Suzanne Tucker is the epitome of what design industry practitioners, followers and pundits categorize as the very “best of breed”. With an eye for creating beauty – both elegant and classic – global fame, unquestioned credentials and reputation, prominent awards by the cluster, and a project list that causes competitors to salivate, her work inspires plaudits from her peers and loyalty from her clients, who appreciate that the Suzanne Tucker “touch” delivers way beyond the brief. Together with her husband and business partner, Timothy Marks, this mother, animal lover, prolific author, textile aficionado and tough taskmaster has built a commanding, nationally-acclaimed design empire that shows no sign of stasis.
On the formative years
I’m the product of a career Naval officer and a Uruguayan-born British mother, both of whom met in Argentina when he was the US Attaché. Living in Washington DC, my father was looking to retire to a warmer climate – Palm Beach or Santa Barbara? They were good friends with a young senator and his wife who, upon hearing they were making the trip to California over the New Year, kindly offered their Rose Bowl tickets. It was one of those picture-perfect days – seats on the 50-yard line, the beautiful Pasadena mountains with a slight dusting of snow, a sun-kissed drive up the coast to Santa Barbara and my mother said, “Well, this is more like it.” So, they moved to Santa Barbara when I was three, with perhaps a nod of gratitude to the generosity of then Senator Jack Kennedy.
I spent two years studying Interior Architecture at the University of Oregon, followed by a transfer to UCLA where I graduated with a BA in Design. There weren’t many design jobs in the mid 70’s, so I applied and was accepted into the Executive Training program at the then May Department Stores where I learned the basics of sales, merchandising and buying. I was soon recruited away by I. Magnin, Beverly Hills as an executive manager of the designer salon supervising a large sales team. The store manager, Doris Fields, welcomed me on my first day. “Now, here at I. Magnin” she said, “you will be called Miss Tucker. You will wear your hair pulled back in a chignon at the nape of your neck, and you will wear the clothes from the Designer Salon.” My clientele included Nancy Reagan, Betsy Bloomingdale, and all the ladies who eventually formed the Reagan Kitchen Cabinet. It was a great experience. What I. Magnin really taught me, was service to your clients – “The customer is always right.”
On developing a career in interior design
Initially, I never planned on having a career, beyond being a wife and raising a family which is what I was “supposed to do”. But my mother, who was not a careerist, saw the creative side of me and always encouraged me to follow my artistic pursuits never intending for me to have a career or be a working girl.
A love affair took me to London where I took courses at the V&A and a position as assistant to the late decorator, Peter Hood. He had been one of John Fowler’s last assistants at Colefax & Fowler. He had extensive experience, great knowledge, and an impressive clientele including a few National Trust properties. I learned that wonderful English way of decorating, particularly as it applies to the country house look, color and decorative finishes.
After a few formative years in London, I moved to San Francisco where I did a summer stint as a temp manning front desks anywhere from insurance companies (desperately boring!) to architectural firms (Backen, Aragoni & Ross) to stock brokerages (Montgomery Securities). Those experiences solidified my determination to be a designer. I responded to an ad in the Chronicle for an “Expediter”. That was the infamous Michael Taylor. I ended up taking a job as Michael’s secretary just to get my foot in the door, was paid a paltry $18,000 and handled everything from his daily schedule to his travel plans and clients. Michael was a bully and didn’t tolerate most, but he respected me because I stood up to him. I could see that beneath that testy demeanor, was the soul of a kind man and talent of a true genius, who taught me that scale and proportion, not style, are everything. In retrospect, I suppose I got my BA from UCLA; my masters from Peter Hood; and my PHD from Michael Taylor.
Marin Designers Showcase. Photography by Matthew Millman
On Tucker & Marks and its success
Tucker & Marks covers a lot of territory. I handle the creative side – design, interiors, architecture, textiles, etc. – and Tim handles the operations, finances and overall management of the firm. Suzanne Tucker Home also cover a myriad of products – our fabric collection which is in more than a dozen showrooms around the world, the San Marco dinnerware collection by Royal Limoges, outdoor furniture and textile collections for Michael Taylor Designs, Chesney’s mantelpieces, Julia B. bed linens, and more to come.
