Meet the Assistant profiles the design assistants and associates who work behind-the-scenes with some of the industry’s top designers to help make beautiful spaces come to life.
This week we meet Max Humphrey, Senior Project Manager for Los Angeles based designer Betsy Burnham who is best known for her colorful, whimsical designs that combine East coast elegance with Hollywood glamour. Originally from New Hampshire, Max has worked at Burnham Design for nearly four years and followed an unlikely path into the industry. (He used to be the bass player in a touring punk band!) Max is incredibly funny with a gregarious personality that is infectious and after reading this interview, you’re going to want to become his BFF!
How did you end up in LA?
I drove cross country Grapes of Wrath style the day after I graduated from college to work in TV production – which is what I did until I started playing music full time.
Going from playing bass in a punk band to designing interiors isn’t exactly a natural progression. How did your drastic career change come about?
I had been on tour with my band for a few years and had given up my apartment and gotten rid of basically everything I owned so after spending so much time in hotels and sleeping on couches and floors I think it hit me that I really missed having my own home. After we stopped touring called it quits, I moved into my own place and spent a good part of the following year decorating it and learning about the history of interior design. I didn’t realize there was a professional industry out there until I started researching all the designers I admire from the 60s and 70s like Billy Baldwin and Albert Hadley and David Hicks.
A completed Instant Space project by Burnham Design
What did you study in school?
I went to Emerson College in Boston and studied new media, whatever that means. I wish I did have more formal training and I can’t stand it when people say you don’t really need a design degree to be a designer. There’s definitely a set of rules that you need to learn before you can start breaking them.
How did you land your job working with Betsy?
I saw the job posting online and wrote an enthusiastic cover letter to the office manager explaining that I had no experience but was the right person for the job and she agreed to schedule an interview. Betsy said I was the only person she ever interviewed who showed up without a resume but she liked my outfit so she gave me the job.
What’s your day-to-day like in the office?
We start off most mornings with a status meeting in Betsy’s kitchen over oatmeal and coffee to go over the priorities of the day. Then I go to my desk and put on some opera and check the blogs and auctions I follow and flash sale shopping sites and answer emails. There’s always some designing to do – meaning selecting fabrics and furniture and materials for the newer jobs, and invoicing or following up on orders for jobs that have been designed already and are in the purchasing phase. There’s also a lot of organization – we have a really specific filing system for paperwork and boxes and bins and trays for fabrics, wood samples, carpet, tile and stone, etc. Often before I can get to any of my actual to-do list from the status meeting something new and urgent will come up like we’ll need to reselect something or other or go back through our specs for a job in the construction phase for a contractor who needs an answer immediately. Then I leave for lunch or I go home and walk my dogs. We always have a few instant/space jobs going at once which is our online-only design-in-a-box service and I try and put some work into those every day. Then there’s usually some combination of eating cookies and opening the mail and fine-tuning any of the design work from the morning.
A Great Lakes summer home designed by Betsy Burhnam
What’s been the most memorable project that you worked on with Betsy?
We did a Tudor house in Beverly Hills that was just shot for a magazine that I’m attached to but the most memorable is a summer home on a private island in the upper peninsula of northern Michigan. It’s a really, really special house and the clients are amazing and have incredible taste. It’s close to Canada so it stays light out till 10 o clock at night in the summer. Going there is like vacation even though it’s work.
Your bio on Betsy’s website says you live in a 1920′s apartment accented with vintage Gucci barware and Hermes ashtrays which sounds pretty fab…do you entertain a lot?
No I find entertaining to be a waste of energy which is too bad because I’ve been collecting designer and vintage serveware for a while now and I have some pretty sweet stuff. Lots of chinoiserie Fitz and Floyd and Japanese airline coffee sets by Givenchy and Richard Ginori for Gucci Fine China. I set the table every night and use it myself at least.
Do you have any recent decor discoveries that you’re currently obsessed with?
Yeah I’ve been really into those Lucite and alabaster grape clusters that grandparents always have. Also the work of New York fashion illustrator Richard Haines.
What advice can you share with our readers about decorating on a design assistant’s budget?
My advice is to buy less but buy better. Also, Etsy is a great resource for design stuff. There are Etsy stores that sell pillows made from trade only fabrics and really good vintage furniture that have been professionally reupholstered and refinished. Finally, thrift stores are a really good place to buy coffee table books.
What has been the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from Betsy?
That you eat off silver but you WEAR gold.
Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
In Sweden collecting the Nobel Prize for eBay feedback!
Top photo of Max by Kiya Gibbons for So Haute
All Additional photos from the portfolio of Burnham Design