Organic Modernism with Becky Shea Design
Interior designer Becky Shea epitomises today’s ideal of luxury – not the ostentatious displays of wealth but the holistic embrace of thoughtfully considered spaces that are truly timeless. With a deep appreciation for muted colours, organic textiles and natural elements contrasted against industrial materials like steel and concrete, she celebrates the beauty of calm and functional living.
Photography by Sean Litchfield
What was the first piece of design that really mattered to you?
Axel Vervoordt and Japanese Architect Tatsuro Miki’s penthouse at the Greenwich Hotel. When I saw the harmony of industrialism and wabi sabi, I was completely blown away. The way they used stone, steel and wood together left me awestruck. It was the most perfect placement of sustainable materiality. I loved how they were able to soften those materials using Belgian linens in natural dyes. Everything is linen and that level of textural monochromatic sensibility was so simple, yet so bold. Balance is the perfect word to describe this design style and seeing that penthouse was the very first space that truly made me go, “Wow. This is special and I want to create my own visions someday.”
Tell us a bit about your career arc and how you go to where you are today.
I’m a first generation Cuban-American with lineage rooted in Spain, where my great-grandparents were born and worked before migrating to Cuba in the early 20th Century. After my grandfather became a prisoner in Castro’s notorious forced labour camps, he and my parents, who were children at the time, fled to Miami on one of the last “Freedom Flights” in 1973 to start from scratch with all their possessions and our family heirlooms gone. I spent much of my childhood in my grandfather’s woodworking studio, which I believe helped nurture my love for craftsmanship and design.
After working to help put myself through college, I moved to NYC in 2010 with nothing but two suitcases and found a couple of Craigslist roommates living on Wall Street in a converted studio. My career started as a flagship visual merchandiser for brands like Levi Strauss and Elie Tahari, architecting memorable floor displays that simultaneously enhanced point of sale and brand value. I then spent a few years strengthening my skill-set and business knowhow at several start-ups, focusing on international business development, product development, and intellectual property for home design collections up until one start-up ended up shutting down their NYC office in late 2014.
Having zero experience in interior design at the time, I rolled the dice and took an unpaid 6-month apprenticeship with our friend Harley’s mom, Sherry Brous, who mentored me and gave me the opportunity to gain valuable experience with the various trades on construction sites in exchange for my experience in digital tools to aid Sherry’s business in the 21st century. I have no formal training in interior design beyond this apprenticeship and am completely self-taught in Photoshop, Sketchup Pro, and AutoCAD, which I would learn in the late hours of the night through YouTube tutorials and trial and error. When I felt confident enough in my skills and had been through a couple of renovations soaking up every detail I could, I applied for and became a senior interior design team consultant in New York for a large firm. After a couple months, my reviews were so high that I became their go-to designer for VIP clients and any projects requiring residential renovation. After a year there, I left the company and launched my own design studio, and the first project was a full gut renovation of a SoHo loft for the co-founder of the design firm I had just left. Fancy that!
"You can’t buy passion and that’s something that really grabs me by the heartstrings when artisans create."
Fast forward to 2021, just five years after going off on my own, and BS/D has had multiple projects featured internationally and I’ve been invited to be a consistent voice of interior design with industry leaders such as Architectural Digest, Dwell, ELLE Decor, Domino, MyDomaine and more. I was also voted HGTV’s Designer of the Year winner for the Kitchen + Bath category in 2020 and have been interviewed on live TV and panels discussing the industry at large over the years. Our current projects include completely custom full-builds of new luxury homes where BS/D is in charge of every single aesthetic detail from the millwork/kitchen design and drawings down to the home’s siding, windows and roof lines, the smallest of which is 7,500 sq ft at the moment and some of which are 10k+. It’s been really thrilling to get to work on such incredible projects, and I feel so lucky to have had amazing clients along the way who truly appreciate our work and look at me as an artist with generally as much freedom as we could ask for. One of the keys to our success has been having a heavy emphasis on limiting the number of projects we do concurrently, which has allowed us to maximise our creative attention to detail in each home without being stretched thin.
Do you think your experience in visual merchandising has shaped your approach to interiors?
Absolutely. When I was a visual merchandiser, the goal was to create points of sale that would attract buyers based on how we presented the merchandise and its ease of flow. I believe that creating spaces (whether for a store or a home) should tap into all five senses, which allows an opportunity to evoke an emotion. When I design homes today, I think about ease of flow and how movement in a space is determined based on furniture placement. Colours, textures and scents are key to bringing a space together in the end and what makes a space both visually pleasing and functionally satisfying.
You run your practice alongside your husband Jake. What is that like? What strengths do you each bring to the table?
It’s amazing working side by side, though I would be foolish not to admit that we bicker from time to time. When we decided to embark on this journey, we had a very clear delineation of our respective roles based on our strengths. I started the company two years before Jake joined, so by that stage, he and I had a really good idea of what my strengths are and what the things that drove me bananas were. Having this level of understanding allowed us to jump right into these roles and thrive in our respective practices while also elevating one another to do our job at its peak potential. Jake handles the operations and business end while I focus on the creative side, from concept to implementation. We are both very hands-on and have historically always been on the same page as it relates to our 3, 5 and 10 year goals. We’ve recently championed balance in our lives and to us that is our greatest success story yet.
Give us a little insight into your design process. How do you balance your keen eye and vision with a client’s taste and preferences?
