An uncanny ability to turn up the volume on the classics—with an unexpected twist—makes Betsy Burnham such an exciting designer to watch. Her sensibility marries her passion for creative uses of color with her admiration for traditional design, resulting in work that’s thoughtful as well as thought-provoking. With roots in Connecticut, this Californian has influences from around the U.S., giving her spaces a taste of the best of both coasts.
We spoke with Betsy about her entry into the industry, the development of her own aesthetic interests, how she loves to layer pieces, and much more. Read on to learn more about her and to discover more of her work, and be sure to shop her curated collection of special Chairish favorites.
Firstly, how did you get started in the world of interior design? You founded your company over two decades ago (congrats, by the way!). How did you make it happen?
After college, I worked in the fashion industry with the pivot to interiors happening during my move to LA in the early 90’s. I started taking classes at UCLA extension and worked briefly at Hirsch Bedner. I picked up a couple of friend-clients, did a few embarrassing design TV gigs, and after a few years—when I also had two children—things started to become legitimate. I then founded Burnham Design in 2002.
Trends evolve and styles come and go, of course. How would you say your own approach to design has changed over the years?
In the beginning of my career, I was much more interested in what separated exceptional design from all the rest, and in my (less experienced) mind, “exceptional” came with fairly strict parameters. Over the years, those parameters have broadened, and I’ve come to understand that the unexpected—the surprise—is often what makes design noteworthy.
How does your East Coast background influence the work you do in Southern California? How do the two blend together?
I think my East Coast upbringing influences every project I work on. There’s a classic through-line to my work: I care about architecture, symmetry, and quality materials, and even though at this point I consider myself 90% Californian, I’m always attracted to more traditional elements—that’s just baked into who I am.
You’re known for beautifully layering pieces together, especially vintage finds (which we adore, naturally). What’s the key to doing this without overdoing it?
Good design is all about balance. When a room involves a lot of new pieces, it starts to look like a furniture showroom, no matter how great a mix of shapes and styles is used. Bringing in something timeworn with a historic reference or even a little patina to its finish really grounds things. Vintage pieces also work wonders to personalize a space—maybe a client is into collecting Majolica pottery, or has inherited a classic piece of Georgian furniture—mixing those elements into their homes always results in truly original spaces. On the other side of this, too much vintage, in my opinion, can get theme-y, and even a little dark and dreary.
Do you have any favorite color combinations that you’re loving right now? And are there any shades you really prefer not to work with?
Anyone who knows my work knows I love color. And I’m loving tonal combinations right now: olives with grassy greens, creams with whites, blush with claret, ochre with lemon. My list of no’s? Never say never, but jewel tones, oranges, and purples just aren’t my thing.
What would be a dream project for you and why? What’s something you would just absolutely love to design?
I’m about to begin work on a project in Salisbury, Connecticut, which is definitely a full-circle moment for me. I’m excited about working in a part of the country very close to where I grew up—so yes, a bit of a dream.
That said, I’d also love to design an East Coast beach house, B&B, or guest house. C’mon, Hamptons homeowners—I’m definitely up for the challenge.
On Chairish & Vintage Shopping…
What do you find most compelling about Chairish?
What’s compelling is the range of what I can find on Chairish. Everything from trinket dishes to fine art to rattan dressers to vintage gold signet rings. There’s just so much; I always start one search and end up somewhere unexpected. My “favorites” pages have gotten really good—I’m sure I could design an entire house with everything I have on there.
How does sustainability factor into your design choices and love of vintage?
It’s huge. To think that pieces I’m using in projects now have been previously loved and have found excellent homes and new people to appreciate them—in my opinion, that’s the meaning of sustainability.
Are there any dream vintage/antique “gets” you wish you could have?
Years ago—back in the “before” times when local vintage stores were loaded with merchandise—I bought a wood-beaded chandelier for a client and never forgot it. It was that fabulous.
What are three of your favorite pieces on Chairish now (please include links)?
I love this Swedish Folk Art Pine Cabinet; this Vintage Hermes Paris Silver Buckle Ashtray Trinket Jewelry Catchall Dish; and this Antique Chinese Rug.
Some Design Favorites…
Favorite way to create a statement-making moment in a room:
Favorite decorating “cheap thrill:”
The right jute rug. I have a bleached, woven style I like to use. We make sure it’s exactly the right size and order it custom, without breaking the budget. On its own, it provides a clean, organic canvas for a room full of furniture and fabrics. And with a smaller, vintage rug layered on top, it’s the perfect neutral base piece.
Favorite iconic piece of vintage design:
At the moment, I’ve been down a Guillerme & Chambron rabbit hole. One of my clients has a G&C classic lounge chair, which I worked into her family room design, and it’s fabulous. I love that a French mid-century piece seems so wonderfully current and Californian.
Favorite paint color:
“Borrowed Light” by Farrow & Ball is a gorgeous pale blue wall color. And F&B “Downpipe” is probably my most used for interior cabinetry and exterior trim and shutters. It’s a charcoal gray with a hint of navy in it.
Favorite piece of decor in your home:
I have a Roy Lichtenstein print called “Passage du Nord Ouest” that I”m pretty crazy about.
Favorite designer or artist from the past you most often turn to for inspiration:
Henri Matisse: a master of color, he was notably both a painter and a graphic designer. So far ahead of his time.
Favorite style icon:
For architecture and interiors, I am an enormous fan of Gil Schafer. For landscape design, Dan Kiley. For fashion, I think Amy Smilovic of Tibi is really cool. I love her style as well as her overall philosophy.
Design destination every creative should visit at least once:
The Taj Mahal. It took my breath away.
Best piece of career advice you’ve ever received:
To think of mistakes as teachable moments instead of as small failures. For my team—but almost more importantly, for me—I am still always learning.
Some Lifestyle Favorites…
Favorite vacation destination:
Shelter Island, New York
Favorite hotel that’s inspired your work while traveling:
Samode Haveli in Jaipur, India
I wish I knew the name of it. It’s a family-owned place on the road somewhere between Venice and Florence and our family had the best lunch of our lives there.
Favorite small museum:
Favorite Instagram accounts to follow:
Favorite hostess (or thank you) gift:
A fabulous set of cloth napkins. You can never have too many.
How can I have only one? Daisies, hydrangeas, and peonies.
Favorite adult beverage:
Honestly, I rarely drink. But when I do: really good tequila.
Favorite way to unwind at home:
Cooking, TV, and lots of online shopping
Favorite entertaining essential:
Vintage (and new) china! I have a collection that never quite has full place settings, so I mix patterns. Guests love it.
Lead image: photo by Lu Tapp