December 14, 1998 12:00 PM

Titanic’s Frances Fisher heard about her through St. Elsewhere’s Cynthia Sikes, who got the word from Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s not clear if Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson recommended her to pals Steven Spielberg and Kate Capshaw or vice versa. But Madonna (by virtue of being, well, Madonna) simply knew. So when the material mom needed nurseries outfitted for daughter Lourdes in her Manhattan and Miami Beach homes, she called Susan Salzman, furniture designer to Tinseltown’s trendiest tykes. Salzman, 37, is Girl Scout sincere about her mission. “A nursery has a new life force in it,” she says. “When you bring something new into the world, you want to create something cozy, loving. People trust me with their homes.”

Salzman is a safe bet. Owner of the Little Folk Art shop in Santa Monica, where prices range from $15 for a stuffed bunny to $20,000 for a custom-made entertainment unit, she was the creator of the sumptuous nursery that nearly upstaged Steve Martin and Diane Keaton in the 1995 film Father of the Bride 2. “Her stuff is different—this is grown-up furniture, miniaturized and made rustic,” says Linda DeScenna, the movie’s production designer. “You want to sit in that chair, rock that baby and never leave.” The Practice’s Dylan McDermott and his actress wife, Shiva Rose, know the feeling. Salzman built a “big girl” cream-colored panel bed for their daughter Colette, 2. “With Susan’s furniture,” says Rose, “I’m finally able to re-create the kind of bedroom I dreamed of when I was a child.”

Kids have always been central to Salzman’s career plans. The only child of Al Licht, the retired owner of a men’s clothing store, and his homemaker wife, Maureen, Susan grew up in Sherman Oaks, Calif., with dreams of becoming a teacher, even working as a playground supervisor for the Los Angeles Unified School District while studying for her English degree at UCLA. She graduated in 1983 and, while waiting to take her teacher certification exam the following year, took a job as an assistant to top Hollywood manager Bernie Brillstein, whose clients included Dan Aykroyd and Jim Belushi. After four years, Salzman was ready for a change. “I was reading scripts I didn’t care about, having lunch with people I didn’t care about,” she recalls. “I wanted to take six months off.”

She never went back. Instead, using skills she’d learned in the seventh-grade shop class she loved, she began crafting gifts for friends’ babies in her two-bedroom Beverly Hills apartment. “I wanted to make something that would last forever,” she says. As her creations expanded from rabbit-shaped mirrors to picket-fence bed frames, so did word-of-mouth demand. Soon, Salzman outgrew her living-room workspace and then her parents’ garage, before settling in 1991 into the West Hollywood factory where Little Folk Art now employs 26 workers. “She started this as a form of soul-searching,” says Little Folk Art’s vice president Mitchell Salzman, 38, a former garment industry exec whom Susan met at a party and married in 1985. “Now it’s a formidable business.”

Recently, the Salzmans, who live in a cottage in Rancho Park, Calif., added their own little client, 9-month-old Elijah. Of course Eli, as he is called, has his own custom-designed (though relatively modest) Salzman nursery, complete with a vintage Humpty Dumpty lamp and a yellow hand-crafted changing table. For Salzman, outfitting the room was a labor of love and a revelation. “The products I’ve created for other people,” she says happily, “they really do work.”

Christina Cheakalos

Anne-Marie Otey and Ulrica Wihlborg in Los Angeles

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