Southern Home (SH): Please share your aha moment, when you realized you’d become a designer.
Susan Ferrier (SF): It was more of an exasperated sigh. I’d done a lot of things, from running a temp agency to managing an infertility clinic in a doctor’s office, but I’d never make it quite a year. I kept coming back to wanting to do something creative and tied to the home, which is who I’ve always been, although I never thought it would be a professional option for me—I had a very practical-minded upbringing. But beauty is my core belief system, and it’s not frivolous; so at one point I said to myself, I just want to be happy and take the risk. I finally let out that sigh and went back to school for my fine arts degree.
SH: Although you grew up in New York, you’ve lived and worked in Atlanta for many years. Do you believe Southern style has changed significantly during that time?
SF: I’ve been in Atlanta for more than 30 years now, and oh, for sure, it has. As the world has gotten smaller and our exposure has grown, whether through travel or technology, the view has become more panoramic. Traditional design has seemed to shift from English to French to Italian, but in general, I believe everything has moved in a much more contemporary direction.
SH: Your rooms don’t include a lot of Chippendale, chintz or mahogany—things many have long thought of as traditionally “Southern.”
SF: I appreciate those things, and if it’s what the client wants, I’ll give it to them, but that’s the language of our grandparents. I’d rather build on that language. It’s like the story of my driveway. I found and followed all the historic preservation guidelines, but when we finished it, I realized it was designed for a horse-and-buggy and not a car. While what was important in the past certainly has value, it has to take you forward for how we live today.
SH: How do you define your own decorating style?
SF: Evocative, atmospheric, with a warmth and romance in it. I do think there always should be balance, rhythm, and good math in a space. I’m going to call it classic and adaptive.
SH: We know you have a deep connection to architecture, having spent much of your career as a partner in McAlpine, before establishing your own design firm a few years ago. Do you have a favorite architectural style?
SF: I like anything strong and confident, but I can appreciate almost any style as long as the architecture is good and considered. Most of my work is in new construction, which I like because the houses are designed and built for current lifestyles. We’re going through a major change as we speak, and people realize their houses mean more to them than ever and must fulfill a variety of needs. You can’t always do that by relying on traditional furniture arrangements or room sizes. Rooms used to be smaller because you only had a fireplace to heat them. Then spaces went to a much more open plan. Now, with this pandemic, we’re probably going to shift again. I love large gathering areas, but if everyone is working from home, we’re also going to need to carve out smaller, private areas for things like offices and places we can retreat. Maybe we’ll see more outbuildings on properties, which would be an interesting way to address the new work-from-home situation we’re all embracing. I’ve joked with my husband, do we need to put a yurt in the backyard?
SH: How do you marry your decoration to the architecture?
SF: When the architecture pushes, I push in the same direction. I’m not looking to argue in a room, and hopefully people feel that in the calmness of the environments I create. In the past I’ve always thought of the architecture as being masculine and the interior being feminine. What I’ve discovered because of my love for everything Italian is the feminine strength of how you address your interiors needs to be really bold. I don’t want furnishings that look as if they’re asking permission to be there. It’s like the person who knocks on the door and meekly says, “Do you think I could come in?” versus someone who walks right in and says, “Hi, where’s the kitchen?” Furnishings should hold their ground. You need to use all the space available to you. I’ll customize a piece of furniture just to add a foot to it, because it can make that big of a difference.
SH: How do accessories factor into your thought process? We spy collections and distinctive objects, but a light touch with layering and not a lot of little things.
SF: Well, my own house is an exception—I collect absolutely everything that catches my eye, and I’m due for a big purge! But yes, I firmly believe in a single, bold gesture. Accessories can really manipulate the way you feel about a space and prompt you to think about something other than the decor. I may not want to walk into a room and see a sofa fabric that takes me to China, but I will love an object that reminds me of a trip to the Orient. I think there should also be a sense of humor. Now again, nobody wants to laugh at a big sofa. But there should be something that challenges you, raises an eyebrow, makes you think twice.
SH: Your rooms definitely make us think twice about the way we perceive pattern. It’s not as much about wallpaper or fabrics, per se, but more about your repetition of objects, forms, or the way you incorporate art.
SF: If you pick something with beautiful lines, you don’t want to confuse or distort those lines with too much pattern. I like pattern just fine, but I’ll often use it in elements such as rugs, pillows, or a throw. Or it might come in through nailheads on a chair, shadows cast from a light fixture, or the carved wood of an antique. If you separate from the view that pattern always has to be connected to fabric, my rooms have a lot of pattern.
SH: What design elements do you return to again and again?
SF: Mirror, textured velvet, the reflectivity of distressed metals like burnished gold, pewter, and silver—basically things that have play with the light.
SH: Given we’re living through a period when ability to travel has been greatly curtailed, where and how have you been deriving creative inspiration lately?
SF: Before the pandemic hit, I’d been to India, and I’ve definitely been able to carry that with me this past year. I’m also traveling a lot online, and I’m so grateful for being forced to explore technology and how it positively affects my day-to-day. People complain about Zoom, but I’m not really interested in hearing it because it has been a saving grace for helping me stay connected to friends, clients, and jobsites. Not only has it kept my business going strong as ever, it has also kept me healthy.
SH: You must admit we’ve all been subjected to some pretty dreadful Zoom backgrounds.
SF: Yes, I can’t believe when I spot a pile of dirty clothes in the corner!
SH: Zoom faux pas aside, what are some common decorating mistakes you see that could be fixed with relative ease?
SF: Art hung too high is a big pet peeve. It should be eye level, where you can see it. Small rugs that don’t hold the furniture. If your rug looks like a placemat in the center of a room, just get rid of it. And rooms where all the furniture is backed up against the walls. Not all of us have the luxury of expanse, but when everything is pushed to the edges, it means that people are sitting too far apart to have intimate conversations, and the room isn’t working for you.
SH: What should every Southern room absolutely include?
SF: A table nearby to set down your drink.
SH: And finally, other than loved ones, what could you not live without?
SF: My jewelry. I like pieces that are bold and organic, and right now, I’m really into pearls. I love their luster, but I’m into non-traditional ones with different colors and shapes. That’s probably no surprise!