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Betsy Burnham, principal of Burnham Design, is a modern day interior design icon. Known for her sophisticated and inviting design style that skillfully layers pattern, texture, color, and periods, her signature look has been coined an “unapologetic mix” that has been imitated by many but mastered by few. I chatted with the oh-so-stylish Betsy about her trademark design aesthetic, her innovative e-design services, and a few of her favorite things.
LAMPS PLUS: Couture, thrift, and vintage pieces mesh beautifully in your designs. What is your favorite design style? Is that how your home is decorated? BETSY BURNHAM: For me, it really is about the mix: clean, simple building elements and classic furniture pieces mixed with touches of Asian, and even a little Mid-Century inspiration. I’m drawn to pattern and color and really appreciate it when I get a sense of a homeowner’s personality through their design. My own home, which is actually traditional in style and sort of 1920’s Mediterranean, is really layered with all sorts of high/low pieces I've collected over the years.
LAMPS PLUS: What or who has most influenced your own design aesthetic? BETSY BURNHAM: I studied fine art in college, along with a lot of art history and I think that’s where I got a sense of scale and proportion. My love of color and appreciation of fine textiles came later, from working in the fashion industry. In addition, I've always loved street style and understanding what’s current - that’s also certainly an influence.
LAMPS PLUS: Your background is in fashion and clearly your knowledge and experience from the fashion world has been influential in your design business. What other training or experience prepared you for running your own firm and how did you decide to take the leap from fashion to interiors? BETSY BURNHAM: I got some interior design training at UCLA, but mostly I’ve learned by doing the job. The creative part of interior design has come naturally and grown more or less organically; the business side, however, has taken a long time to get right. I’ve just learned to make sure I ask experts for advice and that I always have a strong support team.
LAMPS PLUS: What designers do you most admire? BETSY BURNHAM: Joe Nye, Peter Dunham & Max Humphrey (my senior project manager)
LAMPS PLUS: What do you see as the next design trend? BETSY BURNHAM: Anything done online. The whole concept of “e-decorating” has only just begun.
LAMPS PLUS: What is one “trick of the trade” that you implement in your designs? BETSY BURNHAM: I never push furniture up against the walls of the room. By pulling your seating arrangement in (even if you only have a few inches), you instantly warm up a space and create flow.
LAMPS PLUS: What is the best design advice you ever received? BETSY BURNHAM: Good. Fast. Cheap. Pick two (because you can’t have all three). This originally applied to building and construction, but I've found it can apply to just about every part of the design process!
LAMPS PLUS: When decorating, what items should you invest or splurge on? BETSY BURNHAM: Buy solid, well made upholstery. Some of the stuff out there right now is tempting because it looks cool and costs next to nothing…but it won’t last. If you invest in your upholstered pieces, you’ll be able to balance your budget with inexpensive, stylish accessories and side pieces. Also, it’s never too soon to start collecting original artwork. Keep your eyes open for new, upcoming artists - there are even great online sites & auctions.
LAMPS PLUS: What is your favorite guilty pleasure that might surprise people? BETSY BURNHAM: I’m a big Madonna fan.
LAMPS PLUS: What is your favorite thing at home that you didn't design? BETSY BURNHAM: My son’s drum set is in a corner of our living room. Originally, we thought this was going to be temporary, but I’ve come to love it in there. Adds a little edge.
LAMPS PLUS: What would be your dream project? BETSY BURNHAM: A collaboration with The Rug Company, and/or Lamps Plus.
LAMPS PLUS: Who are your style icons? BETSY BURNHAM: Diane von Furstenberg, Jenna Lyons, and Mary Kate & Ashley Olsen
LAMPS PLUS: What is your favorite luxury in life? BETSY BURNHAM: High quality bedding.
LAMPS PLUS: What do you consider your must-have classic design books? BETSY BURNHAM: Time-Saver Standards for Interior Design and Space Planning and Elle Décor’s So Chic.
LAMPS PLUS: Your instant/space program – do-it-yourself custom designed spaces – is incredibly innovative and a huge success. It has been featured in publications like Domino magazine, Lonny magazine, O at Home magazine, and the New York Times, as well as on some of the better known decorating blogs like Decor8, Design*Sponge, and Apartment Therapy. You were one of the first designers to offer an e-design service for clients who don't have the budget for full-service design treatment, who don't live near your office, or who prefer to implement the design themselves with your expert guidance. How did instant/space get started and how did it change the way you do business?
BETSY BURNHAM: Instant/space began when I first started Burnham Design and was building the business, I found I was having to turn down small projects - clients who only wanted one or two rooms done (in favor of full house jobs). It was frustrating because these were valid clients who appreciated my design sensibility and to whom I hated to say no to. I developed instant/space as a way to accommodate them and it grew and grew from there. It’s changed the way I do business not only because of the way it’s expanded my client base, but also because it keeps me on my design toes. We do so many rooms through instant/space, so quickly, that my skills have really been sharpened. I can lay out a furniture plan, select a palette, and make decisions about furniture pieces more quickly and efficiently than ever. LAMPS PLUS: Can you tell us about any projects in the works that you are excited about? BETSY BURNHAM: I’m working on the next phase/generation of instant/space. It won’t be realized for awhile, but I think I have a really great idea.
LAMPS PLUS: How important is lighting to your design? BETSY BURNHAM: Lighting is hugely important to me. Every night, I walk around my own house adjusting lighting in every room. It makes my family crazy. I work hard with clients to find the right mix of ambient lighting for each of their spaces. LAMPS PLUS: What are you obsessed with right now? BETSY BURNHAM: Contemporary art collections, fur throws, Uncle Eddie’s vegan cookies, and Pinterest.
LAMPS PLUS: What is your go to paint color?
BETSY BURNHAM: Dunn Edwards’ Silver Spoon, a very pale blue/grey that looks terrific in both kitchens and bedrooms.
LAMPS PLUS: What is your favorite furniture piece and why? BETSY BURNHAM: It may sound obvious, but I absolutely love parsons tables. As dining tables, coffee tables, desks, consoles…it’s a clean, timeless shape that can be dressed up or down and looks right in any decor.
LAMPS PLUS: What is your favorite design accessory? BETSY BURNHAM: I can’t possibly only pick one. I love trays - from simple silver ones bedside to my favorite python tray that serves as an inbox on my desk. I also love baskets, Asian pottery, and I'm crazy about strands of old tribal beads.
LAMPS PLUS: What Lamps Plus products have been catching your eye?
BETSY BURNHAM: I love a beautiful porcelain lamp – and a crackle finish catches my eye, as do beautiful designer lamps. I love Chinoiserie chairs, and unique décor such as these whimsical oversize decorative jacks.
For more information about Betsy and her interior design services, please visit Burnham Design and Instant/Space.
Images courtesy of Burnham Design