Landscape Designer & Founder.
Suzman Design Associates, San Francisco.

From elegant European and San Francisco rooftop gardens to large country estates, from traditional to cutting edge modern, and from ocean front to desert, international award-winning landscape designer Stephen Suzman–nephew to South Africa’s famous anti-apartheid activist and politician Helen Suzman–runs one of California’s most successful and largest high-end residential landscape companies.


Where are you from in SA?  Johannesburg    Where do you live now?  San Francisco, California

How long have you been in the US? Over 40 years – since 1972

Where was your company founded?  San Francisco, California

Give us a brief description of your business:  Suzman Design Associates is an award-winning landscape design firm specializing in gardens, estates, resorts, and country properties throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and around the world, including Hawaii, Arizona, Martha’s Vineyard, New York, Paris, Indonesia, Dubai, England and Mexico.

Our mission is to design places of great beauty that are stylistically diverse, functional and restorative. They reflect and preserve the unique historic, cultural and environmental characteristics of their settings. The firm is deliberately not iconic, it is site-specific, architecture appropriate and reflects the individual tastes and programs of each client. Suzman design strives to be green and has two LEED accredited landscape designers and architects on its team.

The firm has won numerous awards including prestigious Sunset Magazine’s “Western Garden Design Award” and two from American Society of Landscape Architects and has been published in numerous magazines including Architectural Digest, California Home and design.

Tell us briefly about your journey that brought you all the way to California to design beautiful landscapes?  I went to University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg and Oxford in England and then spent time in Italy and France. I came over to California to do an MBA at Stanford Graduate School of Business and then worked here in banking and headhunting. My qualifications and business experience certainly provided a valuable base for running my own firm. In 1992 I finally found my true passion of creating art in nature through landscape design.

When did you realize that you could make a career out of your love of, essentially, gardening?  I have always loved design, plants, and architecture. In 1982 I had a friend, Ward Cromer—an American who visits Cape Town every year—over for tea in the backyard of my home in the Castro district of San Francisco. He brought along Randy Hester, a prominent professor in landscape architecture with UC Berkeley’s prestigious program. Hester complimented my cottage garden and suggested I attend the University’s summer program and consider becoming a professional designer.

I said to Hester: “You mean people will actually pay me to do this?” The comment coincided perfectly with my own increasing interest in landscape design as I was already looking into a course at London’s Inchbald School of Design. I subsequently attended that school as well as the Berkley program and within ten minutes of my first lecture I realized that this was for me.

What aspect of your approach, attitude, character (any or all) do you feel has been instrumental in causing your own success?  Thanks to my time spent as a headhunter, one of my great strengths is my ability to recognize and attract high quality talent, to survive rejection and to network. I also learnt a long time ago to utilize other expert’s strengths and to recognize my weaknesses.

What’s tips do you have for entrepreneurs trying to start a business?  Have a plan, have a budget, be sure you are adequately capitalized. For a designer, have a design philosophy. Stand back and see where your business fits in the broader spectrum of the business climate and business conditions. For example, in my instance, I must be cognizant of the fact that California experiences periodic droughts so we need to be careful of how we use water. Also, check out the prevailing trends in your business. I’m not saying that you can’t go against them but always be a leader rather than a laggard. Also know your limitations – be aware of your personal strengths and weaknesses.

What’s your perspective of being a South African in business in a foreign country?  Obviously you need to understand and comply with local conditions and laws and regulations and you need to be aware of local business practice. For instance it is the tendency of Americans to hire and fire much more quickly than in SA. SA has stronger protection for workers and the one I grew up in took greater care of its employees while here it is much more of a free for all.

Most times it is an advantage being from a different country although sometimes Americans don’t feel completely comfortable dealing with a foreigner. Obviously the advantage is we bring a fresh perspective, we have likely travelled more so we have a wider vision. We see more opportunity and possibility based on our own exposure.

What strengths do South Africans bring to business no matter where they are in the world?  South Africans are used to many different cultures so they can adapt very well in America where there is a large variety of cultures. In the US we have a wide spectrum of platteland versus city mix which is similar to South Africa so those brought up in that mixed environment can compete pretty well.

How has growing up in South Africa influenced your work?  I spent my childhood walking the gardens of beautiful neighborhoods in Johannesburg with my mother, learning the names of plants. South Africa’s horticulture is very rich and I had an aptitude for it at a very young age. We often source plants from South Africa today for projects in appropriate climates.

The Cape is one of the richest Mediterranean floral climates in the world and many of its native, indigenous plants have found a home in California for example: bird of paradise, agapanthis, many of the ground cover daisies osteospermum, gazania, arctotheca,), most pelargoniums, gladioli, proteas, pin cushions among over 100 Cape plants are mentioned in Sunset Western garden.

As you’d expect from a relative of Helen Suzman, Stephen is very active in the community. Some of the organizations he supports include:

Helen Suzman Foundation (HSF) works to defend the values that underpin South Africa’s liberal constitutional democracy and to promote respect for human rights. Suzman believes: “Democracy and personal liberty are such precious commodities to the point that they have to be fought for and never be taken for granted. And they need to be fought for by every single generation!

The HSF essentially espouses those valuable old-fashioned liberal values—the freedom of the individual and the rule of law—and aims to safeguard everybody’s personal liberties. Recently it has been in the forefront of fighting a draconian bill in South Africa that restricts freedom of press. Helen was a tremendous inspiration to many people to stand up for their beliefs, one example is Ian Ollis running for leader of the DP in Gauteng who is openly gay.”  Currently there is a traveling photographic exhibition of Helen Suzman’s life in Boston. Contact the HSF if you are interested in hosting this in your city. 

Art for Healing works to place paintings and sculptures in hospitals clinics, retirement centers and other places of healing. Stephen believes strongly in the positive influence of art, music and gardens in the healing process.  “These are simple, low-cost methods of improving health outcomes in these days of escalating health care costs. It has been conclusively proven by double blind testing that patients get better faster with fewer side effects with visual access to greenery and gardens,” says Suzman. Art for Healing is looking for donations of artwork and suitable locations to place art. Contact them at:

Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America (ICA&CA) is dedicated to advancing the classical tradition in architecture, urbanism and their allied arts. It does so though education, publication, and advocacy. Stephen is on the Northern California Board of the IICA.  Suzman explains: “The ICA espouses the teaching of traditional architectural methods and dissemination of classical ideas in architecture and art. Classical need not just mean ionic columns, it can also be used in a wider sense of timelessness.”


Category: Success Stories

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