“It’s those Santa Ana winds: they’re so strong, and they never stop blowing,” says Susan M. Stella. The observation might seem wistful, particularly for a Californian ex-pat living in the sleepy village of Tesuque, but there’s real distress in her voice. It’s mid-December, and Stella’s adopted homeland to the west is burning yet again. She’s had the radio going all afternoon, listening for updates about the path of the raging wildfire that would consume over 307,900 acres of Southern California in all and displace thousands of people.
The disaster is a disturbing redux of the wildfires that tore through Northern California in October, which forced some people to flee their homes on foot. I ask Stella what she would carry if she had to leave so unexpectedly, and she thinks it over. It’s a tough question for anyone, but perhaps even more so for an interior designer whose home is a walkable expression of her professional aesthetic. Stella has spent a lot of time seriously pondering the significance of a person’s most intimate context and crafting her own space as a tightly woven tapestry that reflects the essence of her identity.
“I’ve got boxes of pictures in my bedroom. Just crates and tubs under the bed,” Stella finally says. “But there’s no way I could carry them all.” She has yet to cast these images into the digital cloud, though she is planning a lower-tech archival project. This winter, she’ll compile the most precious photos into a book for her daughter, Alba, who’s an undergraduate at the University of New Mexico. “Looking at these photographs, they capture the essence of what these things meant. It’s like making a highly personal art piece, just for the family,” Stella says.
Pictures might speak volumes, but it becomes clear over the course of our conversation that even the smallest of design flourishes in Stella’s adobe home are reliquaries for epic tales of her life. This humble 1972 casita was designed by legendary Santa Fe architect William Lumpkins in the Pueblo Revival style. The house has just two bedrooms, two baths, a living room, and kitchen that all flow together, but it contains universes. In light of the catastrophe unfolding in California, Stella’s storytelling carries a poignancy that catches me by surprise at first. By discussing different elements of her home, she teaches me that a great interior designer is actually a dimensional biographer—a sculptor of spaces, but also of memory.
“That is not a pretty story,” says Stella. I’ve asked her to reflect on her childhood in late-1960s and early-1970s Chicago, but she’s clearly eager for the conversation to head West. Her grandfather hitchhiked across the country during the Great Depression, working shipyards in California and Hawaii before buying land on a mesa in Del Mar, California. Stella, an only child, was five years old on the family’s first trip to visit her grandfather. She vividly remembers the train ride, an almost spiritual journey that spirited her away from her suburban life in Chicago.
“Could you imagine how exotic the West was when I was growing up in a middle-class subdivision from the late 1950s?” Stella says. Still, I ask her to linger in the Windy City for a few moments longer. She recalls trips into the city with her mother and grandmother to see the Christmas tree display at the Field Museum of Natural History and wander among the mummies at the Museum of Science and Industry. They’d go window-shopping on Michigan Avenue and State Street and explore the grand halls of the Art Institute of Chicago.
“It wasn’t just about making art; it was living an aesthetic. If you look at Judd’s house in Marfa, the furniture is there, the sculpture’s there, there’s 2D work on the walls. It’s color, it’s space, it’s light. There is no differentiation between art and environment.”
“All that arty stuff wasn’t really what our neighborhood was about, though,” says Stella. “We were the oddballs.” Some of her fondest memories of Chicago involve her parents’ preparations for their Western excursions. After the initial train trip, Stella’s father fixed up a VW microbus to make the annual pilgrimage. While he worked on the engine, Stella’s mother made curtains and cushions for the interior. Stella was the designated navigator, dutifully studying maps so she could guide the van across the nation. Her first glimpses of New Mexico’s striated geologic formations and sweeping sage groves were through the window of a VW bus.
Stella hustles into her bedroom and emerges with a framed photo of her parents. They’re wearing fashionable, 1950s-era clothes and straddling a motorbike. Though they appear to be in an urban setting, they stare off into the distance like there’s a Western vista before them. I’m lost in the romance of the image until Stella points out that she’s trying to show me the picture frame. “This is from my parents’ house in Chicago,” she says, as I run my fingers across the weathered black wood. Suddenly the couple in the photo seems bound in by this severe rectangle, ready to rev up their bike and break past its borders. Several other images around the house are in similar vintage frames, and they now speak of confinement and escape.
“At my grandfather’s house, you’d wake up and the donkey was in the living room,” Stella says. She shows me a photo to prove it: there’s the great, shaggy beast standing in the middle of a classic California ranch house. “Its name was Mariposa—‘butterfly,’” she says. We grin at the joyful absurdity of the image for a moment, and then she directs my attention past the animal to the walls of the home.
“My grandfather was this total bohemian,” she says. “Look at these exposed bricks, no insulation or anything, that he painted with this cheap, totally colorful paint he’d buy in Tijuana.” She points over to her custom-built kitchen island, which is made from large bricks with rough edges and painted with clay plaster. It’s a near-perfect facsimile of her grandfather’s walls, though it’s painted in a warm white tone rather than vivid orange. “You often see interior elements like this in Arizona, or the California desert,” Stella muses.
The mesa in Del Mar was Stella’s wild place, and she rediscovered it each summer throughout her childhood. She remembers running through the chaparrals with childhood playmates and gazing down at the ocean from the mesa’s edge. “It was this expansive consciousness,” she says. “The people, and the views, and the monochromatic, earthy tones, it was all of this new information. The scale and proportions of life out there have really informed my creative work since.”
