Charles Burkhalter

Featured image

Interior designer Charles Burkhalter set up his own firm fifteen years ago having come to New York via Florida, where he grew up, and Nantucket where he first started doing design work for store interiors and restaurants. He shares an airy TriBeCa loft with his husband, art photographer Arne Svenson and together they orchestrated the purchase of the entire building by the other residents as well as partly overseeing the subsequent renovation throughout. As for their own space, it is Arne who collects all the taxidermy and it is Charles who lets him. But then again, as Arne puts it, “Charles is the best designer. He allows me to fulfill my every wish, and then he’ll make it aesthetically pleasing.”

In the private elevator landing, a prosthetic leg tucked under a small vintage hospital table along with a display of laboratory equipment, make for an unusual welcome.

So you when you very first started out, you were living on Nantucket and you were helping to design store interiors and restaurants and doing flower displays there, is that right?

Yes—I always loved sailing and these other things started to happen by word of mouth. It was in the seventies … part of it was that all these summerhouses back then, people would come for two weeks and not come any more. And they all had amazing gardens—I would just go pick the flowers and use them for displays! One day I was doing the flowers for a place when Billy Baldwin, who was always so nice to me, walked by. I almost had a heart attack because I didn’t know he was on the island and I had just gone to his garden the night before and picked flowers! (laughs uproariously) … and he told me how beautiful they were! I just felt horrible! There he was complimenting the flowers that came out of his garden! 

He didn’t recognize them?!

No! You know there was a young man about my age at that time, and he did odd jobs. But the thing that everyone knew was that he never had a house—he crashed in all the empty houses around the island. But he was very respectful and he never stole anything … [laughs] I once met a guy who was going through a bad divorce and he invited me out to his incredible house, then he said the divorce was driving him crazy and that he wanted to get off the island. He asked me if I would like to live in it for a month while he was away—and I’d only just met him the night before!

In a corner of the library, a taxidermied owl stands guard on top of black curio cabinet from Aero. An antique gold 19th century mirror hangs above a vintage Dunbar sofa; various objects under glass including an antique Chinese head are arranged on a vintage Danish rosewood coffee table. On the window ledge is an antique Japanese mask mold.
Another view of the library. Standing between the two front windows is a handcrafted oak table with taxidermied legs. A mix of various artists’ works, including clockwise from upper left, Elliott Green, Ajit Chauhan, Richard Serra, Gregory Amenoff, Arne Svenson, Eve Fowler and Seton Smith. The lounge chair is vintage Alvar Aalto and is covered in a Maharan fabric. The floor lamps in opposite corners are vintage Sirmos (left) and vintage Laurel “Mushroom” lamp (right).
The library book case is also a place to display art and objects including marble urns from India. Nearby a taxidermied coyote stands under a painting by Kris Chatterson (top) and Brian Rutenberg.
A vintage taxidermied lion’s paw and a zebra cigarette box come from the collection of actor Stewart Granger.
Looking west across the library. The Danish coffee table displays an array of objects under glass, a marble bowl from Donghia and a ceramic vase by Dena Zemsky. The custom carpet is by Joseph Carini.

How do you inspire so much trust so quickly?

It was a different time.

Did you have any clients in New York when you moved here to be with Arne?

No! Nothing! 

How did you get your first job then?

I got a job through a woman I had met on Nantucket—I worked for a firm that did showroom and store interiors … I wasn’t a sophisticated New Yorker and I didn’t know the rules of New York. The first residential job I got was doing up an apartment for a [client’s] girlfriend that he didn’t want anybody to know about … [laughs loudly] I played dumb. I knew what I was doing.

More views of the library wall. A vintage Rya pillow adds a pop of color to Dunbar sofa. The standing lamp is vintage Sirmos.
Intriguing objects and sculpture arranged atop the library coffee table.
L. to r.: A detail of the head from the Chinese Wax Museum under a glass cloche; A ceramic vessel by artist Dena Zemsky.
Victorian hair art, circa 1861, in the form of a family tree, in a handmade leather frame.
L. to r.: A detail of the taxidermied owl; An unusual crystal rock specimen and an antique Tibetan singing bowl and hand.
Two Victorian dioramas placed beside a glass cabinet that displays objects from travels.
Another Victorian diorama stands in front of a group of bonsai trees.

Sounds like you did know the New York rules. What was it that people liked about your style?

I think part of it was that number one, I listened to what they wanted. If you’re doing something, it’s got to represent them, not me. But back then, in the eighties, the fashion and design world of New York was still fun.

Why is it not fun now?

It’s all about the numbers now. Back then there was fantasy. There was magic! People were willing to take risk. Now everything is so plotted out.

