Since founding Tucker & Marks in 1986 with her husband, Timothy F. Marks, Suzanne has been regarded as one of the most successful interior designers in the country. In addition to managing a line of textiles and home furnishings, Suzanne Tucker Home, Suzanne designs beautiful living spaces for clients to call home. Growing up among the enchanted gardens of Montecito, CA, with parents who were avid gardeners, Suzanne developed a passion for gardens and joined the Society of Fellows in 2006 and serves on our West Coast Council. She also chairs the San Francisco Fall Show, with whom she invited the Garden Conservancy to partner this year by hosting a special luncheon in honor of the doyenne of interior design, Bunny Williams. Read on for our interview with the endlessly inspiring and prolific Suzanne Tucker.
Since you co-founded your interior design firm, Tucker & Marks in 1986, with your partner and husband, you’ve created an impressive portfolio, from beach houses to mountain lodges to family homes. What types of projects most inspire you?
Indeed I have been most fortunate to design and work on a wide variety of projects, from city to country, from ground-up projects to extensive renovations, from first homes to second, third and even fourth properties. I will always be drawn to great scale and proportions whether it be a large or small project and of course, any time there are beautiful gardens to enhance the project! And it’s inspiring and personally rewarding to take on the creative challenge to design a home—not just a house—that is appropriate to its surroundings and make it a true reflection of its owners.
Your work is expertly tailored to the needs of each client and you refer to your designs as “personalized living environments.” What’s the first thing you do with new clients as you embark on a successful personalized project?
Working with my dear clients over the years, my roles have been varied—detective, psychologist, marriage counselor, confidante, mind reader! And beside the usual questions of lifestyle, closet needs, children, pets, and do they have a grand piano with which I need to work, the most important thing I’ve developed is an acute and finely-tuned ability to listen, truly listen, to my clients—to actually hear what they want beyond what they can articulate or imagine, to intuit and understand their psyche, together with their fears and insecurities. I once sat with a client in an initial meeting and knew immediately what I had to create for her—a cozy, layered, sheltered environment—she had been through some sadness in her life and needed cocooning. The house became cozy and welcoming and the garden a tranquil oasis.
Where do you find inspiration? Does your interest in gardens ever find its way into your interiors or your textiles and home furnishing line, Suzanne Tucker Home?
My personal experience growing up in Santa Barbara, specifically Montecito, deeply influenced and inspired my sense of design and architecture. It was, and still is, a garden and architectural paradise. My playground was roaming freely through some of the greatest properties such as Lotusland next door, El Mirador behind us, Val Verde across the road, Constancia, Il Brolino,... the list goes on. As magical as the gardens were to me, I was equally enchanted by the houses and their interiors. I have discovered time and again how subliminally and profoundly my surroundings molded and informed my understanding of home. And from my own upbringing, I was definitely influenced by my English mother’s love of gardens, the daily fresh flowers in the house, the way my parents entertained, how the table was set, a simple snip in the garden and voilà, the flowers on the dinner table were done. I don’t think my mother has ever called a florist in her life!
These experiences, along with traveling, have all influenced my work a great deal, including my textile designs. Traveling is a must, an indispensable part of my creative process and a never-ending source of inspiration. It energizes and inspires me more than anything else. No matter where in the world I go, I always come back with my brain full of ideas, a suitcase with samples, and a phone or camera loaded with images. Earlier in the summer, we embarked on an architectural tour of Scotland, we spent some time in Italy, and since I’m always nursing a mild case of wanderlust, soon we will be off to England, and perhaps to India next winter.
What advice would you give a Fellow approaching the design of a space that brings the outdoors in? Any tips or best practices to follow?
To me, the most important—and basic—elements of any design project, indoors or outdoors, are scale and proportion, color and light. Paying key attention to all four are critical to achieving beauty and comfort in a house, or a garden. And ideally creating a seamless transition from one to the other adds to that all-important balance.
I am forever bringing landscape architects and designers inside the house so that they can see the color palette from the insider's perspective. We live with our gardens but not in them, so it’s important to create gardens as an extension of each room in a house. Just as the sight lines are crucial in a garden, they’re crucial looking from the inside as well. I always recommend looking at the color palette inside and then using that similar color palette outside so that you have the ease of transition indoor and out. And focal points are equally as important in gardens as they are inside houses as well. Where do you want your eye to be drawn?
You keep beautiful gardens at your home in Marin and at your bungalow in Montecito. Tell us about the gardens; what aspects do you most enjoy? Any favorite plants or spaces?
