Home & Living

Meet the Hue-Happy Interior Design Duo Behind Surrounded by Color

Robin Edlow Heller and Jen Levy take the ordinary and turn it up.
Jen Levy, left, and Robin Edlow Heller, the team behind Surrounded By Color, a creative studio in Baltimore. —Julie Hove Andersen

You can spot a project by Surrounded By Color, an interior and color creative studio, from a mile away.

The rooms are rich, layered, bright, fun, happy, sophisticated, and tasteful—unlikely contrasts that often work together in surprising ways. Robin Edlow Heller and Jen Levy, the duo behind Surrounded By Color, are the living, breathing version of that contrast.

“That’s why Robin and I are a good partnership—because I love neutrals, and I love simplicity and restraint,” says Levy. “Robin is more of a maximalist in that sense.”

Heller, sitting cross-legged on the floor in the great room of her dazzling midcentury-modern rancher, laughs. “I’m like, you want one side table—what about four?”

The company name doesn’t mean they only come in and overly saturate the house in color (though they certainly wouldn’t be opposed to that)—“but I really think that it comes back to the definition of what our brand is,” says Heller. “It doesn’t just mean hues on the wall. It’s really about surrounding yourself with things…”

She trails off and Levy jumps in: “A level of joy.”

A beautiful and serene blue office design in Lutherville with a pop of their telltale checkerboard pattern. —Amanda Archibald
A fun tile floor moment at this Mt. Washington home addition. —Amanda Archibald

That’s how the two are—finishing each other’s sentences and respecting what each brings to the team. There’s a magnetism between them. They grew up nearby each other, but Heller, 41, and Levy, 35, didn’t meet until last spring, when Heller politely stalked and wooed Levy into joining her fledging business.

It’s hard to say no to Heller, who oozes charisma and vivacity, a combination that’s always served her well. After graduating from McDonogh, she headed to New York University to study poetry. (“I don’t know what my parents were thinking,” she deadpans.) Her plan was always to return to Maryland, but she “got sucked into New York.”

After graduation in 2000, she was doing public relations for Rolling Stone and then Lucky magazine before pivoting to J.Crew and helping with their launch of Madewell. Then, needing a change, she moved to Los Angeles “for a few years” but ended up meeting her husband, Noni, through a bunch of mutual friends. They bought a fixer-upper home in Los Angeles and then grew out of it. (They now have three boys.) And then they bought another one—which also needed major renovations.

And Heller loved it. “I was doing all the design stuff,” she says. She made mood boards and picked out the tile materials and found the painters. And she sort of found herself in the process. “A lot of moms can relate to this, but I just was like, ‘Who am I?’ I was such a career woman. And then I was just, like, a mom. It felt really weird for many years. I had no creative outlet and I’m super creative. I’ve always done artistic things and I just felt really dulled.”

A bedroom that is stylish but kid-friendly in Mt. Washington. —Amanda Archibald
A dining room in Pikesville that mixes checkerboard, cane rattan, and splashes of color perfectly. —Amanda Archibald

The renovation brought her endless joy. She got her shine back.

“It was just so incredibly rejuvenating and life-affirming. And I loved it to the point where I thought this could be my job,” she says.

In 2020, when they decided they wanted to be closer to Heller’s extended family, they moved back to Baltimore. They bought their house on 2.6 acres near Lake Roland—after only a virtual visit. And yes, it gave Heller a chance to rev up again with a new project.

“It didn’t need very much, but it really wasn’t entirely our aesthetic,” she says. And then her sister “hired her” to design a new bathroom, and then her friend needed a whole house renovation, and word continued to spread. “Very quickly, it was like, ‘Oh my God, I have a business.’ So, I opened an LLC and a bank account, and I was just kind of running around. But having truly the greatest time and learning along the way,” Heller says. “There’s a lot of things I knew I didn’t know—but why I think it felt so right in Baltimore is because it’s a really comfortable space.”

