“I love anything vintage,” says designer Betsy Burnham. “If something’s authentic, that’s so meaningful to me.” So when the opportunity to reimagine a 1930s house in Santa Monica for longtime clients came to her and her partner, Max Humphrey, they leapt at it. “The proportions of the rooms are classic, and the built-ins are original,” she says. “It was my dream come true.”
The homeowners, already at ease with Burnham’s and Humphrey’s deft way with pattern and color, were ready to go big. In their previous residence, also from the ’30s, “the spaces were smaller, so the bold statement didn’t have to be as bold,” Burnham says. “In this new home, we wanted to have some fun.” To that end, Burnham and Humphrey used fabrics, wallcoverings and carpets with eye-catching designs: geometrics, animal prints and folk and tribal patterns. This mix begins in the entry, where a vintage Qashqai rug mingles with side chairs covered in a leopard print and walls sheathed in a more traditional design. “I’m obsessed with wallpaper,” the wife says. “It brings color and pattern, and it’s unexpected.”
A well-crafted palette holds the key to the mix’s success. As Humphrey explains: “The house feels really open. When you’re standing in one room or a hallway, you can see a few other rooms, so the palette of the dining room had to flow with the entry, which flows with the great room.” Burnham adds, “Even though it looks like there’s all kinds of color, the palette is restrained. In the great room, for example, there’s a lot of brown, black and red. And there’s also a lot of white. We have a classic backdrop for this really layered Bohemian vibe.”
Burnham and Humphrey brought a similarly dynamic feel to the furnishings. The home is bursting with eye candy, from the pagoda-style mirror in the entry to the vintage gilt Italian coffee table in the great room, a chinoiserie cabinet in an upstairs hallway and a raspberry lacquered campaign desk in the wife’s office. The design duo incorporated the family’s own pieces, too, giving a set of Frances Elkins-style chairs a spot in the great room. Though content to let the pair work their magic, the wife did offer the inspiration for the dining room table. “There was a vintage piece in a magazine that caught her eye,” says Burnham. “And so we worked with a local metalworker, redesigned it and built it custom.” With a polished-brass base and a generous 72-inch glass top, it commands the square room.
The main goal was to jazz up the interiors, but the home also had to be livable. “The first time, they were just starting out. Now, they have three kids, so it’s a completely different ballgame,” Burnham says. “We were mindful that they were going to be playing hard and living hard, so in some cases, we used outdoor fabric indoors. And we also incorporated medium-to-darker colors for the bigger pieces. Everything is kid-friendly but still very stylish.”
Although they made no structural changes to the house, Burnham and Humphrey planned the existing spaces to make the most of them. The great room, for example, comprises three functional areas—a TV-watching space with a big sectional sofa; an adjacent cocktail area, where the grown-ups can enjoy a drink while the kids are watching television or playing Xbox; and a spot with a game table that doubles as an extra dining table. The designers maintained the home’s original built-in cabinets, but they made a small adjustment in the great room for modern living. “Those fabulous bookcases go around that big room, but there wasn’t enough space for a modern-day television,” Burnham says. “So we did a little bit of a redesign on the front cabinet so it could house a flat-screen TV and audiovisual equipment underneath.”
Outside, landscape designer Lizz Speed maintained the house’s 1930s spirit, while providing lush, functional spaces for a 21st-century family. “I leveled the front yard and created a new walkway and entrance,” Speed says. She also removed a large, failing tree and replaced it with a bench that pays homage to it. “The clients can sit there and have coffee and watch their kids play,” she says. Roses, privet hedges, flowering plum trees and Little Gem magnolia trees dot the property. Around back, Speed created plenty of space for entertaining.
As much as the house’s vintage charms were a dream come true for Burnham, her clients’ openness was equally delightful. “We’ve worked with Betsy and Max for a long time, so there’s a trust level,” says the wife, now happily settled with her family in their vibrant new digs. “Usually, their first choice is also mine.” Adds Burnham, “They’re always up for things that will inspire conversation, and that’s exciting.”