Joining personal taste, rigorous editing and architectural acumen, Betsy Burnham creates spaces for clients that are welcoming and visually delightful. Done, not overdone. The Burnham Design aesthetic is clever and considered, never precious, in tune with their client’s sensibilities and focused on comfort and ease. Betsy’s personal (and highly collectible) treasures are now available. Discover and shop a curated collection of contemporary and Eastern finds now on Sotheby’s Home.
How did you discover your passion for design?
I was a fine art major at a college (Dartmouth) where (at that time) there were really only a handful of fine art majors — it was definitely more of an economics/computer science type of place. That was a big decision for me because it involved going against the grain, and being really truthful with myself about studying something I loved and wanted to immerse myself in.
What is your favorite decorative object at home?
Honestly it changes all the time. Right now it’s a black & white Roy Lichtenstein etching I bought last year, called Passage du Nord Ouest — which is very different from the art he’s best known for. It’s got a place of honor on one of my dining room walls.
Can you pick your five favorite items you are consigning and tell a little bit about what makes them special?
Swivel Chair With Otomi Cushion – I find these from time to time, and love them as desk chairs. Each one is like a functional piece of sculpture.
Realist Panoramic Photograph – I found this at an antique store in Colorado and it’s incredible. From the 1920s.
Open Arm Bergère – I love taking something traditional and giving it an unexpected update. In this case, we found a classic French bergère chair and had it stripped to the raw wood, sealed and reupholstered in a fabulous chambray.
Larry Zox silkscreen – A large-scale abstract piece, signed and numbered, that will really make a statement in a room. Larry Zox was a prolific artist whose work (in my opinion) is well-priced and collectible.
Pillows – Pillows make great gifts, especially at holiday time, and most of ours are one-of-a-kind.
Is design an art or a science?
In my opinion, design is where creativity meets detail. A good designer is visionary and also precise. So I guess it’s a mix of both. And don’t forget that design is also a service industry — which can honestly be the most challenging aspect of what we do.
Do you have any go-to color or pattern combinations?
I guess I have consistencies — like using menswear-inspired fabrics, chambray and a hint of leather in most of my rooms. But the only go-to is that I love just about all colors and patterns, and never shy away from a mix.
When do you consider a completed project a success?
Happy client. Happy design team. Rooms that look comfortable, polished, accessorized. Inspiring photos.
Share your biggest design secret.
I listen to — and trust — my gut. My first instinct is usually my best one, and it took years for me to understand that and gain confidence in it. This goes for everything, from meeting a prospective client to choosing a general contractor to zeroing in on a color palette to selecting stone slabs at the slab yard.
What is the most common design mistake you see?
I think scale can be an issue for first timers, and scale is so important. I’m of the school that measures twice, cuts once, in order to avoid big mistakes — in other words, we draw every piece to scale in every room, have meetings about seat and table heights (not kidding), and even go to the jobsite prior to placing orders to tape off each piece on the floor.
How do you balance style, comfort and functionality?
I always start with style (because what designer doesn’t?), but quality and comfort are the true priorities. I choose pieces for their look and then visit them in person (if possible, especially upholstered pieces) to check them out. We’ve always got our eye on the marketplace looking for great new resources, but we’ve also got a short list of vendors we’ve worked with over and over whom we trust, and a great local workroom who builds all our custom pieces.
Is there a specific item you typically use as a starting point? (ex: rug, artwork, statement piece, furniture)
To be honest, I start with the architecture, listen to the clients’ goals and then filter it all through whatever speaks loudest to me about the project. Not trying to sound pretentious here; really it goes something like this: Mediterranean-style house meets clients who are modernists means maybe I’ll suggest steel doors and windows, a bleached floor and a light, monochromatic palette to keep things from getting too heavy/Spanish.
What do you think about Sotheby’s Home?
Sotheby’s to me equals old-school chic.