LA designer Betsy Burnham bridges East Coast and West Coast cool for an aesthetic all her own
Written by Jenn Thornton
For Betsy Burnham, owner and principal designer of LA-based Burnham Design, it’s real simple: “I like an unfussy palette, a laid back attitude and clean, design-modern lines, edited details, contemporary art, and lots of white—all of which are, in my opinion, very SoCal,” says the West Coast designer with East Coast roots.
The Connecticut-born, creatively inclined Burnham found her first professional work in New York fashion. She eventually made her way to Los Angeles, where she and a friend threw elaborate themed fetes. “After a particularly ambitious one,” Burnham recalls, “a guest asked us to design her house. Things grew organically after that; I’ve been working on interiors ever since.” Most prominently through Burnham Design, launched in 2002.
Now, with 20 years in LA (and two kids) under her belt, Burnham considers herself a native, simpatico with SoCal style. “I love how there really are no rules here. I love the bright light, the crisp air, the view of the ocean you can have while you’re standing in the hills,” says the designer, who is known for mixing styles and materials in a collected, high/low aesthetic. “I’m super inspired by indoor/outdoor living, and how casual even the most luxurious homes can feel.” Yet Burnham also is called to “old-school” East Coast classics like vintage rugs, subway tile and wallpaper. The result is a mash-up of bicoastal cool she bestows to projects both near (from Pasadena to Manhattan Beach) and far (from Hawaii to Massachusetts to London).
Unhindered by borders, Burnham is bound only by the limits of her imagination, stirred by an eclectic soup of inspirations—travel, books, street style and daily gratifications Pinterest and Instagram. “People who seek me out as their designer know that I’m not afraid of color or mixing furniture shapes and periods, so most of them are up for a bit of boundary pushing from the start,” Burnham explains. “I encourage clients to invest in some meaningful pieces. I pay attention to trend, but feel design shouldn’t be dictated by it. And importantly, I try not to take myself too seriously.” In Burnham shorthand, this means fabrics that are comfortable and pieces not too precious. “I think that’s why even the highest-end work I’ve done has a relaxed feel,” she says.
Though not a traditionalist, Burnham is drawn to definitive interior elements, from tongue and groove, ceramic tile and painted wood floors to linens and denims, plaids and stripes. Along with something organic in every room—natural woods, hand-thrown pottery, potted trees and houseplants— she relies on vintage pieces to keep a space from looking overly staged. And, she adds, “We encourage all of our clients—if they don’t already—to collect fine art. It doesn’t have to be museum quality! It just has to speak to you.”
Her own dialogue with the living room speaks volumes—it’s a space she loves, as it typically allows for an original furniture plan and top-notch fabrics and furnishings. But, reflecting her New England sensibilities, Burnham says,
“I also love designing kitchens and baths, because those are spaces that endure.”
Which is precisely what Burnham aims to do through her full-service design firm and its virtual arm, Instant/Space, which offers custom-designed spaces, one room at a time, for a flat fee. Ahead for the practice is a ground-up, new build, Nantucket-inspired home in Manhattan Beach; an English Tudor-meets western ranch in Orange County; and a “classic with an edge” residence in Seattle. Also in the works is a small line of upholstered furniture. “And, I keep threatening to put a book proposal together,” the designer divulges. “There’s no shortage of creative ideas—just not a lot of spare time.”
The time that remains, however, is very much of her essence.