How would you describe your own style?

I always like the bones of a place—but then I like very eclectic objects. I hate—I shouldn’t say ‘I hate’—but I don’t like going into design projects where it doesn’t look like anyone lives there or if they do live there, how could they possibly live there?

A view across the living and dining area. A vintage Saarinen coffee table with a walnut top stands in front of a white leather sofa. Hanging above the sofa are vintage vernacular photographs of NYC bridges. A mosaic side table is filled with antique Japanese floats. The side chairs are vintage Hans Wegner with a fabric from Maharam.
In the dining area vintage Good Form chairs with their original upholstery surround a Le Corbusier LC6 dining table. The photographs are all by Arne and the cast bronze sculpture on top of the table is by William Neil. Nearby the antique Chinese console displays more treasured objects displayed under glass cloches.

The open kitchen includes custom birch wood cabinets with black granite tops. The stools are by Jasper Morrison. The candle stand is actually an antique Japanese iron stand.

How often do you find people living in places with no personal touch?

Oh yeah, often. But I’m lucky that I’ve worked with people who will take a bit of risk. I have one client and you walk into her living room and the walls are high gloss orange with a purple couch. We had a ball! There’s a Joseph Carini runner in the hallway that is leopard print but it’s in fuchsia and teal! And there’s a tiger skin in pink and green! 

There is this sense of transience now though in furnishing your home—people don’t buy things that they’re going to have forever.

I know someone who went to clear out her mother’s home and she said that she would send me photographs of what I thought she should keep. I said, “If you love it, just ship it.” There was a carpet she really loved but she said that it didn’t go with anything she had. I said, “Ship it.” Well, the carpet got back—it’s now outside her study and looks gorgeous even though it doesn’t look like any other rug in the house but she said, “It gives me such joy. Every day I walk over this rug and I think of my mother.” I think that is missing these days.

The master bedroom of the downtown loft that Charles shares with his husband, art photographer Arne Svenson. Hanging above the bed is one of Arne’s photographs. The bedside tables are vintage Russell Wright and the bedside lamps are Artemide Tolomeo. A portrait of Arne by an anonymous artist hangs between curtains in custom velvet from Rogers and Goffigon. The custom rug is by Joseph Carini.
In the master bedroom, a vintage table lamp by Gerda Svenson-Larson and an antique Japanese sewing box are arranged on top of a vintage George Nelson dresser. Nearby a vintage Greta Grossman “Grasshopper” floor lamp stands near an Eames rocking chair.
L. to r.: A detail of the antique Japanese sewing box along with a 19th century horn mount from Austria; A vintage rubber Johnny Appleseed is protected under a glass cloche. Swedish Dala horses, on a try from Made Good, are grouped together.
The draperies in the master bedroom are custom velvet from Rogers and Goffigan.
In the master bath, Thomas O’Brien sconces flank a medicine cabinet by Robern. A Swedish blackbird carving serves as a charming towel holder. The vintage poster with an image by Arne was created for a performance of the band “Indoor Life”
Another view of the master bath. A collection of 19th and 20th century silhouettes and horn mounts on a wall above a vintage Saarinen marble “Tulip” table. The small table clock is by George Nelson.
A detail guest bathroom photo shows the exposed original arch of the building. An antique kimono stand is transformed into a towel rack and stands next to a vintage sink and fixtures.

What kind of things do you like to do when you’re not working?

We travel—I love the water, so we go back to Florida and Nantucket or we go to Hawaii. We went out to Sante Fe—we went to the opera. We’re not really into opera so much but the Sante Fe opera house is so spectacular. We also travel with these friends who live in Texas. We went to Tibet. Arne won’t travel with her and I unless her husband comes and the husband won’t travel with her and I unless Arne comes. She and I—if you see her, you would never expect she would want to go somewhere like Tibet. I mean they don’t have hair dryers … and she’s always done! She’s coiffed! But she and I go on the roughest trips and have amazing experiences.

Arne’s studio: photographs from Arne’s series “In the Window” and “Wilderness” hang on the rear wall.
Photographs from Arne’s “Wildness” series.
A taxidermied fox head and alligator make themselves known on a wooden support beam in Arne’s studio.

And do you cook? What do you cook that Arne likes to eat?

Steak, potatoes and a salad … and I’m a vegetarian!

Did your life turn out the way you thought it was going to turn out?

You know, being raised in Florida by a very conservative father, I’m one of five children. We begged my parents to divorce—they had a horrible marriage … my father had a demolition company, which meant he tore down whole towns. So I always think it’s funny that I grew up with a father who tore things down and I have spent my life building things.

Beloved “Monkey” eyeing us from the windowsill.

Recent Posts