Based in Grand Rapids, MI, designer Susannah Watts of Swatts & Co. Design Studio has been nominated as HGTV Designer of the Year not once, but twice—and for good reason. From fresh and cheerful color palettes, to unexpected patterns, to playful fixtures and finishes, Susannah's designs are pure joy. She argues that design, like life, should be "full of adventure and some risk," and with a portfolio like hers, we're down for the ride.
Tell us about your background and how you found your way into interior design.
I came into interior design slightly differently than most people. My education is in healthcare and I have a masters degree in Anesthesia—I am a nurse Anesthesiologist (CRNA). I have always been into design and started by refinishing furniture I would find at garage sales and on Craigslist. That morphed into re-doing every single space I lived in, including rental properties. Ten years ago, I got one landlord to give me permission to paint the kitchen cabinets green. Then we bought our first house in Denver, and I started with small projects there. We had to leave Colorado because our oldest has a severe heart defect and it's better for her at sea level, so we put all of the money we made from selling our house in Denver into a fixer upper in Michigan. I did all the design work and always justified it by saying I could use it as my portfolio if I ever opened my own business. That was four years ago, and now here we are.
What inspires your designs?
I get inspiration everywhere, from someone’s outfit to a tube of chapstick. Things hit me at the most random times. I wouldn’t say I have just one aesthetic; I’m a bit of a style mutt. I love and appreciate almost all styles of design, and love mixing them together.
Many of your designs follow what you call a "hi-lo method," where you mix high-end with affordable. What advice do you have for making more cost-effective pieces look luxe?
You can get some really nice pieces secondhand and refinish them yourself or have someone do it for you. That’s probably the best way to get a high-end look for less. Stick an Ikea table by a custom upholstered couch or get some Target poufs on an expensive rug. Sometimes by buying more expensive finishing items (cabinet hardware, light fixtures, tile) you can bring the cheaper item it’s paired with up a notch. Pick one to two items to splurge on and design around that.
What's your relationship with pattern and how do you like to use it in your work?
I love pattern and color and want to put it everywhere, but sometimes I have to rein myself in. I like to put it in unexpected places and make it stand out somehow. It's important to make sure the patterns are different sizes—I wouldn’t do two small-scale patterns together, but a large and small together will make them both stand out individually.
You used Angelina in an entryway and Underwater World in a kid's room. What led you to those particular choices and what did each pattern bring to its respective space?
I used Angelina in a house that's over 100 years old—the client loves shades of blue, so that’s why we picked the Laurel colorway. I wanted something to make the entryway pop and wow guests as soon as they walked in the door. The entry had some old windows with cool detailing, and I feel like Angelina can have an old-timey feel while still retaining a modern element, so it just seemed like the perfect choice.
The kids bedroom was a really tough room to design because it was so small. Originally, we wanted to do lots of color and it was just going to be too much. I had loved Underwater World in the other colors, so I sort of had an epiphany that we could do that in Gold in the whole room and it would keep the room monochromatic while the pattern still made it fun for the kids. We used all different sorts of white shades and texture in that room to give it definition without making the space feel any smaller.
You also used Daydream in combination laundry and craft room. Why did you choose that pattern?
Daydream was the very first H&W wallpaper that I came across and I fell in love. It’s been around for a few years but is still so amazing because of how versatile it is—it can be mixed with a modern room like the laundry room I used it in, or it can be used in older houses and create a vintage look. All the different color combinations make it so incredibly versatile.
Hygge is a Danish concept of finding coziness in life's small pleasures and simple joys. What brings you hygge in your life, especially during the winter?
Winter is hard, especially here in Michigan because it can be so cold and gray. I find that I get the most pleasure from the people in my life, whether it’s my family or my good friends. Just spending time sitting on a couch with wine or a hot drink and spending time with people gives me great joy.