In­te­rior De­signer, Joan Behnke

Cre­at­ing a har­mo­nious in­te­rior ex­pe­ri­ence

Upscale Living Magazine - - Content - | BY HELÉNE RAMACKERS Pho­tographs cour­tesy of Karyn Mil­let

You are a world-renowned in­te­rior de­signer. Did you have an in­flu­ence in your youth that shaped your ca­reer path?

My fam­ily shared cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ences in all forms with me from lit­er­ally the time I was born. Mu­sic was al­ways on in the even­ing, mu­se­ums were a reg­u­lar form of en­ter­tain­ment, go­ing to the theatre was part of our life. Art classes were pro­vided as ex­tracur­ric­u­lar ac­tiv­i­ties and we trav­eled a great deal. My fam­ily cer­tainly ex­posed me to beau­ti­ful cul­tural ex­pe­ri­ences.

When and why did you de­cide to be­come an in­te­rior de­signer?

I was al­ways de­sign­ing var­i­ous things from car­pets to clothes, to dorm rooms for friends and my older sis­ter. It was se­cond na­ture, so I didn’t think of it as a ca­reer un­til I had worked in ad­ver­tis­ing, and in an ar­chi­tec­ture of­fice. Af­ter the birth of my first son, my par­ents en­cour­aged me to go back to school to get an in­te­rior de­sign de­gree. They could tell that it was a mo­ment in time that I could ex­plore some­thing that they knew all along I would ex­cel at. I was ma­ture enough to take their ad­vice and the de­sign classes were like candy; they didn’t feel like work and it was a pas­sion that I fi­nally could con­nect to a ca­reer.

You started your de­sign firm Joan Behnke & As­so­ciates in 1999 and nine­teen years later, you are still go­ing strong. What and who in­spires you?

My de­sign sense was fairly well es­tab­lished from the time I was grow­ing up in San Fran­cisco. My par­ents had Ja­panese an­tiques and so I was al­ways drawn to the Wabi Sabi, Ja­panese aes­thetic. I tell all my de­sign­ers in my of­fice to read, “In Praise of Shad­ows”. It is an old book for ar­chi­tects and de­sign­ers writ­ten from the Ja­panese point of view. The au­thor de­scribes aes­thet­i­cally how a bowl of white rice in a beau­ti­ful black lac­quer bowl is more beau­ti­ful be­cause of the high con­trasts in color and tex­ture. This is just one ex­am­ple of how to take de­sign to a dif­fer­ent in­tel­lec­tual level, that af­fects aes­thetic de­ci­sions. There are of course many peo­ple along the way that have pro­vided in­spi­ra­tion, but I try and go back to the ba­sics.

What are / have been your big­gest chal­lenges in your ca­reer?

I un­ex­pect­edly be­came a sin­gle mom, when I was fin­ish­ing de­sign school and very quickly had to sup­port my­self and my two boys. I had planned on mak­ing de­sign a ca­reer but eas­ing into the pro­fes­sion a lit­tle more slowly than what tran­spired with two chil­dren un­der the age of four. To prove my­self, I had to work very hard, which some­times en­tailed long hours that kept me away from be­ing with my kids. I was in sur­vival mode, with one clear de­sire, to pro­vide a life sim­i­lar to the one I had grow­ing up, and that meant be­ing able to pro­vide op­por­tu­ni­ties to travel in­ter­na­tion­ally; to make them worldly and ex­pose them to the

“I al­ways tell younger de­sign­ers that be­ing eth­i­cal and re­spect­ful of clients’ trust and their money will pro­vide op­por­tu­ni­ties in the fu­ture. I think re­main­ing hum­ble

is the best ap­proach.”

dif­fer­ent cul­tures. Hope­fully, they can pass the same pas­sion on to their own chil­dren one day.

Im­por­tant lessons along the way?

I al­ways tell younger de­sign­ers that be­ing eth­i­cal and re­spect­ful of clients’ trust and their money will pro­vide op­por­tu­ni­ties in the fu­ture. I think re­main­ing hum­ble is the best ap­proach.

The fa­vorite part of your job?

I love the front end and very back end of the projects. The front end is get­ting to know the clients and heavy on de­sign­ing. The mid­dle is a tremen­dous amount of or­ga­niz­ing, paper work and fol­low through. The best part of the mid­dle can be work­ing with the in­di­vid­ual trades peo­ple and work­ing through prob­lems. The back end is the in­stal­la­tion and it is hav­ing a chance to see all the hard work come to fruition. Our goal is al­ways to ex­ceed our clients’ ex­pec­ta­tions and we have been re­ally for­tu­nate to work with some in­cred­i­bly ap­pre­cia­tive clients over the years, which makes all of the hard work ab­so­lutely worth it.

What is the best thing about be­ing an in­te­rior de­signer?

The best thing about our work is that ev­ery day is dif­fer­ent and that ev­ery day is about cre­ative prob­lem solv­ing. It keeps you on your toes, never gets bor­ing and can be very re­ward­ing.

And the worst?