If we had to articulate a company philosophy it would be “Create Beauty”, and everything that that entails. What are we doing if we’re not creating beauty? We’re certainly not curing diseases. I genuinely believe that superior customer service is paramount and sets one apart from the rest. Michael Taylor always barked “get it right”. Hence, why I tell my staff, ask questions and triple-check everything! Things will rarely go smoothly but rather than get upset, my motto is to kill them with kindness.
I also believe in cultivating curiosity and constant travel. That’s where you learn and find endless inspiration.
On the Suzanne Tucker modus operandi
I can walk into a room and immediately see what it could look like. I always see potential. I’ve also developed a keen ability to listen– to actually hear what clients want, 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 needed cocooning.
It’s not about the budget for me, it’s about working with good people. I’ve walked from projects for that very reason. A client has to be respectful. They also need to trust the process, that you know what you’re doing and you’ll do a great job. There’s a litmus test that I give clients. When I meet at their house or office, if they don’t so much as offer a glass of water, it speaks volumes about them. They’re not thoughtful, considerate, or well-mannered people. It’s a very intimate, long-term relationship that develops between designer and client, so the chemistry has to be right.
I received an invitation to submit a portfolio from one of the world’s richest men, building a monumental estate. His team had selected 100 designers and even though I thought it a longshot, I submitted my portfolio. Months later, I got a phone call advising that they had narrowed it down to six firms and asked if I’d fly in for an interview. (Incidentally, they did not offer to pay for my ticket, which I thought was rather cheap.) After an in-depth tour of the construction site, I met with the client’s wife at corporate headquarters. The handlers kept repeating, “This meeting will be totally relaxed. Really easy.” It was neither. They parked me in a room where the conference table was the size of an aircraft carrier with only my portfolio on it. Their plan was to conduct a contest between the six of us. At this point, I knew I didn’t want the job. So, I asked, “Why a contest?” They were baffled at my question so I explained, “At this level of design, no one will agree to a contest. You’re talking to people at the top of their field who know what they’re doing. You’re going to know when you sit across the table with the right designer. It’s going to click.” I think I shocked them with my frankness, but they never went through with the contest, and, instead, hired the designer who was the absolute right person for them and the project.
Pacific Heights Townhouse. Photography by Edward Addeo
On the people and events that changed her life
As a child, I loved the films of Grace Kelly. I never wanted to be her, but I certainly wanted to emulate her. She was graceful, poised and intelligent. Michael Taylor was definitely my mentor in design and also in business – i.e. how not to run a business or treat employees!
I was influenced by Doris Fields, the store manager of I. Magnin, because she was a savvy, accomplished businesswoman, but still able to step effortlessly into various social circles.
I can tell you the precise moment that Tim, my business partner at the time, and I switched from business to romance – Halloween Night, 1995. My daughter, who absolutely adored him, asked if “Uncle Timmy” could come trick-or-treating. He was game and it was one of those nights where we suddenly looked at each other differently over dinner… The rest is history!
When I received the initial copy of my first book, that was memorable. Aside from the validation, it was “Oh, my God, all these years of hard work. It’s actually tangible.” My husband was waiting for me at home with the FedEx box and champagne. Holding the book for the first time was like giving birth – a great joy.
On life’s odds and ends
My home in Marin has a distinct Mediterranean flavor, a little bit French, some Italian, a good dose of my Montecito roots – definitely a decorator’s house, a constant work in progress, always bringing in pieces from dealers, auctions, show houses, flea markets – my own version of musical chairs. It’s a decorating lab where pieces come and go. I live with them, analyze them, conjure new designs. Certain pieces are near and dear, especially those from Michael Taylor, Tony Duquette, Sister Parish, Tony Hail and Pamela Harriman, whom I met at the American Embassy in Paris. I used her dessert plates recently at my mother’s 90th birthday.
A blissful state for me is being at the beach. I find the ocean very healing. That and lots of laughter and dark chocolate! My life lusts are many, varied and eclectic – spending serious time in Italy, London and Paris; dining at Noma in Copenhagen – an amazing experience, with a gloriously-creative presentation; stunning house museums such as the Gardner Museum in Boston, the Soane Museum in London, the breathtakingly-beautiful location of Axel Munthe’s, Villa San Michele, in Anacapri, or Filoli in our own back yard; and for art – anything by Rothko.