Designer Spotlight

Meet a Seattle Designer Who Gets inside the Heads of Her Clients

Seattle Interior Designer Charlie Hellstern
Top: In the living room of a lakefront house by architect Tom Kundig, interior designer Charlie Hellstern (above, portrait by Jenny Jimenez) placed a pair of Piet Boon sofas, a marble table also by Boon and a side table of her own design. The painting is by Tony Scherman, and the wood sculpture in the back right corner is by Aleph Geddis. All photos by Haris Kenjar unless otherwise noted

As a teenager in Seattle, Charlie Hellstern (then Charlie Ann Barttels) was happiest rearranging her bedroom, listening to records and thinking about what she would do when she grew up. There were a lot of professions to consider. Her mother was a ballroom dancer turned psychotherapist. Her father was a rock and roll guitarist, vocalist and DJ who became an award-winning video editor.   

At the Art Institute of Seattle, she studied interior design, a field in which she could be part therapist (like her mom) and part editor (like her dad). “I wanted to help people with personal spaces they really cared about,” she says. “It’s an amazing job I get to do, especially working with couples when they’re polar opposites. I try to find the common ground.”

After a detour into retail design, she was hired by Olson Kundig, the nonpareil Seattle architecture firm. There, as founders Jim Olson and Tom Kundig designed some of the world’s most beautiful, and widely published, houses, Hellstern helped grow the interiors studio. “That was my graduate program,” she says. 

In 2017, following 13 years at Olson Kundig, she left to start Charlie Hellstern Interior Design, carrying lessons from “grad school” with her: “I learned from Jim Olson to use the landscape as inspiration for the interior palette,” Hellstern says. “For instance, flooring materials might resonate with the color of the earth outside.” Similarly, she says, “Tom Kundig taught me how to choose materials that don’t compete with the site, the people and — if they’re collectors — the art in their house.” 

Seattle Interior Designer Charlie Hellstern lake house dining room
More Cassina Cab chairs, an iconic design by Mario Bellini, ring an Eero Saarinen Tulip table in the dining room, where a Michael Dailey painting hangs above a console from Chadhaus.

Hellstern now has seven employees in her Seattle office. Her goal in her projects is to create homes that reflect their owners’ interests, cultures and beliefs, she says, noting, “Real beauty isn’t superficial. It has a depth that deserves to be taken seriously and cherished.” 

Like her husband, Chris Hellstern, an expert in sustainable design at the Seattle architecture firm Miller Hull, she is an environmentalist who is happy when clients conserve resources by redoing houses, rather than demolishing and starting over. (If she is working on a new building, she tries to make its interiors timeless; the longer something lasts, she explains, the greener it is.)

Among her most challenging recent jobs was redecorating a lakefront house designed by Kundig and completed in 2010. Its original owners had an extensive collection of contemporary art, and Kundig had scaled the rooms to accommodate their largest pieces. Hellstern’s clients, who had recently purchased the property, weren’t collectors, and they needed her help choosing furniture that made the big spaces feel cozy.

One of the new owners, a photographer, decided that her favorite place to work was right at the end of the entry hall. Hellstern wanted to give her a desk worthy of that prominent location, and to make it look built-in. To achieve that, she repurposed an aluminum relief by Texas artist Eric Breish. The artist, Hellstern says, “didn’t complain when we cut the piece up” — which she had to do to accommodate the desk’s operable parts.

Seattle Interior Designer Charlie Hellstern Washington Park house living room
The living room of a house in Seattle’s Washington Park neighborhood features a pair of Dessin Fournir Dupre sofas and custom coffee and side tables of Oregon walnut and bronze-plated steel. The curves of the Radius armchair by Antoine Schapira — purchased from Good Design — echo the house’s distinctive arches.

On top of the desk, looking like a contemporary sculpture, is an early-20th-century Solomon Islands feather belt, which was used as a form of currency. It is one of several pieces whose natural materials and rough textures complement the sleek architecture. 

