Essence of England | Chapter 12 ~ Emma Burns


Florence Robson


In our Essence of England series, we speak to values-aligned creatives, entrepreneurs and familiar faces from across the South West about their lives, work and what ‘Englishness’ means to them.

As the Managing Director of Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler the oldest interior decorating firm in Great Britain, Emma Burns has worked on high-profile projects across the world, from Mustique to Moscow. Closer to home, her own London flat has been featured in House & Garden, where it was praised as “a masterclass in sophisticated small space style”. No wonder she has an international following of new and returning clients, as well as those who hope to learn from her approach from a distance. 

After a childhood spent rearranging furniture and paintings, Emma cut her teeth with Sloane Street interiors firm Charles Hammond, then joined Sibyl Colefax & John Fowler in 1984. She ran the fabric showroom in London’s Brook Street and worked under the leadership of Roger Banks-Pye (for whom she credits a great deal of her own taste) before establishing her own interior design team. 

Emma spoke with True Grace about incorporating the natural world into interiors, finding inspiration in far-flung places and why you should never follow the herd.

You’ve used “suitability” as a guiding principle of your design philosophy. Can you explain what the word means to you?

For me it's a mantra; a great guideline to abide by for the house, the budget, what the clients want to get out of the home. This one word, “suitability”, keeps everyone and everything on track!

Where do you find inspiration? Is there an era or aesthetic you’re particularly drawn to?

I find inspiration from all over. Travel, of course, is hugely inspirational, seeing things outside of my normal surroundings; and also from nature, books, magazines, museums and exhibitions. Recently, 'Style & Society: Dressing the Georgians was a fascinating show detailing what was worn in the 18th Century and reminded me that John Fowler spent hours sketching in the costume court of the V&A. Many of his curtain treatments owed their charm to ideas from dresses and costumes he saw there. And of course, I also get inspiration from Instagram!

An era I adore in decoration is the 1950s and 1960s, when legends like my design heroes Billy Baldwin and David Hicks were doing such innovative work.

You’ve worked on projects across the world. Are there any that particularly stand out, and if so, why?

One of my favourite projects was in the north woods of Wisconsin where I worked on a family camp of seven log buildings. The most imaginative clients and fantastic artisans, both local and in the UK, made this one of the most creative sets of interiors I have ever helped with. I had never seen birch bark used to cover walls before, as we did there; it’s the most beautiful texture, giving an almost Japanese feel. It is pinned in place with twig work and the combination is mouth watering. The houses felt incredibly layered and complete and as if they had been like that since the early 1900s.

What role does the natural world play in your work?

I love John Fowler's statement: “All greens go together — you only have to look at nature”! The colours from nature are sometimes inconceivable in their brilliance and diversity. I was at a marble yard in Ireland recently and some of the slabs were like pieces of abstract art — the wildest combinations of colour that you almost can't believe are natural.  

I love natural fabrics like dry, nubby linens and hand woven textiles. They have such personality. For the Wisconsin project I worked with a hippy weaver who spins his own yarns and then weaves them together by hand. You can't imagine how beautiful the finished fabrics are; simple yet incredibly sophisticated. Textures too all provoke thoughts and ideas to develop, from bark to ploughed fields, the sheen on rocks after the rain to mist on cobwebs. Shells are also a huge passion of mine.

With sustainability in mind, I try to upcycle as much as possible in my interiors. So many things can be re-invented and have a new life. I often have curtains re-made with new headings and linings, thereby saving the face fabrics. Some of the best upholstery shapes are antique and vintage pieces that can be recovered. Furniture can be re-finished, ebonised or painted to completely change the look and chests of drawers can have a basin set in for a vanity unit.

Some people hate birds as an image in design, I happen to love them: 1930s Bagues wall lights are at the top of my wish list along with Bessler engravings of Fritillaries.

What advice would you give to those looking to add personality to their own homes?

Houses need to reflect the personalities of the inhabitants. Be honest about how you want to live and what you want your house to say about you. Above all, don't follow the herd! You don't need to spend a fortune on interiors and you can make a huge impact with paint colours. A good plan when you see an image you like is to save it on your phone and make a folder of those thoughts to inspire you.

What should be on the agenda for a weekend where you live?

Just general relaxation! I always go for two or three walks with my beautiful pug, Dahlia. I love cooking and seeing friends at the weekend as there's more time, plus I've always got a million projects on the go at home, both inside and in the garden. This weekend, an outing is planned to collect pumpkins ready to carve Jack-O’-Lanterns for Halloween [this interview was conducted in late October].

What does Essence of England mean to you?

Freedom of Speech! HM Queen Elizabeth II, a pub lunch and a cricket match on a summer's afternoon. The local garden society's vegetable show in the village hall. Nimrod from Elgar's Enigma Variations. A cream tea, fish and chips and the Chelsea Flower Show.

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