For more than two-decades, Valerie Saunders worked for some of Southern California’s top builders, helping new homeowners customize their homes. Now owning her own firm, she continues to design classic, clean-looking spaces that have a broad appeal.
What’s your first memory of being interested in design?
I have been obsessed with design for as long as I can remember. As a child I was always into making little camps and tents and houses look like home. I was always rearranging furniture as a kid.
When did you try to make a career in design a reality?
I went to Brooks College, which was a pretty prestigious design school that specialized in interior design. My family is in the flooring industry, and when I graduated in 1995, the market was a little funky. So one of my dad’s clients who owned a small flooring store offered me a job. About eight months later, I went to work at Shea Homes, in the design center.
From age 22 to 35, I worked for homebuilders, assisting new homeowners design their brand-new homes by selecting all of the interior options. I fell in love with the tile portion. That was the only place I could really be creative because the production homebuilding business is really focused on building the home, not the furnishings. In 2009 the company I was working for closed their design studio, I decided to start my own company, Sérendipité. The name Sérendipité felt extremely appropriate for the uncertain economic time.
2009 seems like a risky time to strike out on your own. What drove your decision?
The builder I had worked for had closed and many colleagues in my industry started branching out on their own. That's when the flip business started taking off. I reached out to different small builders I had worked with over the years and started doing design work on my own, mostly specification homes. For the last 11 years, a lot of our business has been spec and new build homes. It could be a flip or a renovation; it could be somebody buying a property and tearing it down and rebuilding it. We are involved in about 15 to 25 projects like this a year. We are typically involved in every specification that is needed to build the interior of a home.
What do you enjoy about working on spec homes?
What makes a spec home unique is the tile design! A lot of my builders trust me to do unique designs to personalize the space without over-personalizing it. I really have fun with tile. A lot of times they don’t furnish the home or have staging, so all we have is fun hardware, lighting, and cool tile.
What do you build your design around without a homeowner in place?
The plans that are provided typically have a certain vibe: modern architecture, farmhouse architecture, etc. And different builders have different personalities. I pride myself on really understanding who I’m working with and how they want to be presented. The homebuilder has an image they’re trying to project, and I’m trying to design for that builder based on what type of work they do. I listen very carefully to whoever’s hiring me. I want to make sure a home looks like the person behind it.
I love calm colors, and I like things to be simple and clean. My design is pretty classic and timeless. But I don’t think I have a specific look. I really do think it’s most important to listen to the client and be reflective of who’s behind a project rather than what I want it to look like. Everyone wants to feel unique and special, or at least my clients do.
What do you look forward to doing more of?
We are incredibly involved in the construction process which includes specifications for custom cabinetry, countertops and tile work, plumbing and appliances—my goal this year is to get more involved in furnishing the home. I want the turnkey, aha moment. I don’t want to just design a pretty kitchen and walk away, I want it to have all the accoutrements. I want to finish the house.
When it comes to tile, are there any materials or collections you’re drawn to?
I love to do mixed media, so to speak. I like mixing natural stone and porcelain tiles. I’m bonkers for the Ann Sacks Savoy collection. I can’t get enough of it. I have done everything from super contemporary details and really classic styles with that line. It’s my go-to. No one else can take your basic ceramic tile and offer it in the perfect shade of white and other gorgeous hues. Ricepaper is the perfect balance of soft blue-gray. Ann Sacks has this niche that no one’s able to duplicate, and it’s so unique. Every new color they’ve presented is as gorgeous as the last. That’s why I’m obsessed.
Do you tinker with your own home?
I have been in my home for 19 years. I’m such a timeless person, and I’m very logical with big purchases. I believe that if you have timeless things, they will look great forever. I’m not super trendy. For example, everyone likes light oak floors now, but 19 years ago, walnut was more in style. I have walnut throughout, and I still love it. The floors have so much personality now. I raised my daughter in this house, and there are nicks in the floor that remind me of special moments such as her Girl Scout meetings.
I like a quiet space when I go home, so all my furniture is neutral and in the same palette. I’m always moving it around. Even if I move it from one side of the house to another, it blends. I’ll often change out the fabrics on chairs. But I always end up picking another neutral fabric.
What inspires you?
I still get design magazines! I go to tradeshows, visit showrooms, and ask the reps to tell me what’s new. And I’m inspired by little things that happen around me all the time. I try to seek inspiration in different parts of the day. Sometimes inspiration starts with a lead fabric, and that ends up dictating the interior design. It’s like that with tile for me; if I’m absolutely in love with a tile, everything else falls into place.