The great room Heller designed in her Lake Roland house. —Jennifer Hughes
The den in Heller’s Lake Roland home with the IKEA couch she had tie-dyed also acts as the Surrounded By Color office. —Jennifer Hughes

Baltimore, both Heller and Levy say, creates room for all its makers, builders, and designers. Levy, a little more buttoned-up but whip smart, studied art, sculpture, and art history at University of Colorado Boulder, and ended up back in Baltimore after a long career in New York. Her first Manhattan job was at Bloomingdale’s on the sales floor selling denim, but it’s where she learned about visual merchandising. (Though technically her first official design project was her bat mitzvah.)

She interned for the visual merchandising director at Stella McCartney and then got her first big break, at minimalist clothing brand Vince during its heyday. That led to a big job at SMCP, a French holding company specializing in ready-to-wear luxury, and then eventually Levy opened her own firm.

In 2019 she was hired by Pop Up Grocer, a hip, traveling pop-up grocery store that showcases innovative brands in the natural food and beverage sector. She worked as lead designer and project manager for the brand’s first six pop-ups in New York, Los Angeles, Austin, Brooklyn, and Chicago, and designed the permanent flagship location in New York.

But it was during COVID, trapped in her Brooklyn apartment, that Levy felt the pull back to her hometown of Baltimore. In the summer of 2020, she headed home for what she thought might be a temporary stay. “I very quickly realized that I was here to stay and loved everything that Baltimore had to offer me,” she says.

Four months later, she bought a house in Hampden, painted the outside pink, and Domino magazine ran a feature on it. It was her signature style—white floors, pops of color, chic but lived in. (Levy and her husband, Jack Rutka, are now renovating a home in Stevenson.)

“This is kind of important to the story,” says Levy. “Like I’m famous for my all-white spaces. I painted my floors white in my Brooklyn apartment. I painted floors white at the Pop Up Grocer—it was all over the Internet. And then I found my house that I bought in Baltimore, the floors were already white, so it became a part of my identity. But my houses were still really colorful.”

That was what attracted the two designers to each other: the place where their Venn diagram overlaps—but also where it doesn’t.

“We push each other out of our comfort zones,” Levy says. “Also, we can always cater to what the client really wants or needs. Because maybe I understand it better than Robin or vice versa. And we’re able to sort of like pivot in that way which I think is really lucky that we have that partnership.”

A soft primary bedroom in Hampden with Levy’s white floors. —Amanda Archibald
The swanky primary bathroom at the Mt. Washington renovation. —Amanda Archibald
A cozy new guest space at Heller’s home. —Amanda Archibald

Levy is always with her laptop, organized and ready to work anywhere—a car, a plane, a coffee shop. Heller likes to be seated at her desk to answer emails. She loves sketching ideas and shocking their contractors with the boldness of their ideas. Before Levy, she kept track of expenses with the Notes app on her phone. Now there are spreadsheets.

“I think when we met, Surrounded By Color really became Surrounded By Color,” says Heller. “Jen just added an element of organization and operation and go-getter-ness that I feel like I didn’t have. Maybe in a silo of one person working in a business it’s hard to have that. She brought a real nice level of intensity that helped us really grow and be way less overwhelmed.”

The past year has brought some dream projects locally but also in Atlanta, Athens, Los Angeles, and New York. The two were named Rising Stars by Baltimore magazine’s Home & Design Awards and Domino magazine just featured an incredible project they headed up in Mt. Washington along with Ziger|Snead Architects and Greenleaf Construction.

Heller approaches each job like a birthday kid in front of a pile of wrapped gifts. Eager, excited, and ready to get to work. “It has to be fun or don’t do it,” she tells their clients. “It’s financially a burden and I don’t want to take that away from anyone because spending money is hard and stressful, but this process should be fun, because you’re creating things that you want to bring you joy.”

They also find that many people think interior designers are “not approachable, or it’s scary or intimidating,” says Heller. “I mean I’m sure it can be, but our experience is not that.”

She flashes a big smile, her eyes shining behind her clear frames. “We just want to collaborate and make people’s homes happy.”