Solana Beach interior designer Susan Wintersteen wanted to do more than beautify the luxury homes of her clients.
From a friend of a friend, she heard about a 13-year-old girl, Kasey Harvey, who had been diagnosed with a cancer of the sinus.
This was her chance.
At no cost to her family, Wintersteen, founder and CEO of Savvy Interiors, did a complete renovation of Kasey Harvey’s bedroom, from new flooring to new bedclothes and furniture.
“It was a lot more than having a new room. It was a place that I could heal and I could feel safe and comfortable,” said Harvey, who has been cancer free for seven years and is a junior at Cornell University, thinking about a career with the FBI.
“It gave me something else to think about other than ‘I’m going to the hospital to get chemo and get sick,’” Harvey said. “It was one of the major things that helped me through my fight with cancer.”
A Space to Enjoy
After seeing how Kasey Harvey and her family responded to the makeover, “I became addicted to the feeling that you’re having an impact on people’s journey health wise,” Wintersteen said. “The intent was how can we take this burden off them and create a place where their child can go through this horrific treatment and be as comfortable as we can make them.”
In 2014, Wintersteen founded Savvy Giving by Design, a nonprofit that provides free room renovations to children like Harvey who have been diagnosed with cancer or other serious diseases.
With chapters in 11 states, Savvy Giving by Design gets referrals from Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego and the Make a Wish Foundation.
“We’re not going to cure cancer. We’re here on the more pragmatic side of what can we do to maximize your chances, to be as strong as you can be and also creating a space that you enjoy,” Wintersteen said.
She said that starting Savvy Giving by Design has given her a broader perspective.
“The perspective you gain is of what’s really important in interior design. What really matters at the end of the day is how it impacts someone who wouldn’t have access to it in their daily lives,” Wintersteen said. “It’s a very vacuous industry. I’m just trying to see how we can bring more depth to it.”
Typically, Savvy Giving by Design provides up to $20,000 per project to redo up to three rooms, including that of sick children and their siblings.
That includes replacing carpeting that can attract allergens, new furnishings, and new wall and window coverings.
In a new twist, Wintersteen in January started what she’s called a Spring it Forward Campaign, inviting five of her colleagues in remaking nine spaces for three families at the same time.
The colleagues are Alyce Lopez of The True House in Chula Vista, Shannon Appel of San Elijo Interiors in San Elijo, Kelsey Roberts of Kindred Design House in Clairemont, Kara Nicole Clark of Kara Nicole Clark Interiors, and Marcia Bryan of the Bryan Design Group in Scripps Ranch.
“Our main concern right now is funding. The more funding we have, the more rooms we can do,” Wintersteen said.
Leap of Faith
Interior design was not a career that Wintersteen had planned on.
“If you had told me 20 years ago that we would have this kind of business and do what I’m doing, I would have been, ‘No, I don’t want to do that.’” Wintersteen said. “My grandmother was an interior designer growing up and I thought it was the dumbest career ever.”
A psychology major at San Diego State University, Wintersteen said that she thought her career would be in marriage counseling but changed her mind after studying for a master’s degree.
“I got married, had five kids in 10 years and started to really enjoy working on my own home,” Wintersteen said.
A friend liked what she saw of Wintersteen’s home and asked for Wintersteen’s help in decorating her own home.
When the friend gave her a jar filled with cash for the work, “I thought, ‘Wow, that was the easiest thing I’d ever done,’” Wintersteen said.
She started Savvy Interiors in what she described as “a leap of faith.”
“I was too old to go to work for someone else and had too many responsibilities at home,” Wintersteen said. “My mother-in-law said you can’t just keep having babies. You have to have something of your own.”
Savvy soon became so successful that her husband, John Wintersteen, gave up his corporate job around 2010 and joined Savvy as CFO.
Unlike the typical interior designer, Savvy also is a licensed contractor so it can function as a one-stop shop.
“Most of our customers are second homeowners who don’t live here and they just turn their keys over to us and have us do their vacation homes,” Wintersteen said. “My ideal project is let me get in there and make it really nice but not so much that we have to bring in an engineer and an architect.”
Wintersteen tries to tailor her work to fit the personalities of her clients.
“Design trends will always come and go. I focus more on your personal lifestyle. Do you want to lie on your couch with your dog and watch Netflix? You want spaces that work for the way you live,” Wintersteen said. “I’m not going to put a white sofa in with the person who likes to sit with their dog.”
Headquarters: Solana Beach
CEO/Principal/Creative Director: Susan Wintersteen
Business: Interior design and construction
Notable: CEO Susan Wintersteen in 2014 founded the nonprofit Savvy Giving by Design to provide free room renovations to children who have been diagnosed with cancer or other serious illnesses.