I truly pride myself on creating environments that will feel cool and relevant years down the road. It’s important to be confident in your expertise when it comes to engaging with your clients. Similar to when you visit a doctor, you trust their judgement on how to handle your health, it’s the same expectation we set with our projects. Folks come to us because they know we are visionaries when it comes to space. At this stage, we are so unbelievably fortunate to be working with folks who love our aesthetic and feel, and come to us to create just that, while knowing that we are constantly refining and editing our design style. I can walk into a room and pretty much see it totally done before they’re even done framing and I try to illustrate that vision to our clients verbally and conceptually with all the good 21st century technology!
Your service extends to being the “Chief of Home”. Can you share a bit about what that entails?
We are intimately involved with clients from the get-go, so naturally our relationship blossoms and we somehow always become friends. Chief of Home came when a handful of clients asked us to zhush their home for a new season or dinner party. From there, knowing our project management skill set is a strong suit and the odds and ends of every square inch of their home, they enlisted us to hire housekeepers, groundskeepers, landscapers and manage everything in between. It felt like a natural progression for our business to keep our favourite people tethered while also improving the operations of their home and decor refreshes when the seasons turn.
Recent studies show that our surroundings have a very real impact on our energy and emotions. Do you agree?
I 100% agree with this. Until this day, I have memories of certain hotels I stayed in and how it made me feel as a child. Items as simple as the stitching on a pillow, on a sofa in the lobby, or the smell of the ocean when certain windows were open are ingrained in my head. Being around certain textures and smells always transcends me back to a moment in time and the emotion I felt then. So for me, it’s so important to speak with clients about places they’ve been to or experiences they’ve had that made them feel a certain type of way. It’s part of my research development when we’re in our “dating” phase, as we call it.
Do you have any advice for the interior enthusiast when it comes to mixing and matching colours, textures and patterns?
When mixing colours or patterns, always think about it like Goldilocks and the Three Bears’ porridge – too hot, too cold and just right. To achieve “just right,” you want a hot bold tone (in my case likely a deep green, dark taupe or camel tone), a cold pattern or texture (a subtle ticking stripe or boucle) in a light tone like oatmeal or flax, and another in the middle that balances the two. I like to mix texture, so when you’re thinking about changing things up, think about durable textiles like linens, wools, leathers and heartier cottons for your foundational pieces, then blend your luxe materials like cashmere, alpaca or boucle for pillows, throws and window treatments. Lastly, layer in your Brutalist but sustainable materials like wood, steel or concrete for the special contrasting yet cohesive touch. In the end, mixing and matching the right way comes down to reserving any extremely “loud” design elements to be blended with more subdued pairings.
You are a real advocate for craftsmanship. Whether it be a piece of furniture, a light fixture or a piece of furniture, can you explain the appeal of commissioning custom elements both as a designer and for the end user?
I grew up with a grandfather who was a master carpenter. He worked into his late 70s after we converted our garage into his studio. For me, it was always about the passion and the attention to detail that each element received; the rising early to invest your love into something you were making with your own hands. Whenever I meet an artisan or a crafts(wo)man, their eyes light up in a way that you can’t feel or see when you order from a big box retailer, and I do order from big box retailers because everyone needs to high/low it, but I have an innate passion when it comes to craftsmanship. There is a certain energy transfer that happens when you purchase a custom element and I do believe that energy encapsulates a space and that emotion is then projected to the end user. You can’t buy passion and that’s something that really grabs me by the heartstrings and makes my soul flutter when artisans create.
We’re honoured to have our rugs featured in a few of your projects. What considerations are front of mind when you are choosing a rug for a space?
Sizing is always step one for me. I work out the layout and determine how large the rug needs to be to suit the space. From there, depending on what room we’re working on, the next step is what our texture/material will be and its durability. For instance, I am likely to use a jute or wool rug for a high traffic area and linen or wool/silk for a low traffic area (like a bedroom). Once those foundational and functional bullet points are checked off, I move into colours. I work with all the materials at once. For example, if I’m working on a bedroom, I will pull together the bedding, headboard, nightstands, accent chair fabric, pillow fabrics, wall covering or wall applications, metals/ceramics for lighting and see where my palette is headed. Once I have all of that squared away, I work on the floor and the rug. It’s easier for me to get the bulk of the materiality fleshed out before diving into the floors as I believe it helps me better direct my selections. It may be a little backwards for some designers, but that’s what really works for me.
What’s keeping you creatively stimulated right now?
Jake and I recently bought a home in the Southern Catskills that we did some cosmetic work to and have had the opportunity to work remotely and spend a majority of time there this year. What’s really stimulated my creativity has been our involvement in getting to know the incredible local farmers and makers who’ve become friends and an inspiration for our designs. Being in nature and observing the stillness, and by contrast the extremeness that can happen so suddenly, coupled with the rawness of each leaf, blade of grass, tree bark, cloud in the sky or how the sun hits the forest during different parts of the day have brought out an interest in colour like I haven’t experienced before. I believe we are primitive in nature and I’ve noticed being more consistently around natural elements has helped us find inner peace. A focus on balance allows us to have the headspace to see things more clearly. I feel I’m doing some of my best work yet and cannot wait to share what we’re working on this coming year!
Finally, we can’t help but ask – what’s your favourite Armadillo rug to have underfoot?
I really love how the Agra feels and looks. You can see and feel its durability but it’s also incredibly soft underfoot. The colour options are so damn good. I’m dying to use the Artichoke and Burnt Umber (so if there’s anyone out there that will let me have it in their home, let me know!). We used the Juniper in our most recent duplex renovation of an 1800’s church conversion in Cobble Hill, and it’s a very moody and inviting colour. It looks especially awesome contrasting on our bleached oak floors.
Follow Becky Shea on Instagram.