Since the inception of her namesake design studio, New York-based interior designer Brett Helsham continues to derive inspiration from her childhood living abroad into each project.
Following a childhood spent traveling and living around the world with her family and watching her mother space planning furniture in a house in one country, and reimagining it in another, Brett Helsham’s journey in interior design quickly took off. Her projects often play on the juxtaposition between calm, classic choices, and lively accessorizing with a citizen-of-the-world openness that informs her work.
Tell us about yourself. Your background, where you grew up, etc.
Born to an Australian father and American mother, I was born and raised in Hong Kong until about the age of 8/9. We moved to Michigan for a few months, where my mother is from, and then Cleveland, Ohio. After freshman year in Ohio, we moved to Seoul, South Korea for my sophomore and junior year, and completed high school in Brussels, Belgium. I did my first year of University in Florence, Italy, and finished at NYU in Manhattan, where I’ve been ever since!! A global nomad if you will!
How did you get into the work that you do, and where did your journey begin?
One would say my design journey was innate, watching my mother spearhead moves around the world, space planning furniture in a house in one country, and reimagining it in another. Every move was not only an opportunity for her to explore the current country and culture, and pepper in furniture, art, and design elements from each, but for myself as well. I’ll never forget when she painted my sister’s room on all four walls with scenes from Where the Wild Things Are, complete with a tent as a bed! I hate to call her an amateur because she is so talented, but I had never even heard of the words “interior designer” until I was in college living in New York. I started my post-collegiate career in PR for high-end fashion for mainly Italian brands, but fashion, although appreciated, was never my thing. But, as the story goes, I was given the opportunity to work on a friend’s daughter’s apartment who needed help moving to the city. It felt natural, and it suddenly clicked. I bribed all my friends to do their apartments to put a portfolio together, applied to Grad School in 2009, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Tell us about Brett Helsham Designs. What is the origin story and the mission?
I started my namesake studio in 2014, after working for two formidable firms, Wettling Architects and Mr. Call Designs. Both are still my friends and mentors and they gave me the tools and confidence to be able to go on my own. I hear this a lot with people that started their own companies but it was the same for me — the opportunity presented itself to me to go out on my own, (a juicy gut renovation!) and I took it! The mission is simple — listen to my clients, hear what they really want, and work with them to create spaces that reflect who they are and how they live. Through the often long process, I give them the tools to make informed choices, so after I’m long gone (and waiting to do their next home!!) they can feel confident about purchasing items that add to making their house feel like a grounded home. But also — it has to be fun. I’ve never had one project where shit doesn’t hit the fan, so the mission has to involve trust, patience, and the ability to have fun together. Otherwise, it’s not worth it for me, no matter the scope.
Growing up you lived all around the world, how does this play into your design sensibility and aesthetic?
Growing up around the world I have been given a first-hand look at how a certain culture defines beauty. I have a penchant for finding small design studios from around the world doing interesting things that I can add to my interiors. What interests me more than those aesthetics, however, is how cultures treat a space. In Asia, you take your shoes off when you enter the house and the culture around building homes and starting new businesses in Korea revolves around prayers and pig heads! Many cultures revolve around food and cooking where kitchens are important, and others it’s about how the family gathers around the table. So for me, before I even ask the questions like “what is your favorite color,” I like to get into the psychology of how a client uses the space. The aesthetics always comes after.
How would you describe your style? Are there certain elements you aim to blend into every project you work on?
Unbound by the rules of a rigid aesthetic, I believe my work is unfussy, beautiful, and effortlessly cool. My projects often play on the juxtaposition between calm, classic choices for furniture and lively accessorizing with a citizen-of-the-world openness that informs my work from my extensive living abroad. A fan of patterned wallpaper, I have a knack for finding fun choices for each client. But often, those fun choices have been collected over time from the client themselves. I encourage those that collect, whether that’s pottery from Portugal or photography from the middle east, that we find a spot for those because those elements are what really, to me, make a house a home.
“It’s my job to gently push the boundaries for clients to see not only their's but their space's full potential. And it’s often uncomfortable. It’s human nature to want to play it safe, but why pay a lot of money for safe!”
Can you touch on some major projects you’ve worked on in the past and point out which one you’re most proud of and why?
To point out which is my favorite project is a difficult question to answer! But most notably I’d have to say the hotel project we worked on in Miami a few years ago. We spent over a year designing and getting approvals from the city to build, and right before we were supposed to break ground, an investor pulled out, and the project was put on hold. Although I don’t have pretty pictures, I think the process from start to finish has been the most fun. To give an inanimate object, such as a building, a personality, a name, a life, a pulse, is thrilling! Of course, it was the most inspiring design, and I worked with a great group of people on the project. But I also learned how fragile the industry is, and just because you have good ideas, and an excellent team and the infrastructure seems to be there, it can be pulled out from under you at any moment. That has stuck with me.
The pandemic has caused a sea of changes in every which way but especially how we live at home. How has it shaped your way of work, your client’s needs and the future of the interior design industry?
The pandemic has truly changed the way we work, and I’m personally interested to see what happens in the coming months/years with what it means to work from home. Many new clients have told me that their offices have closed, people will work from home moving forward and they are looking for conference rooms or spaces to be client-facing. For us personally, we are such a hands-on industry. With my clients, I must sit in and see a space, feel fabrics, measure, etc. In this day and age, especially with technology, I can send a FedEx package and we can have an “in-person” Zoom call with just doubles of the materials. I have already been doing that with my out-of-town clients, so when the pandemic hit, it was no big deal to have these Zoom meetings, I just wore pants with more give.
That being said, clients have definitely prioritized what “home office” means to them — whether that’s turning a guest room into an office, a corner of a bedroom into one, etc. Most New York apartments are multi-use, so it has been really fun navigating this for clients, making sure they stay happy, and healthy mentally at home by carving out a space that inspires them. I’m ready to get back to the office every day, personally!
What is your creative philosophy?
OH lord. There’s a lot that goes into it, but in essence, making my clients uncomfortable. At the root of it, I’m a problem solver. Bound by the confines of four (or so) walls, a budget, and often many voices that want to be heard (two partners and maybe kids), I’m hired to make magic. If it was easy, or if they had the time, clients would do it for themselves. But it’s not. They might have an idea they want in mind, but it’s my job to gently push the boundaries for clients to see not only their’s but their space’s full potential. And it’s often uncomfortable. It’s human nature to want to play it safe, but why pay a lot of money for safe! So how do we push the envelope to make that new and unique, getting out of our comfort zones, to make magic?