Designer Crush: Sullivan Design Studio


As the founding principle of Sullivan Design Studio, Bay Area native Linda Sullivan channels her lifelong passion for design into an award-winning, full-service practice that specializes in residential and hospitality works. Sullivan’s approach is personal and collaborative, bringing individual attention to every detail and cultivating deep client relationships. Learn more in our Q+A below.

How did you get your start in design?

I was a creative kid helping my friends redecorate their rooms for fun, however I never viewed interior design as a career. It was more of a “super-power” I had inherited from my mother who was a hobby decorator, as was her grandmother. At a young age, I would save money from my paper route and purchase fabrics to make creative “wall art” for my room. That said, my career goal from as early as the 5th grade was to become an architect after watching my parents San Carlos spec-home being built. My dad was a high school teacher, and he would pick me up from school and take me to the job site to watch our family home being built. I couldn’t get enough of it and knew at a young age this was something I had to be a part of. After taking some architecture courses at a local college I decided that since I had to pay my way through college anyway, I should be working for architects learning everything I could. I called every architect in the phone book in my area until someone hired me. As an architectural intern, the more architecture I was exposed to, the more excited I became about what was happening within the walls vs. outside. My boss at the time, and now a dear friend, encouraged me to take the Interior Design path as I could always get my Masters degree in Architecture later. After receiving my Bachelor of Science in Interior Design, I landed a coveted interior architectural position at Skidmore Owings and Merrill in San Francisco. (I only knew I was lucky because many architects were working in the company blueprint room waiting for a job opening.) I became the youngest team member working on the renovation of the Palace Hotel led by Stanford Hughes (who later started Brayton-Hughes) and the rest is history.

Word has it you’re known as “The Client Whisperer” – tell us more about that moniker and what it means to you.

The name “Client Whisperer” started out as a joke amongst my staff because they used to tease me saying I could predict how our client was going to react prior to presenting them with options. I’ve always been pretty intuitive and have a good understanding of people. When I was in my 20’s, I attended a party given by a friend who had a guest psychic. When it was my turn to meet with her, I remember her telling me I was also psychic. At the time it scared the living daylights out of me since I came from a very conservative Christian upbringing, but somehow always knew I could understand things others couldn’t.  I try not to think about it too hard, but after so many years in the design business, I now simply call this gift “experience.” 

What is the origin story of Sullivan Design Studio and what was the journey to branching out on your own after working with so many renowned firms?

I had worked at San Francisco firms for about 15 years mostly doing commercial interiors for projects such as Williams Sonoma Headquarters, Levi’s, MTV, and many projects. I loved every minute of it, including the rush from deadlines and 60-hour work weeks. However, after my kids started grade school, I felt the pressure to be closer to my kids and home on the Peninsula. At that time there were not many “cool” interior firms on the peninsula, and I was a confirmed firm-snob having worked at the top 10 percent interior architecture firms in the city. So, with a small loan, I decided to take the plunge and go out on my own, first with a business partner who later moved away, then on my own in 2006. With my architect and builder connections, I found myself working on a couple of public libraries, dental offices, then finally the pull towards residential interiors. As my kids were growing, I felt an innate recognition between my own family’s needs and those of my clients, even at much different budget levels. When I worked for other firms, I always wished to have a well-balanced life, whether that meant leaving early to make it to my child’s school musical or taking a day off to go on a field trip making up the time later, something that is non-existent at larger firms. So when it was finally time to start my own firm, work-life balance was at the top of the list. On any given day, our office may have a blanket thrown over a table to form a fort for some of our designers’ kids when school is closed for the day, or they can’t find a babysitter. 

How do you define “California style”?

I was born in the Imperial Valley California and then moved to the Bay Area at the age of three, so I have seen firsthand how vastly different the California landscape can be. However, the one thing it has in common is the open, airy, relaxed feel, especially when looking out into a beautiful canyon or a breathtaking beachscape. We try to keep our palettes as earthy as possible integrating colors and textures that imitate nature. California style has a vibe that can easily be compared to cashmere and a good pair of jeans – they can both be dressed up or down, and always offer a basic, reliable, and natural comfort and luxury.

What are some current design trends you’re loving?

A: Earthy warm tones are trends that simulate the earth and tend to have more longevity, so we feel most comfortable recommending them to our clients. We are also loving the metallics in tile and wall covering as they feel like a special piece of jewelry, where just a little can go a long way!

Describe your ideal Sunday from am to pm?

This last Sunday was probably the most ideal because it doesn’t happen very often! My husband and I slept in until 8, we got caught up with our grown kids by phone or text, then we finished booking our reservations for our vacation in Milan, which we’ll work around the Salone de Mobile Furniture Fair. We then set out to meet our friends on their boat in Alameda where we sailed up to the Golden Gate bridge before turning back. We docked at Jack London Square for a wine tasting at Rosenblum Winery, followed by dinner at the Oakland Yacht Club, and were back home in bed by 10pm.  Ahh, I easily could get talked into more days like that! How can one not love the bay area!

Lightning round:

First album you bought?

Today’s Greatest Hits. It was also the first time (and definitely not the last time) I was mesmerized by an infomercial selling the latest and greatest. It was a mixed vinyl album with songs from artists such as Stevie Wonder, Glenn Campbell, and Captain and Tennille. Oh yeah!

First celebrity crush?

Peter Brady (from The Brady Bunch) then maybe a tie between Donny Osmond and Sean Cassidy.

Favorite ice cream flavor?

Well let’s just say I’m a purist because I love vanilla ice cream! My dad would always try to get me to pick something different at Baskin Robbins as a child, after all they did have 31 flavors. My husband thinks it’s ridiculously boring…. but I say they are missing out!

Most quotable TV show or movie?

It’s probably a toss-up between Seinfeld & Friends, which is ironic because I never watched much television, but now tend to watch late-night TV when I can’t sleep. How did I ever miss these shows?? 

Seinfeld: (George Costanza): “You know I always wanted to pretend to be an architect.”

Friends: (Phoebe) “They don’t know that we know they know we know.”

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