With a shop named Hollyhock, a fabulous garden, and botanicals in every interior, this bicoastal designer raises the flower bar to new heights
Suzanne, your recent book, At Home (Rizzoli, 2010), is a wonderful compendium of your design sensibility, both indoors and out. I love the sentiment you use in the opening: “I do believe many gardens are about memories. I know that mine is.” How does your garden reflect your past influences and experiences?
In so many ways. My garden has been shaped by my upbringing, my friends, and my travels. When we moved into our house in Hancock Park, my dear husband Fred and I budgeted for the garden. I was so ambitious, however, that I spent the entire amount of money on the front of the house! I wanted a stilt hedge in the worst kind of way, like the kind I had seen in some of the grand European gardens we had visited. I ripped out all the hybrid tea roses, which of course irritated the grande dames of the neighborhood. And all I can say is thank goodness I didn’t have all the money to do everything I wanted to do.
It took me 17 years to get around to doing the garden in the back, and I’d been gathering lots of inspiration in the meantime. I plotted and planned with my friend Courtnay Daniels, who has one of the finest private gardens in America. I knew I wanted a green garden, because for me that was so reminiscent of the gardens I grew up with in New Orleans. I believe it all starts with the green architecture, and then things just happen to flower. I also gave myself a present—Judy Horton, a wonderful landscape designer and old friend. She took all the magazine clippings I had been saving over many years and brought them to life. Part of my garden was inspired by Nicole de Vésian, the head of design at Hermès for many years, who had an extraordinary garden in Provence that I was so fortunate to visit. She used a lot of gravel in her gardens, which was also a perfect solution to gardening in our Southern California climate.
When I was a child, my mother took courses in gardening all over the South, which was unusual for her time. I’ve incorporated bits of her inspiration in the garden as well. She had a pyracantha that was always blooming around Thanksgiving and Christmas. I now have one espaliered on a fence. My grandmother was also a wonderful gardener, and my next-door neighbor was Gerrie Bremermann, a doyenne of New Orleans decorating. I had all these women around me who loved doing things for their houses and their gardens.
How else did New Orleans shape your decorating perspective?
The atmosphere and architecture of New Orleans have always enchanted me. There, even modest houses are interesting, like the shotgun houses with tall ceilings, porches, and gardens that are small but convivial. And I’ve always been intrigued with the French Quarter. My parents would take me there, and I’d always have my nose pressed against the glass of those antiques shops. My mother started giving me “real presents,” as I called them, at a pretty early age. I remember getting an antique book of poems in the 4th grade and boxes of old plates for Christmas when I was in high school. But my love of design has also been honed through my reading. As my book club would tell you, I can always describe what the houses look like in any novel–the salons in Proust, the wonderful architecture in Anna Karenina.
So what do you consider to be the hallmarks of a Suzanne Rheinstein–designed room?
Comfortable upholstery with simple, thoughtful details; antique or one-of-a-kind furniture mixed with classically designed contemporary pieces, such as Lucite tables; a personal art collection and accessories that have meaning… generally, a mix of tradition and the unusual, arranged for contemporary living.
That description equally applies to your fabulous Los Angeles shop, Hollyhock. And the name is an obvious signal that you love flowers. How did you choose it?
When I opened the store in 1988, I didn’t want to use my own name. I wanted to use a memorable graphic for our signage, and I began thinking of a single, white hollyhock in a night garden. It can’t get much simpler or more romantic than that. Although Hollyhock is not a garden shop, there’s no doubt that nature influences almost everything in our design aesthetic.
How important is it to connect the garden to your interiors?
Our garden and the inside of our house are virtually one and the same. There’s a kind of formal arrangement, but also a comfortableness. When we renovated the back part of the house, the views of the garden were an important consideration, and it’s now in those rooms that we live most of the time.
I also think my perspectives for both gardening and decorating are very similar. I am a huge fan of Nancy Lancaster, the Virginia-born decorator who started the English design and fabric house Colefax and Fowler. She once said that the bones of a garden were the most important thing—that no matter how it evolved, it would always feel good because you have the structure in place. The same is true of houses. With interiors, if you start with a few good pieces of furniture, they can take you anywhere. You can become riotous with color or more nuanced. Your rooms can be chock-a-block with accessories or more minimalistic as your tastes change. But you will always have those few things of quality. And classic design endures.
You’re now designing your own fabrics for Lee Jofa, and there are some really beautiful florals in the collection. Have you changed the way you use floral patterns over the years?
Floral fabrics are coming back in a big way, but you still have to be careful. We all got a little “chintzed out” in the ’80s, and it became a bit suffocating. I know that some people are still somewhat frightened when they hear the word chintz, but it can feel totally fresh and fabulous. I usually won’t use it for curtains unless it’s in a softer palette. Whereas in the past, I might have picked out every bright color in chintz and used it elsewhere in the room, now I tend to pick gradations in muted colors for balance. Although that’s just my general preference—I really don’t have any rules!
When you’re using fresh flowers around the house, what is your approach?
In a word, simplicity. I’ve found in order to get arrangements that way, I typically have to do them myself. I want things to look like they came out of my own garden—or at least as if they could have. I’m also a big fan of foliage. I use greenery almost exclusively in our main rooms. My mantra is to live casually with fine things. So super-arranged arrangements just don’t seem right in our house.
You and your husband, Fred, are well known for your hospitality and for hosting Southern-style dinner parties in L.A. What’s your go-to centerpiece for the table?
I love to take decanters and put one bloom in each piece. Or I’ll use different flowers in the same color, make small bouquets and put them in similar kinds of containers, then scatter them all around the dining room table. I’ve done it with crystal goblets, baby cups, silver mint julep cups, and sugar bowls.
What I like to do most is take the mystery out of it all. Even supermarket flowers look beautiful when they’re in the right container.
And finally, how would you sum up your overall philosophy on gracious living?
I think of design and my life as everything is all of a piece: the way we live, the way we garden, the food we serve, the way we entertain. I try to live by a quote of Joan Didion’s I once read about why she uses her good silver every day: “Every day is all there is.”