The worst thing is be­ing caught emo­tion­ally in the mid­dle of peo­ple that ex­pect that the in­te­rior de­sign will fix all their per­sonal prob­lems. We have had the priv­i­lege of work­ing on some very large homes and the risk is that cou­ples stop com­mu­ni­cat­ing when the homes get too large. At that point I re­mind them to go camp­ing and share a tent.

Tell us about your home (s), what is your dec­o­rat­ing style and do you have a fa­vorite room (s) in your house?

We work on ev­ery con­ceiv­able style of home from mod­ern to rus­tic to fancy French, etc... Our style re­lates to the ar­chi­tec­ture and the de­sire of the clients and in­fus­ing a sense of unique­ness with cus­tom el­e­ments. We do not like things over­done or too fussy. My own home is filled with art, both large and small, that I have col­lected from all the places I have vis­ited in the world and of course Ja­panese an­tiques. The art I bring home are lit­tle pieces of an ad­ven­ture that you get to keep as short­cuts to re­liv­ing your trav­els.

What key pieces in your home can you not live with­out?

I have one piece of art that gives me great plea­sure. I bought it many years ago at a side walk art sale and it is a char­coal of a lit­tle Mo­roc­can boy asleep on a ledge. I have of­ten said that if the house caught on fire I would grab this piece. I have no idea if it is worth any­thing, but the qual­ity of the draw­ing is im­pec­ca­ble. That along with per­sonal mem­o­ries of my chil­dren would be car­ried out the door.

Do you have dif­fer­ent taste in in­te­rior de­sign of your part­ner / hus­band and how do you ne­go­ti­ate / solve that am­i­ca­bly?

My hus­band com­pletely de­fers to me with re­gard to furniture and fab­rics. I al­ways in­clude him, but he tends to just let me make those de­ci­sions. As far as the art se­lec­tions, some­times we end up with two pieces if we can­not de­cide what to bring home. They rep­re­sent a shared ex­pe­ri­ence, so it is fine with me if it is not my first choice.

Talk us through a time­less in­te­rior de­sign style.

I think time­less­ness is about qual­ity and neu­trals. If you don’t want some­thing to go out of style, keep to neu­tral col­ors. They al­ways can be ac­cented with pil­lows, art and ac­ces­sories. Qual­ity is im­por­tant be­cause if some­thing is made well, you want to hold on to it. If it is poorly made, you are al­ways re­minded that it is just that. I would rather have fewer items that are spe­cial and of high qual­ity than a bunch of junk.

How im­por­tant is it to ac­ces­sorize?

We fin­ish out our homes with ac­ces­sories /art and they can be per­sonal items from some­one’s own col­lec­tion or ad­di­tional items we have found and rec­om­mend. They help to make a house into a home and re­flect the over­all style of the house. It is hard to find good ac­ces­sories and also not to se­lect the same ones again and again. It is al­ways a bit of a bat­tle at the end of the project. I love items from around the world, but we do not ware­house items for this pur­pose.

Is there a right and wrong when it comes to dec­o­rat­ing? Please ex­plain.

I think we all know when some­thing is done right and you fold down the cor­ner of a page in a magazine be­cause ev­ery­thing just works in the pho­to­graph. Per­sonal taste is ob­vi­ously a fac­tor, but there is a uni­ver­sal lan­guage that is not about out­ra­geous taste or shock­ing the eye. There have been some de­sign­ers that aim to start trends. The ques­tion is how last­ing are those de­signs? Good taste, well done homes have longevity and don’t go in and out of style.

How does one keep things mod­ern / time­less with­out hav­ing to break the bank?

One way to keep bud­gets un­der con­trol is to find good pieces that need to be re­fur­bished or re­uphol­stered. Bring­ing a piece back to life by chang­ing the fin­ish or find­ing a new won­der­ful fab­ric and re­uphol­ster­ing the item can re­ally help with start­ing out on a bud­get. I found two chairs on the side­walk re­cently that a neigh­bor was giv­ing away. I had two more made iden­ti­cally and se­lected some great leather and made them for my son’s home. They cost a frac­tion of buy­ing some­thing new that was of a lesser qual­ity.

Do you be­lieve in re­pur­pos­ing dated pieces or should one just shop for new ones?

I very much be­lieve in re­pur­pos­ing older items. Uphol­ster­ers can change the shape of an arm, the back height, the den­sity of a cush­ion etc. It is much more eco­log­i­cal as well. Case pieces can be al­tered with new fin­ishes and new hard­ware. It is a cre­ative process and if the piece is no longer good for you, find some­one else that will ap­pre­ci­ate it. It is al­ways nice to do­nate items.

You have done some ex­quis­ite in­te­ri­ors, for celebri­ties and high-pro­file clients. What chal­lenges did you face and how did you over­come / em­brace them?

The risk of be­com­ing fa­mous is that you start to be­lieve you are more spe­cial than oth­ers. Tom Brady and Giselle Bünd­chen are the nicest peo­ple in the world and I would do any­thing for them. They have man­aged to re­main hum­ble and kind de­spite their fame. I con­sider them friends. Wealthy clients that are self-con­fi­dent are fan­tas­tic. They let you do your best work and trust in them­selves that they have made a choice to hire you based on solid de­ci­sions.

