Good taste is timeless when it comes to interior design. This is a belief deep-rooted in the ethos behind Joan Behnke’s design acumen. It is no surprise that she is the favored interior designer of many celebrities and high-profile clients.
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 designer’s 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 to go back to the basics.
What are/have been the 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 a design 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 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 the design. The middle is a tremendous amount of organizing, paperwork and follows through. The best part of the middle can be working with the individual tradespeople 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 who 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 is 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 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 tastes in the 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 to 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 re-upholstering 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 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 an 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.
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.