The original garden in Marin was quite overgrown and didn’t take advantage of the property or even the views. A line of tall, dark cypress trees blocking the main view to the east and Angel Island were removed. The old pool was tight to the house and had a shape like a clown face with a rather sad attempt at a 1970s grotto-like tiled spa—swingers paradise! We imploded and buried the pool, created a level lawn, and opened up the unusable overgrown jungle at the south end of the property building a new pool. This provided a perfect location for the 18th-century French lead putti that came from Tim's grandmother’s house in Michigan. It was a Fletcher Steele garden, so we feel particularly sentimental and treasure them. Elizabeth Everdell turned the north-facing garden into a lovely parterre with boxwood, roses, espalier pears and apples, a fountain, and the central iron presentation urn.
Our bungalow in Montecito was built in the 1930s as the tractor garage and housing for workers of a local family's extensive lemon groves. Over time, the groves were gradually sold off as Montecito became more developed. I was inexplicably drawn to this property and, as soon as I stepped into the garden, I knew I was home. The California oaks, a massive thirty-foot tall magnificent specimen Strelitzia nicolai (giant white bird of paradise), fragrant osmanthus, jasmine and citrus blossoms, magnolia and olive trees, and redwoods anchoring two corners of the property, they all made for a very private world, my very own secret garden framing a lovely view of the Santa Ynez mountains. It’s all very small but the most serene spot for me.
As a longtime chair of the San Francisco Fall Show, you’ve been instrumental in supporting the Garden Conservancy’s involvement as we honor Bunny Williams with a special luncheon at the show this fall. Thank you! What are you looking forward to at the 2019 show?
I have been involved with the San Francisco Fall Show since it began 38 years ago, serving for over twenty years on the Advisory Board and as Show Chair for the past five years. I’ve only missed one show in 38 years! I am thrilled to again be chairing one of the oldest and most revered shows in the country with both national and international dealers exhibiting. Plus it has a terrific lecture series and the best opening night party bar none, all in support of Enterprise for Youth. For anyone interested in collecting, buying, or learning about the decorative arts from contemporary to antiquities, the show is not to be missed. It's a Bay Area "must do" of the fall social season with four wonderful, vibrant days filled with terrific dealers, fascinating lectures, and gobs of eye candy including fabulous dealers of garden elements.
There is always a theme to the San Francisco Fall Show which catches the attention of both collectors and dealers. Our themes have covered everything from Egyptomania to Animalia, Chinoiserie to Flower Power over the past 38 years. This year, we chose “Wanderlust.” It seemed an obvious direction given that the world has become so small and we all travel, are exposed to treasures, and collect and learn from our journeys. Travel inspires me more than anything else feeding my perennial case of curiosity and wanderlust so no matter where in the world I go, I always come back with a head full of ideas and my iPhone loaded with images.
You have been a Fellow since 2006 and serve on our West Coast Council. What has your experience been as a Garden Conservancy Fellow and member of our community of garden enthusiasts?
Being involved with the Garden Conservancy certainly feeds another part of my aesthetic soul and my giving back philosophy. Growing up with some of the country's most spectacular and memorable gardens practically “in my backyard” gave me a sentimental attachment and profound appreciation for gardens. While I took my childhood surroundings for granted, I came by my love of gardens rightfully thanks to my mother. She’s been a garden club member for more than 65 years, and to this day, at 91, if I can’t reach her, I know she’s out in the garden!
I am very proud to be involved in the Garden Conservancy and actually remember meeting Frank Cabot when he first came to Montecito years ago to talk to about his idea of a Garden Conservancy. Little did I know that years later I, too, would be involved and championing the Conservancy.
Any other thoughts or remarks you’d like to share with our Fellows?
There is nothing quite as renewing or as serenely beautiful as a garden. They should be treasured and shared. And in October, I look forward to seeing you all at the 2019 San Francisco Fall Show and celebrating our beloved Bunny, who is one of the best garden champions I know!
To learn more about Suzanne Tucker, visit www.tuckerandmarks.com and www.suzannetuckerhome.com.
You can learn more about the San Francisco Fall Show and purchase tickets for the Garden Conservancy luncheon in honor of Bunny Williams on our website.
First three photos from top of this article: Suzanne Tucker and Timothy Marks and their garden in Marin, CA (photos by Michal Venera). Four bottom photos: Their house and garden in Montecito, CA (interior design by Suzanne Tucker/Tucker & Marks; photos by Roger Davies).