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Layers of Meaning: Betsy Burnham





[Photography, Barbara Davidson for Los Angeles Times]

Dartmouth College grad (cum laude no less) Betsy Burnham has a style that defies easy classification. She’s an unapologetic mixer, liberally layering pattern, texture and periods in most all of her interior design projects. Her background is in fashion — one of her stints was as Head of Studio Services for the GAP where she worked with costume designers placing merchandise into film and television — and I think this sartorial flair shines through in her rooms.



In addition to her high-end projects based in L.A., Burnham offers an alternative online design service, Instant Space, for clients willing to do their own leg-work. Through these long distance endeavors, Burnham and her team of five have learned some tricks that they generously took time to share.




Kelly Galvin Robson, Director of Instant Space, says “One thing I have noticed personally is that all of my Instant Space projects tend to include something black, something Asian, something vintage, and something with animal print. I think that including such classic design motifs in modern ways can keep your room fresh without ever looking dated.” If a client seeks a more contemporary look, the Burnham team suggests coordinating curtains with the wall color. This monochromatic approach can make a room seem sleeker.



[Above, before and after of chairs Betsy recently recovered in an ostrich vinyl for her own kitchen; below, a footstool recovered in a vintage fabric remnant.]


In terms of upholstery, Betsy and her colleagues advise looking very carefully at a large sample of the fabric you wish to use. That way, you will get a better sense of the repeat, as small swatches are very limiting. Kelly adds, “Some fabrics always seem to lend themselves to a certain style. For example, tweeds usually come out with a nod to mid-century design, if that is the look you want. We don’t really care for tiny prints, they turn out too sweet. Keep the tiny prints for pillows, where we think they belong.”

Betsy also loves to railroad stripe fabrics for a fresher look. For example Kelly says, “A horizontally striped sofa is a fresh look on a classic style. Or, drapery with stripes running horizontally can really add some interest.”

Have you ever scored a tiny amount of high-end fabric on eBay? Try using it for a lamp shade, a foot stool, a throw pillow, or upholster the backs of your dining chairs.



The Burnham Team on holiday wrapping:

Betsy likes to wrap everything using only two colors; one year Burnham Design wrapped everything in white shiny bags with ivory grosgrain ribbon.

Max, a design assistant, likes to use recycled materials. He tries to incorporate fabric remnants or wallpaper samples.

Rebecca, a project manager, pairs plain butcher paper with fancy ribbon.

Kelly’s favorite thing is to wrap everything in two-color graphically printed paper, and use an oversize satin ribbon in a contrasting color. For example, black-and-white printed paper with a giant three-inch green satin ribbon, or cheetah print paper with an oversized red satin ribbon.

Paper shown above available through Kate’s Paperie; ribbon is from M & J Trimming.

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Things That Inspire

What a great post! There are dozens of wonderful tips in all of your posts this week. Particularly timely since I am in the process of redoing a pair of old chairs!

Joni Webb

Great post! I love the way you included the wrapping paper in this post’!!! Great job all week, Courtney.


love betsy- i had the privilege of being exposed to her work long before she was ever published, and have been a huge fan ever since- thanks for the great post, style court!


This was such a great post. Betsy has wonderful taste and I love the way she mixes and layers. Your guest blog here is phenomenal. I always look forward to reading your postings.


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