10 Design Hacks From the Lady Who Stages SF’s Priciest Homes

Don’t worry, since they’re not HER homes, she keeps budget top of mind

Bella Casa
Interior design tips from the woman who stages some of California's priciest pads.
Bella Casa

As the co-founder of Bella Casa, Renee Sullivan has addressed the home-staging needs of California’s most famous and/or affluent homeowners, from Marin to L.A. and throughout California.

Her job: to make a house (for sale) a home (you want to buy) by bringing in furniture, art and more — resulting in purchase prices, she says, perhaps as much as 25 to 30 percent higher. “In a busy market like San Francisco, it can be the difference between selling your home and not selling it,” she says.

In addition to home staging, Sullivan and her partner Wyatt Sullivan now offer a service called Instant Home: a complete interior design makeover, performed in a couple weeks — a fraction of the time a similar undertaking might have required in the past. “In old-school interior design, this process could take 12-18 months — just ordering the couch could take eight weeks!” she says.

Now things have changed, in part in response to evolving expectations around service delivery. “When my kids order something that’s not on Amazon Prime, they don’t understand why it might take eight or 10 days to arrive,” she says. “We take the waiting time out of the interior design process.”

Bella Casa
(Bella Casa)

Who better to share interior design tricks ‘n’ tips? Here, Sullivan provides some of her favorites for DIYers — with an asterisk. “I really want people to know that our service is for everyone,” she says. “Some of this you can do on your own, but pulling it together is a creative skill that not everyone has.”

If time saved is money earned, check out Sullivan’s agency and her services. To get a feel for her design philosophy — and hear her take on how to save $7,200 — see below.

1. Furniture is expensive — so economizing here can dramatically lower your costs.

“You can buy a great-looking sofa that costs $800 or a great-looking sofa that costs $8,000. Don’t blow your budget on a really expensive sofa. You can design your whole living room for that.”

2. When considering your space and how to use it, think in terms of “moments.”

“What we say is that it’s really important, whether in the interior or exterior, to create destinations — a place where you’ll go and spend a moment of your life, whether that’s sitting with a friend or opening presents on Christmas morning.”

Bella Casa
(Bella Casa)

3. The coffee-table book is a high-value, personality-rich home accessory.

“We love colorful, beautiful coffee table books. We’ll often ask clients who their favorite artists are, or where they like to travel — they can really show off your personality.”

4. Forget that old rule about grouping candles in threes.

“That’s really old-school, to have candles in groups of threes, or another odd number. Now, you’re better off just trying to find a unique piece that stands alone — one really beautiful, big candle in a significant lantern, for example.”

5. In the bedroom, think soft and simple.

“We always do a rug in the bedroom — the organic, contemporary, soft look, in a creamy wool,” she says. “And we try to keep the bedding light: white linens, with maybe a little pop of color with a throw pillow.”

6. For inspiration, tune in to HGTV as well as your normal social networks.

“HGTV was really at the forefront of changing our understanding of how your home should look. Along with Pinterest and Instagram, these are amazing guides for DIYers.”

7. If you have an unused room, try to bring some utility to it.

“We happen to have a very old 1904 home,” Sullivan says. “In the old days, they wouldn’t have a family room — they’d have a grand living room with a fireplace.” After a renovation that added a large family room/kitchen space, Sullivan worked to repurpose the underused living room. “It’s important to decorate and furnish [a space like that] — to give it a purpose. We actually converted the wood-burning fireplace to a gas fireplace, just so we could easily turn it on and use it during the winter months. You can create a perfect sort of space — you could add a writing desk where you might sit and write a letter.”

Bella Casa
(Bella Casa)

8. When you travel, make your hotel room (or Airbnb) a home.

“When I travel, I’ll go to the local flower shop and buy myself a bouquet of flowers or a pretty green plant, which really does transform the space,” she says. “And my husband and I don’t travel to any hotel without a candle.”

9. As for home fragrance: think light, not PSL.

“I like citrus candles, and I love the Jo Malone line,” she says. “I stay away from sweet — I don’t like vanilla, cinnamon or pumpkin.” As for the scent dispenser, stay with what works. “Candles are the best. If you’re selling a home, and you’ve got a really bad odor situations or pet smells, then you can do a citrus plug in, in a lemon or lime.”

10. Don’t give up.

“If they’ve lived in the space for a long time, people can’t believe what we’re able to do,” Sullivan says. “People get comfortable living in the status quo, or with their hodgepodge furniture from college. We’re all creatures of habit.” Make a change, though, and you’ll reap the benefits. “I always tell people, ‘If you’re not happy, all you need is two accent walls, two lamps, and a bedding kit, and that will completely change your space,’” Sullivan says. She demurs when asked if the job of the interior designer is partly to work as a therapist. “But I do think the outcome of what we do is therapy for people.”

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