What ethos do you have be­hind your de­signs?

I see in­te­rior de­sign like sculp­ture and want the ex­pe­ri­ence for the end user to be much more than walls, fin­ishes, lay­outs, furniture, fab­rics and light­ing. It is about the whole of the de­sign. It is ide­ally con­cep­tual and in­tel­lec­tu­ally driven and aes­thet­i­cally sur­pris­ing. It is a tall or­der we put on our de­sign process in our of­fice, but worth it in the end, as it is an ex­plo­ration into a more evolved deeper sense of com­mit­ment to the process. A fin­ished home should feel like a sym­phony; beau­ti­ful in­di­vid­ual con­tri­bu­tions that com­ple­ment each other, cre­at­ing a har­mo­nious ex­pe­ri­ence.

Have there been projects that you have de­clined? If yes, why?

Tak­ing on a project is like a blind

date un­less it is for a client that you have worked with on a pre­vi­ous job. You do your best to as­sess the chal­lenges and po­ten­tial joys ver­sus dif­fi­cul­ties. The best clients trust who they have hired and let you do your work with­out get­ting too overly in­volved.

De­scribe your­self in three words.

Cre­ative, hard­work­ing and cu­ri­ous.

You travel for busi­ness, and hope­fully plea­sure too. Which have been your fa­vorite places to travel to that have left a last­ing im­pres­sion?

I have been for­tu­nate enough to travel to many won­der­ful places. I have a weak­ness for Sardegna, Italy. It is a very spe­cial is­land that has last­ing mem­o­ries for me when I worked com­mut­ing from LA to Italy monthly. I could be dropped off on the is­land, blind­folded, and know I was there. The smells are par­tic­u­lar to the is­land, the peo­ple are fan­tas­tic, the crafts are amaz­ing and the ar­chi­tec­ture is one of a kind and so free of sym­me­try. I also love many parts of Asia, par­tic­u­larly Myan­mar. I spent three weeks there a few years back and loved the fact that my email didn’t work, credit cards were use­less, and I was able to be fully present with­out the dis­trac­tions of our mod­ern world. The beau­ti­ful Bud­dhist tem­ples of Ba­gan were a pris­tine set­ting that only made the peo­ple, food and ex­pe­ri­ence all the more mag­i­cal.

What do you do for fun?

I have many fun things that I do, travel, spend­ing time with my fam­ily and friends and very im­por­tant are my dance classes. I have been a stu­dent of dance since I was very young and stud­ied it very se­ri­ously through col­lege and for years af­ter. I cur­rently take con­tem­po­rary, bal­let and hip-hop classes each week.

If you hadn’t be­come an in­te­rior de­signer, what would you have be­come?

I would be a dance chore­og­ra­pher. When I watch pro­fes­sional com­pa­nies, I look for spa­tial de­signs that I can ap­ply to in­te­ri­ors and I am sure I would do the re­verse if I was a chore­og­ra­pher.

Any ex­cit­ing plans on the hori­zon?

I am trav­el­ing to south­ern Spain in the fall to ex­pe­ri­ence the beauty of An­dalu­sia and the Al­ham­bra. It has been on my list for some time to see and very ex­cited to ex­pe­ri­ence it first­hand. Trav­el­ing to places I’ve yet to visit pro­vides an op­por­tu­nity to meet lo­cal ar­ti­sans and ex­pand my aware­ness of the crafts­man­ship of the re­gion, as well as the re­sources. It truly is an ed­u­ca­tion and I look for­ward to the process of dis­cov­er­ing new in­spi­ra­tions. www.joan­behnke.com

About the pho­tog­ra­pher | An award-win­ning pho­tog­ra­pher, Karyn Mil­let’s im­ages of lux­ury homes and com­mer­cial build­ings have ap­peared in the na­tion’s lead­ing travel, de­sign and ar­chi­tec­ture pub­li­ca­tions. Her pho­to­graphic art­work has gar­nered four solo shows and she has pho­tographed four books, in­clud­ing The Well-Dressed Home (Clark­son Pot­ter) and The Ac­ci­den­tal Pho­tog­ra­pher: Dare to Do Some­thing Dif­fer­ent (Bel­lus Press). She is cur­rently work­ing on her fifth book. Lead­ing hos­pi­tal­ity venues in­clud­ing The Bev­erly Hills Ho­tel, Mon­tage Re­sorts, The Grand Del Mar, and The Bev­erly Hilton are among her clients with many in­stalling her vivid im­ages in their ho­tels. A re­cip­i­ent of the il­lus­tri­ous “Stars of De­sign” Award for Pho­tog­ra­phy, Mil­let is an in­vet­er­ate trav­eler and ex­plorer who is al­ways look­ing for the per­fect shot, be it a home, re­sort or spe­cial undis­cov­ered beach. CBS LA named Mil­let one of the “Best Pho­tog­ra­phers to Fol­low on In­sta­gram.” In 2017, she launched the In­sta­gram magazine, Krush iMag, a 10-page glimpse at dec­o­rat­ing and style trends.

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