that’s taught me the most.

I know some will say there are a lot more important and worthy causes to work on in the world, but I truly believe that our homes are such an integral part of the way we approach and experience our lives. I experienced what it was like to live in an unsafe home, and then homelessness, all when I was a little girl – and I’m certain it’s the reason I’m now so passionate about helping other people create warm, inviting, comfortable homes they feel truly proud of.


"...My biggest tip to anyone designing their own home is to remove everything out of the room... Clear all the surfaces so you’re left with a blank canvas, then dream..."


Before and after shots of Fi and Neil's living room. (Spot Pook's Otto table lamp!) Images: Fifi McGee

How do you and Neil divide the labour on your projects?

Neil and I have such complementary skills. We’re complete opposites in one sense, but have a lot of similarities in another. I’ll lead on the design process but Neil informs the importance of practicality and has a very good understanding of materials. I’ll put lighting, electrics, colours, layout and furniture schemes together, and Neil is the perfect sounding board to review the vision offering tweaks to ensure the scheme works for practical/lifestyle needs. I love this, but there are times where I’ve wanted a lot of shelving and Neil will be adamant they’ll be hard to dust... (it just takes a little bit of gentle persuasion and he’s on board again!)

When it comes down to project managing a build, both of us get stuck in but one of us will naturally lead. This approach means that one of us is always ‘on it’ while the other is keeping other plates spinning in the business. We’re really big on getting budgets accurate during projects. Being fearful of costs spiralling is common for first time renovators, and that’s why our online renovation course covers this aspect first. We follow our own advice on every project we start and Neil tends to lead on the budget side. He has 15 years of experience working with spreadsheets whereas I freeze as soon as I click on a cell! Give me design work any day! I’m more comfortable working with creative tools like Sketchup for planning layouts and producing visual mood boards ready for 3D production.


Fi and Neil. Image: Fifi McGee

What did you learn in your own home renovations that you wish you’d known from the start?

Crikey, so much learned! How long have you got? Firstly, renovating isn’t easy. I recently turned the ripe ol’ age of 30 and wrote a blog post sharing the lessons I’ve learned about renovating in my 20s.

One of the biggest lessons I wish I knew back then, was how fluid renovation projects are and to get comfortable with that sooner. Regardless of how well planned a project is, there’s always something that needs to be changed. You can choose to let it stress you out, or accept the challenge and figure out a way to make it work for you. Course-correct. It could be that a planning application has flagged something you can no longer do so your design has to change, or a builder unearths something unforeseen… another recent challenge was the country running low on plaster supplies during covid, so many projects were delayed.

These unexpected scenarios happen all the time in renovations and it can feel like all of your effort determining budgets, timelines and designs have been compromised because of something out of your control, but the truth is renovations are fluid and never always run exactly to plan. It’s essential to have a plan, without one, you risk compromising results but you also need the resilience to course-correct and get you back on track if challenges come up. When you’re taking on a renovation, being prepared and ready for anything unexpected is essential.

What are the big things that first-time home renovators tend to need your help with?

Firstly, getting budgets right. It’s really normal for those renovating for the first time to be fearful of costs spiralling. There are so many unknowns and when you’ve not done this sort of project before it can go South quite quickly… Through our How to Renovate a House online course we advise on how to budget the right way and how to avoid common costly mistakes. We also support people with ways to make cost savings when starting a project and help them determine how best to spread their budget to ensure they’re getting wow results. Knowing where to start, what order to do things and who to hire are other areas we support with.

Back when we first bought our 1930s project, holding the keys feeling totally naïve and oblivious, we’d have jumped at the chance to have someone guiding us, step-by-step with what to do first and who to hire next. With such little advice out there, Neil and I made it our mission to change this and provide free guides, blog articles and more to give first time renovators peace of mind and inspiration.


Kitchen-diner. Image: Fifi McGee

You launched your own interior design service in Sussex in 2020. How is it different designing for clients rather than for yourself?

Such a great question. In fact, I was talking with fellow interior designers about this very topic recently! In one sense we were all baffled by how it can be harder to design our own places than a client’s home, but in terms of having the knowledge of suppliers and inspiration that’s come from our careers, it definitely makes that side of our own home projects more straight-forward. I’m adamant that it has something to do with having a ‘fresh pair of eyes’.

Homeowners can feel stuck with their interior ideas because they’re so used to their four walls and find it tricky to see past the current décor. Designers come at projects completely new to the space and can instantly see the potential in a client’s home.

My biggest tip to anyone designing their own home is to remove everything out of the room (if you can). Clear all the surfaces so you’re left with a blank canvas, then dream. Your eye won’t be distracted by the existing decor and you’ll have fresh ideas.

Has the year of lockdowns changed how you think about your home?

Without a doubt our needs for our home are way different now than pre-lockdown. It’s suddenly got so many more requirements. Our home is our office, gym, pub-restaurant!

Before lockdown our home was almost exclusively somewhere to unwind after a day at the office but now it’s our whole world and we’ve really expanded on how we use areas of the house.

Our utility area for example, became somewhere to sit and have a coffee or meditate because it looks out onto woods at the back of our house. Lockdown has definitely given us a renewed gratitude for our home. While it’s by no-means perfect, we feel so thankful to have it. The rooms are comfortable, homely and being bright and airy made it that bit easier to get through the dark days of winter.

What are you working on next?

In our current house, we’re turning our attention to the exterior next with a new driveway, flower beds and we’re restoring a 1930s wall to bring it back to its former glory. We’re also in the middle of designing a new home office to make our workspace a lot more comfortable and actually have storage for my million samples! We’re also so excited to be working on five new renovation projects over the next year, watch this space...


Images: Fifi McGee

How important is lighting in your interior design?

Lighting is so important to get right for many reasons. Firstly, lighting elevates a room design. By layering your lights, opting for more than just ceiling lights, you’re instantly giving your design more dimension at all hours of the day. For example, a dimmable wall light will bring an atmosphere during the evenings that a ceiling pendant alone can’t provide.

Also take directional or architectural ceiling lights as another example. When positioned considerately to light up open shelving, to point downwards onto a coffee table or to downlight art work, it illuminates chosen focal points in a room that otherwise would go missed, be cast in shadow or look flat. We all know that colours can change depending on the light in the room, but light also accentuates the shape of furniture, frames and vases, it illuminates textures and fabrics – so it’s a really important element of design to play with.

In another sense, I always think of lighting as the jewellery of the home. Table lamps, floor lamps and pendant lights bring a huge sense of personality and shape to an interior even when not in use.

Finally - do you have a favourite Pooky light?

It’s got to be the Whizzer wall lights! I’ve just bought two to be installed in our dining room and regularly recommend these to renovators. What I love about the design of the Whizzer wall light is its versatility. It suits an elegant, timeless interior style every bit as much as an industrial or transitional interior style. That means that if your taste changes over the years, your lighting will still suit. The sharp angle on the arm keeps it feeling modern against the circular detailing towards the shade. Brass is always a winner!



Find out more about Fifi McGee and a whole world of resources for renovators on their website. And follow them on Instagram @fifimcgeee.