Working as a fashion model in Milan, Italy, and other European cities in the 1980s, Susan Marinello "was like a sponge," soaking up inspiration from such notable designers as Giorgio Armani as well as from photographers and stylists. The all-American blond beauty quickly found she was more intrigued with the back side of the camera than posing in front of it.
"Those fashion and photography experiences really ignited my design career," Susan says. "For me, it wasn’t about fashion; it was about art and styling. As soon as I got back to New York, I got myself into design school."
Now an award-winning interior designer in her hometown near Seattle, Susan is sought for her carefully edited blend of modernism and traditional design. "My modeling experience is really at the core of how I approach rooms today," she says. "I think about how interiors look through a camera lens. My designs are about composition, balance, and storytelling."
The round mirror above the living room fireplace is "a classic," says Susan Marinello. "It can go anywhere. It’s like a little black dress." Two facing sofas encourage people to linger.
"We get beautiful early morning sunlight in the living room," Susan says. "It’s the best spot to be on Sunday mornings, reading the paper or hanging out." The wood-burning fireplace was updated with a new surround made from concrete finished to resemble stone.
A cool gray-and-white color scheme soothes, while warm gold, chocolate brown, and mossy green accents add warmth. "We always balance cool colors with warm," Susan says.
When Susan renovated her Mercer Island home, her story was "all about family." Parents of two youngsters—Daniel, now 13, and Ali, 9—the Marinellos bought a 1940s house on a large private lot in their existing neighborhood, an island community just minutes from Seattle. "We bought this house because of the wonderful lot: There’s a view, privacy, and potential for beautiful gardens."
Although the house had 5,600 square feet of living space, including a main level and a walk-out basement, it felt crowded and dark, Susan says. "The existing floor plan was tight, and there were areas where people would bottleneck when we entertained. We wanted to create a very open entry and have the primary circulation pattern be wide, gallery-like, and comfortable."
Maximizing natural light was a key issue. "Light was the No. 1 requirement," Susan says. "It’s a perpetual overcast gray light here, but we do get a beautiful quality of light."
Working with Seattle architects Lyle and Meredith Grant, the Marinellos kicked off the renovation in 2004, removing interior walls and shuffling rooms. To control costs, they decided to maintain the existing foundation and roofline. Only 200 square feet were added when a porch was enclosed to enlarge the kitchen and family room. "Our strategy was to keep our budget to the interior," Susan says. "The significant changes we wanted to make were inside. It wasn’t so much that we needed space. It was more the configuration and layout that needed to be improved."
The floor plan was reconfigured so rooms easily connect via wide doorways and halls. Susan carved out a spacious foyer with a new open staircase to the lower level. "I wanted a large point of entry that felt like a gathering place where we could have art." A wide doorway connects the foyer to the living room, with its northern and eastern exposures.
Windows in the family room were replaced with generously sized casements that allow for plenty of natural light. The ceilings are 7 feet 10 inches high, but they seem higher, Susan says. "I like high ceilings, but we decided it would cost too much to raise them, so we visually enhanced the height with floor-to-ceiling windows and vertical curtain panels." A whisper-soft neutral color palette and an open floor plan also add to the spatial illusions. "Not raising the ceilings was a decision I could make for my own house that I probably wouldn’t have made for a client, but it was a good lesson for me. We think we need things, but there are other ways to accomplish the same look."
Rift-cut (similar to quarter-sawn) oak floors were stained dark and laid throughout the house, providing a visual flow from room to room. Rift-cut planks have straight graining as opposed to the swirl and cathedral patterns of typical oak floors. "It’s a little more contemporary, but that’s OK because I wanted the floor to be a non-event," Susan says. "It’s just a grounding plane."
Even with the select rift cut, oak is less costly than cherry or walnut. "Oak is hard and fabulous when you have dogs and kids," says Susan, with a nod toward Otis, the family’s energetic Boston terrier puppy.
Cabinets in the family room minimize clutter. In fact, clutter is virtually nonexistent in the home, even with two children. "Of course we get messy," Susan says, "but we try to provide a place for everything, so things are put away."
The enlarged kitchen and family room are primary family spaces, particularly because Susan and her children love to cook. "It’s set up so three can work in the kitchen at one time and not be in each other’s way," she says. The kitchen has few upper cabinets. Instead, one side opens to the family room; exterior walls are lined with windows that overlook the pool and gardens.
The kitchen is a functional space with top-of-the-line appliances, including double dishwashers. "I highly recommend two dishwashers in a home with children," Susan says. An island and circular floor plan allow plenty of room for her and the children to cook together.
A large vintage photo of New York City printed on linen (an IKEA find) hangs in a hall just outside the dining room. French doors on the opposite wall open to a terrace.
Even as a youngster Susan had the interior design bug. "My favorite thing to do as a child was make furniture for my Barbies. I didn’t really play with Barbies, but I made rooms for them."
Susan pursued a Barbie-like career, however, working as a fashion model in New York City and Europe with the Eileen Ford Modeling Agency. Longing to be more involved in the creative side of design, she enrolled in the New York School of Interior Design, graduating in 1995. She moved to Seattle in 1996 and established Susan Marinello Interiors. An allied member of the American Society of Interior Designers, Susan now heads a firm of 10 design professionals. In 2007, she won first place in the annual Northwest Design Awards competition in the "Whole House over $200,000" category for her home’s renovation.
Susan’s firm designs for condominium and hospitality developments as well as residential clients. "I believe in light, celebrating views outside, and creating strong but quiet spaces that contribute to a sense of order and well-being," Susan says.
Interior design: Susan Marinello, Susan Marinello Interiors, 119 S. Main St., Suite 300, Seattle, WA 98104; 206/344-5551, susanmarinello.com .
Architects: Lyle and Meredith Grant, Maple Leaf Design, 8057 12th Ave. N.E., Seattle, WA 98115; 206/523-6427, mleafdesign.com .
Photography: John Granen
Produced by Linda Humphrey