Five Under Forty: Sarah Tiedeken O’Brien

Meet the Partner/Owner of Vertical Arts Architecture in Steamboat Springs
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Portrait by Jennifer Olson

“I want to design something that makes a client’s life better—so when they wake up in the morning and the sun rises over the mountain, it hits them while they’re drinking a cup of coffee and brings them joy,” says architect Sarah Tiedeken O’Brien.

The Wyoming native, 33, received her bachelor’s in architecture from the University of Oregon and moved in 2011 to Colorado. In 2019, the self-described “go-getter, leader type” became a partner in Vertical Arts, where she wears many hats: marketing, architectural design, interior design, furnishing selection and some concepting on landscape architecture.

“I like to insert myself into everything. My favorite project is one in which we do it all, from the architecture to the furniture, right down to the pillows.”

No matter the project, O’Brien says, “I always try to create a home that captures the views, has good lighting and has good interior- exterior flow. I want a home to feel like it really belongs to a person, so they feel like they’re at home in their own house.”

Boulderridge1016 Livingroom

Photo by Gibeon Photography


“When I was a freshman in high school, an art teacher said: ‘Paint a watercolor of your own house—design it yourself.’ He looked at mine and said, ‘This is pretty creative. Maybe you should be an architect.’ So I started taking an architectural drafting course and liked it.”


“Things go in and out of style, but you want a really beautiful base palette, as well as authentic architecture— columns, stone details—that feels structurally right. If you create a beautiful backdrop, everything flows together and you can create smaller moments in the finishes that go a little farther.”

“Things go in and out of style, but you want a REALLY BEAUTIFUL BASE PALETTE, as well as authentic architecture—columns, stone details—that feels structurally right.” — Sarah Tiedeken O’Brien


“On one project, the clients’ painting of a Native American inspired the interior palette. It was a gorgeous color—modern, fresh and very rich. Another project involved a remodel of a sad, little backyard space. I asked the client, ‘Can I see inside?’ and it turned out he was an amazing artist. He showed me his gallery, and I was blown away by the art. So I made the outside an extension of the gallery; he even created a special sculpture for the garden.”

Boulderridge1016 Entry

Photo by Gibeon Photography


“We’re lucky to design in a place with great views to work with. In one case, the clients had a bench they’d dragged up to the top of their property, where they would hike up and have wine. They said, ‘This is where we want the house.’ But sometimes a lot has so many great views it’s hard to pick the best location. We’re working on a house now where the homeowners want to have a bedroom on the east side so they get morning sun, but they also want it to have a western view. It’s a puzzle.”

See the rest of the 2020 Five Under Forty Design Award Winners.

Categories: Stylemakers