Betsy Burnham didn’t set out to become an interior designer.
In truth, the Connecticut native—who graduated with a fine arts degree from Dartmouth—originally ventured to the Big Apple right after college in hopes of launching a lifelong career in fashion. And though she managed to successfully land a string of jobs in the industry, her burgeoning interest in outfitting spaces soon began to overshadow her love for dressing human figures.
Eventually, she relocated to the west coast, where her penchant for conceptualizing interiors prompted her to enroll in UCLA’s design program. Soon after, she launched her eponymous design firm. “If I’d stayed in New York I think it’s likely fashion would have been a ‘forever’ thing,” she says. “Interior design happened somewhat organically once I [moved to California], [where it] grew to be my full-time career.”
The creative expert—who describes her style as “a little bit country club, a little bit rock-and-roll”—says that her design aesthetic has east coast roots, but is “very much Californian,” in the sense that it doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Constantly inspired by travel, architecture, and street style, Burnham—who appreciates “a clean, unfussy ‘canvas’ with modern lines, edited details, and lots of white”—claims to be drawn to classic elements such as ceramic tiling, painted wooden floors, linens and denims, and plaids and stripes. “In general, the Burnham Design style is all about a mix, and that’s how we add some edge,” she reveals. “There’s nothing like contemporary art in the same room as vintage accessories; an old Turkish rug in an all-white mudroom; or a drum set living alongside fine furnishings in a formal living room.”
Burnham’s venture is by no means a cookie-cutter interior design company. The Los Angeles-based firm features a unique service that sets it apart from its competitors called “Instant/Space,” which allows clients to employ Burnham and her team’s services from all over the country—and occasionally, even abroad—solely via online communique.
“I thought of Instant/Space in 2004/05, back when I was building my business and had to turn down smaller jobs in favor of those with broader scopes,” Burnham explains. “I wanted to find a way to keep those small jobs, because often those were the clients who were most enthusiastic about my work and most engaged in the process.”
The company’s innovative practice—nicknamed “e-decorating” by the media after it gained traction and other designers started to offer similar services—requires potential clients to fill out a questionnaire that asks them to describe the architectural style of their homes, name their favorite design blogs and magazines, and express their color preferences. It also requires that they provide digital documentation and a detailed floor plan of their rooms, as well as tear sheets of their dream spaces. “Often we share Pinterest boards,” Burnham divulges. “The more [clients] tell us about themselves, the more seamless the process.”
Read on for a Q&A with the busy mother of two, who talks to us about her favorite past projects, where she likes to shop for furnishings, and how she successfully melds the wants and needs of her clientele with her own personal style.
How closely does your own home’s interior echo the work you design for others? Is there any room in your home in particular in which you love to work in, and/or relax and unwind?
I live in a 1927 house in one of the older neighborhoods of Los Angeles, with classic bones and large-scale rooms. I love its sense of history, and I often borrow its architectural elements (like mouldings, doorway proportions, wrought iron) for use in my projects.
[My family and I like to relax and watch TV] in our library, which is a cozy room with pale blue walls, lots of books, layered rugs, and a random mix of wall art (from drawings and vintage paintings, to faux taxidermy and antique mirrors).
Which of your past design projects are you most proud of? Can you elaborate on some of your current ones?
I designed a 15,000-square-foot house on a private island in northern Michigan for some of my favorite clients several years ago. It was a once-in-a-lifetime project in a truly unique setting; I’d call its vibe “boathouse glam.” Tons of wood wall treatments (like board and batten) painted creamy white, comfy deep upholstery, faux bamboo, vintage Hermes and Gucci accessories, and old-school printed textiles. The clients are private people so we never published the project, but we had an unforgettable time designing that house.
A couple of current projects include a Moroccan-meets-modern home in the Hollywood Hills. The clients were both very involved and wonderfully open minded, and they let us go crazy with patterned tile and off-white limestone. And in June we installed the 2014 Coastal Living Showhouse in Coronado, which is open for tours until September. It was great fun putting the Burnham Design spin on “coastal chic.”
If you could design any space in the world without having to worry about any fathomable limitations such as cost, what would it be?
My family used to stay in the Pierre Hotel when we were in New York City, and although I kind of loved its dated elegance, it was in dire need of a remodel. I always thought it would be the most glamorous project, and redesigned it in my mind a hundred different ways. Of course, someone else got the job without me even knowing—it was remodeled at great expense a few years ago.
Where do you like to shop for furniture to incorporate in your designs? Do you have any favorite brands/stores that you frequent?
We shop all over, from 1stDibs, Etsy, and JF Chen, to Lawson Fenning and The Rug Company. My favorite lines include Lee Industries, Charles Fradin for upholstery and casegoods, Urban Electric Company for lighting, and Rogers & Goffigon and Peter Dunham for fabric.
Describe yourself in five words.
Anxious. Detail-oriented. Authentic. Animal-obsessed. And the opposite of a foodie, if there’s a word for that—I eat the same things every day.