In a legendary Russian Hill penthouse, artist Susan Swartz has created a tranquil setting for painting and philanthropy.
The moment artist Susan Swartz walked into her light-filled penthouse in a historic building on San Francisco’s Russian Hill, she knew it would be an ideal setting for creating her dramatic abstract paintings. “It’s very peaceful and quiet up here—and the light is spectacular, life-enhancing,” says Swartz, internationally recognized for her exuberant canvases, which capture her passion for the natural world.
The penthouse has nurtured her creativity; the artist, who is represented by Belgravia Gallery in London, paints almost every day, often for seven or eight hours. (Her art and a long roster of global environmental and social causes are her main focuses.) Swartz’s completed works, barely dry, are shipped to top collectors and galleries around the world. In June she’ll be showing at the Ludwig Museum in Koblenz, Germany.
“I love the freedom and intensity of painting [both] landscapes and pure abstraction,” says Swartz. “Nature is my healer, my inspiration. The San Francisco panorama spurs me on.”
As she paints, Swartz is surrounded by the resonant design legacy of her penthouse, perched atop one of the most elegant 1920s-era buildings in the city. Covering two levels, with rooftop terraces, it was once the languorous realm of scientific explorer and art collector Templeton Crocker, the stylish scion of a Big Four family.
Designers have long revered the penthouse—with its bachelor’s dream retreat blueprint—planned in 1928 by legendary French interior designer Jean-Michel Frank. Archival images reveal its sleek parchment-paneled walls, intricate straw-marquetry cabinets, obsidian lamps and avant-garde shagreen tables, all crafted and assembled in Paris and shipped to San Francisco. In 1929 French Vogue called it “the first genuinely modern interior in the United States.”
When Swartz moved in, the luxurious Frank interiors had long ago been dispersed. All that remained were the bold mirrored pilasters in the sunroom, and a quirky Henri Laurens Cubist-style metal banister on a service stairway. “I worked to protect the integrity of the architecture in homage to Jean-Michel Frank,” says Swartz. Like Frank, she shaped the aesthetic in pale neutral tones, calm and elegant, in harmony with the sunstruck views.
“Nature is my inspiration, and my message is that it’s fragile and we must protect it,” says Swartz. “That belief gives days in my studio a certain urgency. I can’t hesitate.”
By Diane Dorrans Saeks.
Photographed by Lisa Romerein.