Engaging and innovative interior designer/art dealer Betty Wasserman has made quite a name for herself in the New York design world. Known for her sublime use of color, texture, and warmth within a decidedly modern viewpoint, she has helmed a host of significant projects in New York and the Hamptons, all the while representing over 50 artists as a private dealer. Here, we get her take on futuristic fabrics, East-End style, and why a boutique hotel is inevitably in her future.
ID: You’re known for that rare ability to imbue a decidedly modern space with lots of warmth. What’s your secret?
BW: I think it’s my love of fabric and textiles. I go so far as to try and make wood look like fabric, like with our woven radiator covers [for the Bettyhome furniture collection]. There are a lot of modernists who don’t like fabric, or who don’t engage or embrace textiles like I do.
ID: What is it about textiles that draws you to them?
BW: I love the tactile nature, the texture. When people want neutral environments and not a lot of color, I like to create interest in the space through texture, different grains, strains… Different silks and wools for rugs. I do a lot of country houses, and textile help make them warn without being 'countrified.'
ID: Which clients make you the happiest to work with?
BW: The smartest clients are invigorating and much easier to work with. They get things faster, can visualize, understand value, and want to learn. They also tend to be good at knowing what they don’t know. Don’t try to be the architect. Enjoy the process and get as excited as I do, yet know when to let go. They usually thank me in the end.
ID: How do you bring clients on board to your out-of-the-box ideas?
BW: A lot of people will come to me who are 'new money,' young couples doing this for the first time, or perhaps they’ve collected some art but never created a proper space for it. They come from a range of backgrounds and want to redefine themselves now by their new space—not to mention, perhaps their new spouse or partner, new children. That’s often where I come in. They see that I offer a clean, contemporary approach yet a home is still a home.
ID: Are there elements you make that take some convincing for your average client?
BW: I often use very light colored sofa, particularly if we need to use a large sofa. I have to educate clients about the fabrics that are available. There are all sorts of blends and synthetics. There’s a material that is completely washable, and I give the client a swatch… I tell them to bring it home, play with it, put ketchup and red wine on it, and then just use soap and water to wash it. They look at me like I’m crazy, but then they do it and say, “We’re going with the light sofa.”
ID: You have a home in Southampton and take on quite a bit of work on the East End. What do you enjoy about working in the Hamptons?
BW: I always like a project in the Hamptons. It justifies more time for me at my home in Southampton. When I start work out there, I’m so excited because I can go Thursday through Tuesday, because I have to work. I also love the homes brought to me, and am rarely hired to do an ugly duckling. The one I was hired to do, we gutted and tore down. The other great part of Hamptons work is that they’re usually second homes. The process is more relaxed, and clients are more willing to take chances. And look… clients with unlimited means, who are used to having their way, can be difficult anywhere they are. But I haven’t had a pain-in-the-butt client for years.
ID: Do you have any dream projects?
BW: In fact, I do. I would love to do a boutique hotel. I’ve walked into a number of new boutique properties, looked around, and thought, 'Why have I not been hired to do something better with this space?' At the moment, I’m really excited about a new project with [architect] Bruce Nagel . We’re working on a project in Southampton—this fab five-acre property with so much potential. There’s going to be this spectacular glass box of the pool house, we’re completely gutting the main house, and the client is so open to good ideas. I’m also a tennis fanatic, and the property has a tennis court.
ID: Tell us about your inspiration. When were you first really excited about design, and how has that changed through your career?
BW: This is going to sound funny, but it all started when I was a girl and I reorganized the fridge in my parents’ house. That was when I realized that the way things are organized impact me greatly. I love when I walk by a Korean deli and everything is lined up perfectly. In Japan, everything is beautifully presented and designed, even the lettering on the subway signs. As a single mom who’s juggling two homes, a career, and even a social life, there’s this inherent organizational thing going on.
ID: Your career started in the art world, and that is still a major part of your work. How does that expertise factor into your design?
BW: I love all sides of my career, but art is the true passion point. I really love educating clients about art. When I started out as an art dealer, I’d walk into a space and my focus was, 'Where does the art go, how does it fit, what does it live with?' What drove me towards being an actual designer is the fact that I’m a bit of a natural control freak, and didn’t feel that some of the spaces were worthy of the artwork living there. People would spend so much money on beautiful art yet the sofa would be hideous.
ID: What’s most satisfying about working with artists?
BW: I love going back to an artist’s studio and seeing how the work has evolved. Some of my artist friends I’ve worked with for 22 years. Just yesterday, I took a friend to the studio of Margaret Evangeline, and it’s like seeing five different artists in one day! She has such a plethora of styles and interests, and so much talent. On days like that, I don’t feel like I’m working.