Seattle Interior Designer Charlie Hellstern Washington Park house dining room entry stairs
“There’s an elegance in the material and the use of craft, but you don’t feel like you can’t put a drink down,” Hellstern says of her design, which is marked by the use of neutral hues and tactile textures.

In the living room, a pair of oversize Piet Boon sofas face a Strap Desi coffee table from Luma Design Studio; the pieces are low enough to let light bouncing off the lake reach deep into the house, as Kundig had intended.

In the dining room, a group of Cassina Cab chairs by Mario Bellini surround an Eero Saarinen Tulip dining table. Against one wall is a whitewashed-poplar and blackened-steel console from Chadhaus. An iridescent Michael Dailey painting and a 3-D ceramic artwork by Katy Stone pick up on the light from the lake. A highlight of the foyer, meanwhile, is a fixture made by Erich Ginder of die-cut linen over a laser-cut plywood frame.

The look couldn’t be more different at a vaguely French, turreted 1920s house in Seattle’s Washington Park neighborhood. Hellstern’s old boss Jim Olson had recently renovated the century-old building. When she was brought in to do its interiors, Hellstern knew she wanted to keep the focus on the spectacular arched windows that give the rooms character and class. Because the owners had a lot of colorful artworks, Hellstern generally stuck to neutrals for the furnishings.

And to make her young clients and their children comfortable, she opted for durability. “There’s an elegance in the material and the use of craft, but you don’t feel like you can’t put a drink down,” she says of her design. To Hellstern, family comes first, which she made very clear in the breakfast area. There, over a custom banquette, she hung the children’s artworks alongside prints by Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse — all of them framed the same way.

In the dining room, Holly Hunt Siren chairs surround a custom dining table, while in the living room, a pair of Dessin Fournir Dupre sofas face a Hellstern-designed coffee table of Oregon walnut and bronze-plated steel. A Radius armchair by Antoine Schapira — purchased from Michael Del Piero Good Design — mimics the curves of the windows. 

Seattle Interior Designer Charlie Hellstern Washington Park house primary bedroom
A cast-glass and steel bookcase-like sculpture by artist Dennis Evans commands attention in the principal bedroom. A mahogany and brass mid-century modern bench by Harvey Probber from Tom Gibbs Studio sits at the foot of the custom bed, and a Wellington club chair from Dessin Fournir occupies a corner.

Upstairs, each bedroom has a distinctive feel. For the daughter, Hellstern designed a “dreamy bunk bed” and hung a ceramic antler chandelier by Jason Miller, setting up a safari theme. In the son’s room, she paired another bunk bed with a custom dresser. “It’s a highboy that isn’t as wide as a typical highboy,” explains Hellstern, who also designed the room’s storage bins on orange casters. Woods wallpaper from Cole & Son makes the room feel like a campground. 

A bookcase-like sculpture made of cast glass by artist Dennis Evans established the palette for the parents’ bedroom, which Hellstern says includes “all the colors of the Seattle sky.” At the foot of the custom bed is a mahogany and brass mid-century modern bench by Harvey Probber from Tom Gibbs Studio.

Seattle Interior Designer Charlie Hellstern Madison Park house basement family room
In the basement’s family room, a Moooi Love chair (right) faces a pair of Carl Hansen Embrace lounge chair across two custom ottomans. The floor lamp is by Workstead.

The owners of another prewar house — this one a Spanish Colonial in the Madison Park neighborhood — asked Hellstern to redo their basement. She made the job a lot more glamorous than it sounds. The clients, a couple with two young kids, wanted her to turn several forgotten spaces into rooms for a variety of family activities, from board games to arts and crafts to Netflix nights to slumber parties. 

Seattle Interior Designer Charlie Hellstern Madison Park house basement craft room project space family room custom inteiror window
Hellstern opened a wall with an interior window — built by a local artisan — to visually connect the craft area to the family room.

