For this special REGISTRY Tampa Bay series, “Real Estate, Real Lives,” we’re profiling six people who work in five disciplines essential to the industry. Hard-working and visionary, thick-skinned and sensitive, they serve their clients above all. And each has a deep and abiding connection with Tampa Bay.
Interior Designer Suzan Decker Ross: She Loves The Big Reveal
The HGTV ‘Designer’s Challenge’ winner has built one of the Bay area’s most in-demand firms.
In the back corner of the waiting room of Decker Ross Interiors in Clearwater, next to a small sign that says “Relaxation Zone,” one piece of furniture exerts its own gravitational pull.
Seconds after arriving, I’m drawn to the big, black massage chair. As I look it over, about to have a seat, Suzan Decker Ross emerges from her office. She greets me with a warm smile and a handshake, then insists that I take off my shoes and make myself comfortable in the chair. I do as told. It envelops me — rollers ripple my arms, move up and down my back, thighs, buttocks, the bottoms of my feet. The machine is a marvel. Suzan looks on, beaming.
She has the kind of vibrant personality that’s been a major asset during her career as a top interior designer in Tampa Bay. Her firm of eight women marked its 25th anniversary in 2018, and celebrated by doing about 300 projects, ranging from $5,000 bathrooms to entire mega-mansions and commercial projects for six-figure fees.
While Decker Ross’s taste runs “contemporary, with clean lines,” and she lives on the beach with her second husband, Edward Mitchell, in a home with a coastal-style interior, her business is all about delivering what the customer desires. “Some know exactly what they want and can describe it, but I would say that more of them can’t quite put it all together,” Suzan says.
That’s when she or one of her staff breaks out design magazines and “inspiration photos” for clients to identify looks they like. They ask probing questions about the client’s lifestyle. How do they entertain? Do they have animals? Allergies?
“I tell them it’s like a puzzle,” Suzan explains. “You look at the box and see what it looks like finished. Then you throw the puzzle pieces out on the table and start to build it.”
Suzan Decker grew up in Ocean Township, New Jersey — about 50 miles south of New York City — and, like so many other young people in the late 1970s, headed to Florida more or less on a whim. “There was something about the name ‘Clear-water,’” she quips, grinning.
Suzan attended St. Petersburg Junior College, earning degrees in interior design and fashion merchandising. She followed that up by working as an in-house designer for local furniture stores. After seven years at Harrison Furniture & Interiors, she struck out on her own, opening up in an 850-square-foot office on West Bay Drive with a $50 desk and a used fax machine. The company now operates out of an eye-catching, two-story modern building amid strip malls on Court Street, just east of downtown.
I ask Suzan to tell me about a project that really put her company on the map. She pauses, her expression turns quizzical, then brightens. “My goodness, it was HGTV,” she says. “We won the ‘Designer’s Challenge’ in the mid-2000s.” Decker Ross Interiors competed with two other firms to design a couple of rooms in a Belleair luxury home. That exposure led to a stint as the Design Guru on Newschannel 8’s Daytime program.
Suzan’s overseas buying trips have given her insight into design trends and how international ultimately influences local. “It starts in Europe, then goes to California and eventually ends up in Florida,” she says, adding, “This part of Florida is more Midwestern, not as flashy, more earthy.”
But just to be clear: You want flashy? She’ll give you flashy.
One of Suzan’s prestige projects, among her favorites, was the Capitol Theater in Clearwater. As part of a design team that made over the historic venue into a classy, 750-seat music hall, she helped develop the color scheme, the hard surfaces, even the ironwork on the exterior.
When doing a home, Decker Ross takes a floor-to-ceiling, turnkey approach. “We want them to be able to walk in with a toothbrush,” she says.
Suzan’s favorite part of her job is the reveal, not much different than the ones on TV. She and her team — three or four designers, plus assistants — occupy the home for several hours to perform a full installation right down to the last detail. “Some of the clients want to be there during the process, but I really encourage them to leave, go grab lunch,” she says. “Personally, I like it when the clients come back, we have them close their eyes, then walk them in. It’s so wonderful to watch their faces.”
Sometimes the reveal goes to great lengths. “When we finished Radiance MedSpa [in Belleair Bluffs], Stephanie Schlageter, the owner, marched her whole team down the sidewalk,” Suzan recalls. “There was paper on the windows. And they were blindfolded.”
With that, Suzan Decker Ross’s face lights up — again.
Click the links for other profiles in the “Real Estate, Real Lives” series: