Featured August 31, 2002·Magazine
The world outside Diane Burn's apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side is strictly 21st-century New York. Double-parked trucks clog the streets, taxicabs honk and play dodgem, and pedestrians skitter across at the risk of their lives when green Walk signs suddenly flash red Don't Walk.
The world inside the designer's apartment is nicely described by the most famous lines of the Symbolist poet Charles Baudelaire: "There, all is order and beauty/luxury, calm, and voluptuousness."
"I admire designers who are versatile, but I'm like a composer whose works you can always recognize," Burn says. "I have a signature look. I'm not able to do contemporary or Asian or early American. I stick with 18th-century and 19th-century European romantic."
Burn went to see 120 apartments before buying a fourroom penthouse with ceilings that are 101/2 feet high. "I've led a gypsy life, and I've decorated my way through it for myself and for clients," she says.
"I admire designers who are versatile, but I'm like a composer whose works you can always recognize. I have a signature look."
Burn grew up in Salt Lake City, moved to San Francisco and has lived in Italy and France, "where I've been spoiled by ceilings that are 16 feet high. I ruled out places with low ceilings as quickly as I ruled out places that were dark. This apartment is small, but it has a wraparound terrace that doubles its size, and it's filled with light."
The apartment's chartreuse walls were anything but romantic. Easily remedied: Burn and artist Joe Salazar glazed the walls of every room. "Glazing is hard work," says Burn. "You mix many colors, and then you apply them with a motion that's like washing walls but a little more complicated. You do it a hundred times." In the living room and bedroom, Burn collaborated with another artist, Ann Aubergonois, on the design of the grisaille arabesques and vignettes of musical instruments on the walls, which Aubergonois painted.
Over the past 30 years Burn has acquired a substantial collection of French furniture, a good deal of it Louis XV and Louis XVI. The newly glazed walls provided a sufficiently elegant backdrop for her favorite antiques and objets d'art.
In her bedroom are a painted wood Louis XVI baldachin and, at the foot of the bed, a Louis XVI bench that opens up into a commode. On the bedside tables she has placed a pair of bouillotte lamps and other 19th-century French pieces: a terracotta statue of a girl, a tulipière and silver picture frames that hold photographs of her daughter. A Régence armoire is used to store Burn's television and stereo. "It's a country piece," she remarks. "My furniture is whimsical and charming. I don't care for heavy formal pieces."
The bedroom came with a wall of built-in cabinets. Burn tore them out so that she could create an alcove for a 19th-century writing table, where she sits on a Louis XVI cane-back armchair and writes letters by hand. "I desperately needed closets, but a designer gives up function for beauty," she says. "I have a sumptuous bedroom for relaxing and sleeping."
"This apartment is small, but it has a terrace that doubles its size, and it's filled with light."
At either end of the largest row of living room windows, Burn has placed French wood columns with tole Corinthian capitals. "They're my best friends," she says. "They've been everywhere with me for over three decades. They age well, they travel well, and they don't talk back."
Burn says she didn't have to make a single purchase for her latest apartment. Other favorite pieces of furniture and objects have accompanied her from country to country: a double-tiered 19th-century French ram's head table, an 18th-century bronze figure of a man playing a mandolin, and an 18thcentury French terra-cotta bust. "I love being surrounded by beautiful things," she says. "I enjoy being home and having dinners here for six or eight friends. I shy away from big events."
There are two mirrors in the living room. Mirrors are a Burn signature. "They're magical," she explains. "They do so many wonderful things to a room. They set a playful theme." Burn also regards candles as necessities. "Candlelight is soft and flattering," she notes. She loves the sunlight that streams in from the terrace, but she is partial to the apartment after dark, when the candles are aglow.
The living room is almost as pale as the bedroom. There is jute carpeting throughout the apartment ("It's softer than sisal," she says), but part of the living room floor is covered with an Aubusson tapestry. "Jute was too rustic for the room," she says. "Sometimes it's one final touch that makes a room work. In my living room, it's the Aubusson tapestry used as an area rug."
"Pretty feminine" is Diane Burn's description of most of the apartments she designs. "That probably limits my client base," she says. "I design for myself. Men might not choose these environments for themselves, but they adore being in them. I've been married three times to three wonderful men. They loved the homes I created."