Form, Function and Family Are The Focus of This Designer’s Practice

Form, Function and Family Are The Focus of This Designer’s Practice

May 3, 2024

Design runs in the family for Mary Beth Sullivan, the Houston, Texas-bred interior designer celebrated for crafting intentional interiors with a palpable patina. The mom of two daughters, with a third on the way, says she was raised by “serial renovators” and antique collectors.

“From a young age, they encouraged me to pick paint colors for my bedroom and taught me it was completely normal to move furniture around umpteen times to get it just right,” she recalls. She channeled that early affinity for interiors into her studies; her focus in college was fine art and business which, “at the time,” the designer shares, “seemed more practical than interior design—the things you learn with time!”

Stylist: Mackenzie Dunn Design

That educational experience led her down an art-focused path—at least, at first. Sullivan built a nearly-decade long career in New York working at art galleries and institutions, in both the curating and fundraising arenas. But a “nagging feeling that something was missing” persisted; Sullivan was missing her early interiors-focused roots. Night classes at the New York School for Interior Design helped sharpen her technical skills as well as more clearly defined her own style. Her early interior design business grew, she says, “through word-of-mouth referrals; initially that meant family, friends, and friends of friends.” Persistence paid dividends, and, after “about a year working in both worlds,” she notes, she had “enough projects lined up to make the leap full-time to interior design. It has been a wild ride but I have never looked back!”

Fast forward to today: The designer has since returned to her Texas roots, maintaining a focus on residential projects for her firm, MB Sullivan Design, which includes a range that spans new construction, historic renovations, and furnishing and styling projects located throughout New York, Texas, Nevada and California. Over the course of her practice, she’s carved out a specific focus: one that balances aesthetic form and day-to- day function, often with special attention to the details that families value and require.

“If I am being completely honest, I truly value form above all,” she says. “I cannot live with ugly things and I don’t want that for our clients either! Simultaneously, life is too short to fret over precious objects and materials. It is an easy sell when you can strike that balance of form and function.”

The experience of parenthood has played a role in her approach to the topic of practicality in a very real way. “Becoming a mother deepened my appreciation for functionality and durability to be sure. [Children] have also strengthened my belief that one can have nice things when there are children in the home—you just have to be prepared for everything to be touched with sticky hands!” Case in point: the designer’s family home in Austin, Texas, features toddler-height windows.

“Naturally, our oldest daughter developed an interest in ‘helping me’ open the shades every morning,” shares Sullivan of the Hunter Douglas Provenance® Woven Wood Shades. “The cordless function that responds to a slight touch of the finger is perfect for her to exercise a little independence without giving me a heart attack.” It’s a funny parable that toddler parents everywhere can relate to, sure, but there’s also a valuable design principle at play too, says the seasoned pro. “At the core of the parenting/design lesson: nothing should be too precious that it makes you anxious for it to be used.”

Marrying form and function, for Sullivan, involves sourcing high-quality products made of the right materials. She also awards parental bonus points for child-safe products, like the Provenance shades she uses in her home. “I find that designing for a home with children often comes down to materials and construction methods that are naturally more durable, like the woven cordless Roman shades we used in our home. The texture and color of the shades are forgiving and the cordless feature is a no-brainer. It is so easy to use for parents and toddlers alike.”

If I am being completely honest, I truly value form above all, I cannot live with ugly things and I don’t want that for our clients either!

It is an easy sell when you can strike that balance of form and function.

Speaking of color and texture, the evolution of her interior design business is, in part, an aesthetic one, too. Early on, Sullivan’s preferred color scheme was distinctly neutral, borne out of a desire to keep projects both functional and trend-averse for the long haul. She also wanted to spotlight special antiques that she feared might overpower a room if too many other colors were at play. With time and practice, however, her palette has expanded, and she finds the next evolution of her style may very well be a colorful one: “I find myself more drawn to bold color palettes and patterns to accentuate the rare vintage finds. The overall look might feel akin to a ‘more is more’ aesthetic,” she says. “But I think that suits me just fine!” So do we.

Dress the Part: Mary Beth Shares Her Window Décor Tips

1. Consider longevity of window treatments and choose fabrics and materials that would work with a few different designs.

2. If you’re hanging drapes, take them to the ceiling or as close as you can get — it’s a small change that has a huge visual impact!

3. Layering window treatments (drapes over Roman shades, for example) is often a great way to create an elevated look while also increasing functionality, [providing] more light filtering and privacy.

4. While functionality should be at the center of your planning process, don't skimp on the aesthetic decisions — like quality hardware — that you’ll be looking at for years to come!

As an interior designer, quality and customer service are paramount for client work. I always try to test products and brands first in my own home before introducing [them] to clients. I had such a positive experience with Austintatious Blinds and Shutters that I feel confident recommending them without pause. For investment pieces (like window treatments!) this is so, so important.

— Mary Beth Sullivan

As an interior designer, quality and customer service are paramount for client work. I always try to test products and brands first in my own home before introducing [them] to clients. I had such a positive experience with Austintatious Blinds and Shutters that I feel confident recommending them without pause. For investment pieces (like window treatments!) this is so, so important.

— Mary Beth Sullivan

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