Creatively Dramatic. Artistic Designer. Compassionate.

photo by Justin Barr

By Diane Kline

Susan Block is somebody who sets style trends, not someone who follows them. Whether she’s designing home interiors, creating remarkable centerpieces for charity events or discovering unique items to feature in her store, The Designing Block, her name is synonymous with dramatic creativity.

A painter and photographer, she earned a degree in fashion design from Washington University, and worked as a fashion coordinator at Famous Barr, dressing celebrities and meeting fashion icons like Edith Head. With an eye for design, she began her interior décor business in 1980 without formal training or a business plan.

Block has been married for 41 years to Terry, retired president of Nestle Purina pet food division and COO of Post Holdings. Their meeting in college was something out of “When Harry Met Sally.”  They were on a double date with other partners but switched places when they felt a spark for each other. This year on her Valentine’s Day card, he wrote, “You’re the best decision I ever made.”

An involved mother of two adult children and a busy philanthropist, she’s on the board of 10 organizations, including the Saint Louis Zoo, Fashion Fund and the Saint Louis Art Museum. Block was named a Woman of Achievement in 2009, as well as a Washington University Distinguished Alumni, among other honors. She’s done everything from bringing hearing aids to deaf people in Vietnam to taking art classes in New Zealand—and here are a few things she’s learned along the way.

At age 6, I spent months in a hospital bed, which taught me empathy.

I had a hip disease that forced me to stay in bed for months, and even had to be carried to the bathroom. They’d take me to Cardinal Glennon hospital and strap me down on a big metal table in order to take X-rays. After going through that, you care what’s happening to people, especially kids in wheelchairs.

My dad told me I’d flunk out of college by Christmas, so I had to prove him wrong.

In high school, I was at the bottom of my class. Even teachers called me stupid. As it turns out, I wasn’t dumb—I had a learning disability. Thankfully, I found professors who figured out how to help me. Even though I had to take algebra five times, I made the Dean’s List!

I just had a knack for designing and putting things together.

I always loved collecting “stuff” and displaying it. A designer friend told me I had a good eye and I should go into the business. In 1980, I got my first client and started The Designing Block. And in 1996, I opened my store in Clayton. There was no business plan, just a belief I could do it.

Just because it’s expensive doesn’t mean it’s good.

Clients can confuse price with style. I’ve seen people spend millions on decorating homes that are ugly as sin, and I’ve also seen a repainted piece of furniture picked up on the street that looks like a million bucks. I teach clients to shop their home. You can find easy fixes just by rearranging the furniture. I don’t believe in trends. The essence of good style is that you feel comfortable with it.

People worry about the wrong things when they entertain.

They won’t invite people until everything is perfect. Just relax. I had a party once with a roll of carpeting in the middle of the living room. No friend is going to come to your house and say, “Your kitchen counter is messy, I’ve got to leave.” If your friends are like that, you need new friends.

The measure of success is not how much you sell, but how much you help others

As a kid, I would read about the Women of Achievement in the newspaper and was inspired by what these women were doing. Today, I sit on their board. What makes you happy is if you’re good to people and use the talents God gave you. That’s why I’m always asking myself, “What’s next?”