In her design, Hellstern salvaged the terracotta basketweave-pattern floor (“I don’t like to make changes when it isn’t necessary”) but altered the look of nearly everything else.

She had local artisans build an interior window — to make the family room and a neighboring craft room feel connected — and create a mirror to brighten a passageway leading to the rest of the house. 

The family room has a custom banquette that Hellstern made extra-deep, giving it what she calls a “jump-into corner.” It faces an ebonized-oak table by Sawkille, a maker in Upstate New York. Pieces like a Love chair by Moooi and Carl Hansen Embrace lounge chairs provide a wide variety of seating options. Elsewhere, in a crafting area, steel and woven leather chairs by Mark Albrecht surround a square walnut project table by Chadhaus.

If it doesn’t look like any other Hellstern project, that’s OK with her.  “I don’t design for Instagram, and I don’t focus on trends,” she says. “My work is about taking cues from clients.”

Charlie Hellstern’s Quick Picks

Alexandra Kohl stool, new, offered by J.M. Szymanski Shop Now
Alexandra Kohl stool, new, offered by J.M. Szymanski

“Horsehair textiles are exceptionally durable, and the natural variations between the strands of hair produce a lovely strié affect. This piece allows the hair used on the warp ends to drape, as it would in a horse’s mane, which is unusual. I also enjoy seeing Alexandra’s hand on the textured iron frame with visible attachments.”

<i>La petite sphère</i>, 1946–7, by Émile Gilioli, offered by Avery & Dash Collections Shop Now
La petite sphère, 1946–7, by Émile Gilioli, offered by Avery & Dash Collections

“I love abstract French sculpture by artists like Constantin Brancusi, and this is a lovely example by Émile Gilioli. The warmth and sheen of the polished bronze are mouthwateringly beautiful.”

Pepe Mendoza buffet, 1963, offered by Mario Uvence Antiques & Fine Arts Shop Now
Pepe Mendoza buffet, 1963, offered by Mario Uvence Antiques & Fine Arts

“I love the simplicity of this cabinet, with its handcrafted brass pulls and well-made feet. As with any artisanal piece, it would be hard to find anything like this being made right now, as it is unique to Pepe Mendoza, his experiences and techniques.”

Max Ingrand for Fontana Arte Micro sconces, Model 2240, ca. 1963, offered by soyun k. Shop Now
Max Ingrand for Fontana Arte Micro sconces, Model 2240, ca. 1963, offered by soyun k.

“Max Ingrand’s series of etched-cast-glass and brass Fontana Arte designs offers both shiny reflective surfaces and transparent ambient light at the source. This pair of sconces are just the right size for powder-room lights flanking a mirror.”

Tibetan carpet, ca. 1880, offered by Chaman Antique Rug Gallery Shop Now
Tibetan carpet, ca. 1880, offered by Chaman Antique Rug Gallery

“Born in the year of the Dragon, I always find myself on the hunt for dragon motifs, which symbolize supernatural power, wisdom, strength and hidden knowledge. It can be hard to find rugs as large as this Tibetan one, which is big enough to fit all the furnishings in a room and can also set the tone for the entire color palette of a space.”

Philip and Kelvin Laverne Turtle coffee table, 1960s, offered by Lobel Modern, Inc Shop Now
Philip and Kelvin Laverne Turtle coffee table, 1960s, offered by Lobel Modern, Inc

“I saw an example of father and son duo Philip and Kelvin Laverne’s work in Milan a couple of summers ago and ever since have been a fan. This less-decorative piece of theirs, which has a textured-bronze top and hints at Moroccan motifs on its recessed pedestal base without being overt, would add personality to any blank space.”

Decorative bowl, 1970s, offered by Ambianic Shop Now
Decorative bowl, 1970s, offered by Ambianic

“Like any art or furnishings in a space, decorative objects can offer a chance to share a person’s beliefs, interests or family culture. I love the handmade texture and combination of materials of this dish from Texcoco, Mexico.”

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