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.”
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!
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.