In her work and in her life, interior designer Sue Firestone embodies the California dream. It’s an enticing vision of casual elegance, luxury without pretense, the seduction of sunshine, sea breezes and the rhythm of lapping waves. Her company, Smith/Firestone Associates (SFA Design)—based in Santa Barbara and Los Angeles and with a satellite office in New York—has re-imagined interiors across the globe. These projects range from upscale residential in Montecito, Laguna Beach, the Hollywood Hills, Malibu, the Hamptons and Dubai to large-scale hospitality for some of the world’s most luxurious hotels and resorts. No matter the client, Sue delivers the promise of the California good life.
A California native, Sue grew up in Malibu near Point Dume and now lives on a ranch in Santa Ynez … across from Lake Cachuma, near Santa Barbara. She and her family spend six months of the year aboard the Tamsen, their sailboat, exploring the world’s islands and seas. Favorite destinations include the Mediterranean, visiting the Italian islands and the coast of Croatia, and the crystalline waters of the South Pacific surrounding French Polynesia.
The 174-foot ketch is the first yacht Sue has decorated. Launched in 2007, it was custom-built in Viareggio, Italy. The Tamsen is a sleek and elegant showcase of Sue’s work, lavishly appointed with exotic teak and polished walnut. Its rich leather furniture and stylish pillows, covered in Versace silk, make it look more like a chic Milan penthouse than a sea-going vessel.
“It’s our dream boat,” Sue explains. “I wanted it to look like a classic yacht from the 1920s or ‘30s.”
Sue’s extensive travels imbue her design work with a unique sophistication and worldly chic. “I see things in nature—exotic woods, animals and colors—that inspire me, as well as native artifacts and classical European antiques, and they all influence and inspire my work,” the designer explains.
Her home base in Santa Barbara is also a source of visual inspiration and renewal. “Santa Barbara has a lot of cultural history,” says Sue. “It has a rich architectural heritage: G.W. Smith villas built in the ‘20s and ‘30s, and the Spanish colonial houses and public buildings, all set against the gorgeous natural background: the mountains, the ocean. It’s a dramatic setting.”
The beautiful climate and diverse topographies that define California—mountains, deserts, urban density and beaches—also define the aesthetic and lifestyle that Sue’s clients seek.
“We see ourselves as stylists rather than design arbiters,” she explains. “We want to work closely with each client, to understand how they want to live and to use our design knowledge to make their vision of their lives a practical reality, instead of putting some distinctive SFA ‘stamp’ on there.”
Practicality is an important element that Sue brings to each of her projects, especially since many of her firm’s residential projects are dauntingly large: private homes that sometimes exceed 20,000 square feet.
“It’s a small niche,” she says modestly. “Lots of foreign money building second or third homes. The royal Saudis, for example, love large compounds. Other clients are very involved in philanthropy, and they entertain at home for fundraising purposes. So even if they are empty-nesters, they want to be able to entertain with ease, elegance and comfort.
“We approach those projects like designing a boutique hotel,” Sue continues. “We create storyboards and mood boards for each room, and we present entire room concepts all at once, instead of deciding on one aspect of the design—window treatments, paint color, rugs—at a time. We’re able to work very quickly this way.”
SFA’s efficiency is appreciated by their discerning and demanding clientele, including CEOs, tech billionaires and professional athletes such as Larry Ellison and Jeff Healey of Oracle, actress Denise Richards, baseball legend Barry Bonds, Tesla motors and Space X mogul Elon Musk, and former Laker turned New York Knicks coach Derek Fisher. SFA’s hospitality projects have included hotels in Florida, The Venetian in Las Vegas, L’Hermitage and Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, the Miraval in Tucson and the Arizona Biltmore.
SFA was also hired to “refresh” 20 luxury accommodations at Terranea Resort, a project that Sue enthusiastically embraced. “Terranea is the ultimate California resort,” she says. “The views of the ocean are incredible. It’s remote enough that you feel you are removed from the city, the crowds and craziness. It’s secluded but not isolated. When you’re there, you feel you’re at one with the Pacific.”
All of Sue’s projects, both private and hospitality, share a commitment to elevating comfort above trendiness or traditional luxury.
“If you look at the way people want to live now, at home and on vacation, the emphasis is comfort,” she says. “Old-fashioned, ‘stuffy’ elegance is no longer relevant. People want casual, livable environments with furniture you can lean back on but isn’t too close to the floor so it’s hard to stand back up, like some contemporary Italian designs. They want to feel relaxed, embraced, surrounded by beauty.”
To introduce her vision of comfortable elegance to a wider audience, Sue has partnered with Kravet, the world’s largest supplier of luxury fabrics, to create a line of designer textiles for upholstery, window and wall treatments and indoor/outdoor furniture. “The collection is based on my four decades of being a California designer,” Sue explains. “It’s made up of all-natural, organic and eco-friendly cottons and linens. And there are fabrics that you can use indoors or out.”
The textile collection is just the first in a planned series of product lines: home accessories, lighting and furniture. “I want to express my personal design vision. The look will be extremely organic, beach-friendly, with an indoor/outdoor feel.”
When she is not traveling or working on a glamorous design project, Sue is passionately dedicated to giving back to her community, to California and the world. Like any avid sailor, she is closely attuned to the health of the world’s oceans.
“Some of the waters we have visited over and over are changing,” she says sadly. “They are dirtier; less pristine. You can see floating garbage. Climate change is affecting everything. Whenever the opportunity arises to support Heal the Bay or Greenpeace or any charity devoted to protecting sea life and the world’s oceans, I open my wallet.”
The entire Firestone family is active in raising awareness about mental illness and providing support services to people who are facing them. Sue’s father-in-law, Dr. Robert Firestone, is a prominent psychologist and artist, the author of numerous books and articles on mental health and relationships. His daughter, Dr. Lisa Firestone, is the director of research and education at The Glendon Association, an organization devoted to addressing the critical issues and underlying causes of violence, abuse and suicide.
The cause is far from “fashionable,” but it is dear to Sue’s heart. “There is still a stigma surrounding mental illness, and there shouldn’t be,” she says. “It’s not easy to get contributors to donate to mental health charities because they want to distance themselves from it. It’s not as easy as supporting the arts or an environmental cause. The idea of mental illness makes people uncomfortable; it even frightens them. They don’t want to discuss these issues, but it’s vital that we do, and seek solutions. It’s great to be concerned about the environment, but it is vital—first and foremost—to be concerned about human beings. At some time in all our lives, we will need help getting through a crisis, and help should be readily available. Nobody should feel ashamed or embarrassed about seeking that help.”
Sue and her firm work on a dizzying array of high-profile and potentially high-stress projects each year. Her time with her family on the Tamsen is her therapy—a restorative for mind, body and spirit. According to Sue, “There is nothing as peaceful or relaxing or rejuvenating as being on a boat or close to the ocean.”
Written by Lynn Morgan