"Design is something I live, breathe and dream," said Suzanne Tucker during a conference last week at the San Francisco Design Center, while showing images from her latest book, "The Romance of Design" (The Monacelli Press, 2013).
Speaking to a crowded room of professionals, she also showed a drawing depicting the way she conceptualizes her brain -- as compartmentalized into sections labeled color, textiles, furnishings, client relations and other design-practice components.
"The trick is balancing all those design obsessions with your life demands ... to have a successful practice," said Tucker. "The 'sleep' segment will always be smaller than you'd like."
Frequently listed by Architectural Digest as one of the country's top 100 designers, Tucker does award-winning work, has been published extensively and attracts an enviable roster of clients. She credits her success to plain old hard work and finding projects that fit her talents.
"I firmly believe that the right projects come to you if you're willing to hold out for them and not panic when things don't come your way," she says in a later interview. "I really do think things happen for a reason, and I advise young designers not to be afraid."
Tucker didn't dream of being a designer when growing up in Montecito, though looking back she remembers being drawn to design projects at home. "My mother says I rearranged the Christmas ornaments over and over, grouping them sometimes by shape and other times by color. And I always loved it when the decorator would come over to work on a project in our home," says Tucker.
She studied art and then interior architecture at the University of Oregon, and then transferred to UCLA, writing her senior thesis on textiles and earning a design degree.
She then worked in fashion, managing the Designer Salon at I. Magnin. "I was immersed in high fashion and learned a lot about the service business there," she says.
In the late 1970s, she moved to London and worked for a decorator refurbishing English country houses. "I became very familiar with cabbage rose chintzes and murky colors," she says. "I loved it but found myself missing California."
In 1976, she moved to San Francisco and took a job as a secretary for legendary designer Michael Taylor. Before long, she'd become his assistant.
"Michael was so talented, but he could be a real bully to his employees," she says. "I realize that I was his pet and that he definitely indulged me." She mentions the time she ordered yards of carpet without waiting for a sample to arrive and ended up with a whole room full of carpet tinted mauve, rather than the gray the client expected.
"I learned it's worth the wait to avoid the mistake," she says. "Michael would have had someone else's head for that but was surprisingly patient with me."
Tucker thinks Taylor favored her because she had a good eye for scale and proportion -- something he believed couldn't be taught. "Everyone needs a good mentor, and Michael was definitely that to me," she continues. "Decades later, I still hear him saying, 'When in doubt, take it out' and 'Trust your intuition.' "
Taylor died in 1986, right after Tucker had scaled back work to give birth to her daughter, Hatley. But Taylor's clients had projects that needed to be completed, and Timothy Marks, a business colleague, sought out Tucker with the hope that she'd keep on designing if he'd run the business end. They became partners, launching Tucker & Marks, and eventually, they married.
Tucker regards having the opportunity to complete one of Taylor's unfinished projects as a pivotal point in her career. "Michael had already acquired some exquisite antiques and art for a beautiful house in Lower Pacific Heights that we were doing in a very traditional French style. I had to finish it without him there to describe his vision," says Tucker. "When the project turned out well, it was a big confidence booster."
Tucker also points to an exceptional home in Sonoma -- the subject of her second feature in Architectural Digest (her own house was the first) -- as another touchstone. "It was a beautiful house with big-volume rooms, where we used a mix of contemporary and antique furnishings. There was nothing cookie-cutter about it," says Tucker. "People still ... talk to me about that project."
Today, she loves poring over floor plans for a new project, no matter what the scale or location. And though she is adamant that each will be personal and unique, there are some tried-and-true principles to which she turns.
"I think every room should have a touch of black, even if it's just a decorative box, to add gravitas, and also something that adds sparkle -- silver, other metallic or crystal -- to create intrigue," she says.
She can work with any color scheme but often will suggest warmer colors in a north-facing room or one with a water view. "Otherwise the room feels cold and makes you want to turn the heat on," she says. And she prefers not to use green in a dining room, because it "tends to make people look sallow."
She also favors something old -- a rug, a big chest or mirror -- in every room, to lend depth and give the space some "soul." At the same time, rooms should convey an owner's own story, hence she likes including collections of artwork or decorative objects that personalize the space.
"A good mix of old and new keeps things interesting," says Tucker. "I'm always striving for perfect imperfection."
As foreshadowed by her senior thesis at UCLA, Tucker launched her own textile line in 2010, partly to make realizing her design visions easier. "I've been known to send assistants on wild goose chases to find a certain textile, only to realize later that it was something I saw in my dreams," she says.
While developing this line, she brought home samples and asked her daughter what she thought. "I named the pattern she liked best after her, and 'Hatley' became a best-seller. It was thrilling to have Albert Hadley (another legendary designer) order it for one of his own projects."
Tucker recalls that when she was 11 years old, her father let her pick out a chandelier for the family dining room. If he could see how far she's come, what might he say?
"I overheard someone compliment my work around him at his 101st birthday party, and he responded, 'Well, she got it all from me.' My mother and I both got a kick out of that."