Stella graduated high school in Chicago a semester early and briefly attended junior college in her home city before striking out for California. Her parents were hardly surprised when she left. “I think they knew it was coming for years,” Stella says. “Though I had to convince my parents about college. My mom would say, ‘You need to learn how to work; you need to make money.’ My dad finally just said, ‘Look, do what you want to do. Life’s too short.’ So I did.”
She embarked on her own road trip from Chicago to Del Mar and settled in a little house next to her grandfather’s. Del Mar is about thirty miles up the coast from San Diego, where Stella enrolled in the art program at San Diego State University. She earned her BA there before heading north to Los Angeles. Her goal was to work as a professional artist, so she focused her studies on printmaking, painting, and photography in San Diego. “I never took the more commercial art classes, like graphic design or interior design,” she says with a laugh. “I was into fine art, and that’s what I was going to do.”
“Being a fine artist is great—until you start starving,” Stella says. She landed in Los Angeles in the early 1980s and quickly fell in with a group of up-and-coming creatives. Early in her time there, she exhibited in gallery shows and landed a spot in a biennial at the now-defunct ARCO Center for Visual Art. Just as she was gaining a foothold in the city’s burgeoning art scene, a chance connection with a stylist and costume designer landed her in a completely different field. “She paid really well, so I started assisting her,” Stella says. “Eventually, directors and producers got to know me, and they started asking me to do jobs.”
Stella’s unexpected career move lead to creative work with REM, Iggy Pop, Bob Dylan, and other celebrated artists. She styled David Bowie for a photoshoot, and made an appearance in a Tom Petty music video. David Fincher took notice of her work and hired her for one of his early productions. They ended up working together for seven years.
Early on, Stella remembers feeling uneasy about moving away from fine art, but the transdisciplinary ethos she’d internalized in art school kept her moving. “My most influential professors were from the era of artists like Andy Warhol and Donald Judd,” says Stella. “It wasn’t just about making art; it was living an aesthetic. If you look at Judd’s house in Marfa, the furniture is there, the sculpture’s there, there’s 2D work on the walls. It’s color, it’s space, it’s light. There is no differentiation between art and environment.”
I realize that we’re currently lounging on a very Judd-esque element of Stella’s home. In lieu of a sofa, she commissioned a built-in banco that stretches across two walls of her living room. I point out that Judd’s largest works are site-specific, built piece-by-piece inside warehouse spaces with doorways that are too small for the final forms to pass through. Perhaps the banco—or Bowie’s striped shirt that Stella styled—should be considered sculptural works as well. “Exactly, it’s like sculpting, or painting,” says Stella. “You’re mixing colors and reflecting light and experiencing these things from all sorts of different directions.”
“it’s like sculpting, or painting,” says Stella. “You’re mixing colors and reflecting light and experiencing these things from all sorts of different directions.”
Stella’s Los Angeles career took her on adventures across the world for advertising campaigns with major brands. She visited Morocco, a place she’s returned to a number of times and frequently draws inspiration from in her interior design work. “It’s very much like Santa Fe. It’s the Moorish side of the Spanish aesthetic,” she says. “Moroccan colors and patterns can easily fit with Santa Fe style.”
The clearest example of this in Stella’s domain is visible from our perch on the banco: outside on the patio, there’s a long wooden table beneath spiraling wisteria vines that could almost be a set for the Marrakesh scenes from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. I imagine Doris Day and James Stewart sipping martinis in the shade, but Stella’s mention of Santa Fe style snaps me back to the City Different.
“It’s funny, because even when I was twenty-two, my big ideas were to get a gallery in Los Angeles and live in New Mexico,” Stella says. During her California years, she frequently traveled to the Southwest and passed through Santa Fe. “There was a really open, simple wildness to this place that I loved,” she says. She was naturally drawn to the Southwestern aesthetic, with its contrasting qualities of roughness and minimalism, spare utility and rich ornamentation.
Back in Los Angeles, Stella met Alba’s father through the entertainment industry. A few months after Alba was born in the mid-1990s, they moved into a 1920s Venice Beach storefront. Stella renovated the home and added a studio for her production work. When Alba was ten, she and Stella moved to Bozeman, Montana, and took up residence in a 1900s farm-style house in the town’s historic district. It was Stella’s first major interior design project, allowing her to fold together her influences and envision yet another career shift. “Everything started to come together for me—the desert, the travels, my artistic practice,” she says. “Going from styling and costume design to interiors felt like this inherent thing.”
Stella owned and operated a clothing boutique in Bozeman for several years and then lived in Santa Barbara to be close to Alba while she attended a boarding school. In 2014, she finally moved to her Tesuque cottage, a property she’d purchased years before as a vacation home. Now it would be her primary residence, and she swiftly shaped it into an experiential résumé for her work.
The home reads as a temple to Santa Fe style, from the bright blue doors to the custom pine windowsills and beautifully warped pine kitchen countertop, but her vast array of influences from elsewhere shines through. “All the things that I’ve done lead up to the work I’m doing now,” she says. What to name this compelling new aesthetic? I’d call it Pacific Southwest.