My love for design is less academic than personal, and most of my training has been on the job,” says designer Betsy Burnham who, while based in Los Angeles for more than 20 years, is still a New England preppy at heart, having grown up in Middlebury, Connecticut, and graduated cum laude from Dartmouth College, in New Hampshire. No matter the location of a project, she always finds herself “circling back to classic, East Coast favorites like turned legs, zebra hides, ticking stripes and campaign chests,” according to Burnham, who dresses as cozy-chic as she decorates. “It just somehow never gets old.”
Indeed, the rooms Burnham creates through her eponymous 11-year-old firm possess a tailored spiffiness, while also evincing a Californian richness of color and texture and a bevy of small surprises. Explains Burnham, who recently upholstered a George Smith sofa in bright teal linen, “I love mixing couture with thrift shop; I’m just not crazy about anything in between.”
Her first post-college gig in the late 1980s was for the Gap in New York City, where she worked as an assistant in the men’s product development department. “My boss said he hired me because he liked my style,” Burnham recalls, “which was then a cross between Molly Ringwald in The Breakfast Club and Diane Keaton in Annie Hall.” Around this time, Burnham started dating Mark Stern, who was then working as a production assistant on commercials in New York. (Until recently Stern was president of the SyFy channel; he now works as an independent television producer.) He moved to the West Coast in 1988, and, a year later, Burnham moved there, too. That fall, they married.
“I never dreamed I’d live anywhere but New York, but I loved the open-mindedness out in Los Angeles,” says Burnham. “East Coast rules did not apply, and I found that both intriguing and incredibly freeing. I still do.” She enrolled in UCLA Extension’s interior design program and soon after was hired by the hospitality-design firm Hirsch Bedner. Eventually, she left to focus on raising her two young children. (Her daughter, Carson, is now 19, and her son, Will, 16.)
“I was a full-time mom for about three years, and it was the hardest job I ever had,” confesses Burnham. To stay connected to her creativity, Burnham threw elaborate parties at her ivy-covered residence in Los Angeles’s stately Hancock Park neighborhood. Built in 1927 by West Coast architect Roland Coates, the house features interiors decked out with typical Burnham flair. “It’s classic but not stuffy,” she says, “and it’s filled with contemporary art and a rich mix of paisley, ikat, leopard and floral fabrics in plums, deep reds and chocolates.” Oh yes, she adds, “there are lots of chinoiserie touches, too. Everyone who knows me knows I’m a pushover for faux bamboo.”
A Hawaiian-themed party she threw in 1998 — complete with fire dancers and a thatched hut built inside her dining room — delivered Burnham her first design client, a very entertained guest who asked her to decorate several rooms in her Westside bungalow. “I think the party was proof that I could conceive a vision and actually make it happen, start to finish,” Burnham explains. From that point on, it was full steam ahead, with projects from Malibu to Massachusetts, and an eventual staff of five to help her keep up with it all.
“I love mixing couture with thrift shop; I’m just not crazy about anything in between.”
In 2005, Burnham introduced another facet to her firm: Instant/Space. “My phone used to ring a lot with smaller jobs: people who wanted to do just a room, or people on a tighter budget who liked my aesthetic,” she says. Now, for a flat fee starting at $1,100, she offers “do-it-yourself, custom-designed spaces, a room at a time,” explains Burnham. Clients send her photos, measurements, a completed questionnaire and tear sheets of rooms they like, and, six weeks later, after much back-and-forth, Burnham sends them a box containing, among other elements, a scaled furniture plan, an inspiration board, fabric samples and specific instructions on everything from area rugs and plumbing fixtures to window treatments and tile selections. This then-pioneering idea was a huge hit, and many of these small one-off jobs — creating a nursery, say — led to Burnham transforming a client’s entire home, all one Instant/Space project at a time.
As for her full-service business, her strategy remains hands-on, down to the last detail. And whether she’s placing abstract modern art in a classic Tudor living room, infusing Moroccan exoticism into a contemporary Hollywood Hills home via vivid mosaic tiles, upholstering an office chair in denim, or bringing mid-century Italian decor to a Spanish home in Santa Monica, Burnham still loves to confound expectations. “For me,” she says, “it’s about achieving harmony from surprising juxtapositions.”
Betsy Burnham’s Quick Picks on 1stdibs