10 Questions With... Margaret Sullivan

With her six-person studio in NYC, Margaret Sullivan is on a mission to design the public library of the 21st century. Libraries, often fated with lackluster interiors, function as gathering spots and learning hubs for local residents of all ages. Sullivan knows a well-designed library will benefit the entire community, and she's proving it with new projects across the U.S. Sullivan's latest work, the North Main branch of the Richland Library in Columbia, South Carolina, is a particularly vibrant example of her approach. We ask the designer to share what she's doing to keep these public spaces relevant. (Hint: it involves plenty of color.)

Interior Design: What was it like working with the community in Columbia to design the Richland Library?

Margaret Sullivan: It was a wonderful, once-in-a-lifetime experience to work with a community and a client who allowed us to take risks and be innovative. They challenged us to design to our best and were supportive of us every step of the way as we presented unconventional ideas and concepts.

It was a risky endeavor because public institutions need to be designed for ease of maintenance; these buildings are heavily used. Additionally, projects that are paid for by public funding require a respect for limited resources, which can result in the institutional aesthetic that so many of us associate with public libraries. Our client asked us to “create the spaces and places that will support the programs and activities that take place in the library and to evoke the feelings and outcomes that we want our customers to experience.” Can you imagine how exhilarating and overwhelming that question was? Not only did we need to meet the functional goals of a transforming 21st-century library model—one where we design not for the warehousing of books, but for the active experiential learning of people—but we were also being asked to design spaces that evoked emotion.

ID: How do you believe design can make libraries vibrant, relevant, and vital to their local population?

MS: A public library is a gift to a community and we believe that a well-intentioned, thoughtful design will embolden, empower, and enlighten its community of users. Design is a powerful tool to foster self-improvement and the self-actualization that has been and continues to be the consistent role of the public library in America. 

Rendering of Richland Library Cooper.

ID: How are the libraries you’re working on incorporating digital technologies into the design?

MS: Digital technologies are being employed in conventional and innovative ways to ensure all the tools that any customer or library patron’s needs are accessible. Some of my favorite ways are for play and learning, where libraries are designing interactive touchscreen experiences to activate learning and collections, or where interactive digital portals allow a customer to enter a different reality in real time. Libraries are also letting people check out laptops and iPads and providing Wi-Fi hot spots—all of it takes major infrastructure changes for the libraries we work with, but it is all so great for the customers. 

ID: The use of color stands out in the Richland project. How would you describe your approach to color?

MS: We believe that color is one of the most powerful—and inexpensive—tools to evoke an experience. I believe if we are going to have to select paint and carpet anyway, let’s infuse it with meaning.

But, color is a skill, and I worry that design schools are not teaching color theory. What I tend to see is a large community of designers who are uncomfortable with color as a tool and not as versatile in applying it. Especially in public spaces, you will see designs that default to neutrals. My approach is to start by educating the client at a beginning of a project that color is just another component that allows the building to work for their goals. I’m proud that work we did over 15 years ago with strong, vibrant colors are still fresh. 

Rendering of Annapolis Library.

ID: What have you learned about running a business that you didn’t know when you started your practice?

MS: That it is hard each and every day. But it’s also amazingly rewarding, and it has given me the opportunity to be the firm that we need to be for our clients. I appreciate that every second of the day and do not take that privilege and responsibility for granted. I’ve been fortunate to share a common vision with my clients that the role of public spaces is to advance communities.

ID: Where did you grow up, and how did it influence your work? 

MS: I grew up in Greenville, SC. Growing up in this rapidly growing South Carolina town influenced our work because in the time I was growing up there, Greenville was deeply invested in re-generating its downtown. I see the impact strategic town planning and place-making can do to improve people’s experiences of the public realm. Even though our work is focused on interior experiences, I believe the same principles apply.

Today, Greenville is flourishing. It is a national model for downtown revitalization. I am for sure a city gal by now, living in New York City for over 20 years, but I’m so proud of the visionary leaders who set the urban planning structure in downtown Greenville in motion.

Rendering of New Haven Free Public Library.

ID: What are a few recent projects?

MS: After three years, we’re finally seeing a lot of our projects completed and the new or renovated libraries opening. Not only do we get to see our designs finalized, but we also get to see the communities of users be reintroduced to their library and their excitement. We’re also focusing on strategic and facilities master planning with some new clients which is always fun. It gives us a chance to really get to know library system inside and out.

ID: Which project/projects are you most proud of and why?

MS: In our Main Library project for Richland Library, we specified Knoll Womb chairs in the small group study rooms. An aspiring interior designer told our client that she never thought she’d ever see one, let alone sit in one, and now she is even more inspired to become a designer. Our client connected her to a local interior design firm, where she became a summer intern. That’s the power of good design. It’s a lesson to all designers and clients: Our commitment to excellence can serve our communities in ways we aren’t even imagining.

Rendering of Richland Library North Main.

ID: A secret source you’re willing to share? 

MS: When we need something fun and cost-effective on a project, we go to Blik for energizing wall graphics. They have so much variety and it is a simple way to jazz up a project. 

ID: An item you couldn’t live without?

MS: I’m a traveling business owner: my iPhone and my laptop. At this point in my life and career, these are the only essentials. And a good place in every town I travel to get a hair blowout. That’s my vanity these days.

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