Meet Betsy Olmsted
Written by Megin Potter
A perky forest floor is enlivened by animals jauntily scattered across the scene as if caught by surprise. A sunny string of colored feathers float back and forth. A vibrant close-up view of a moth’s wing is a sea of mystery as it unabashedly stares. These are the images spread across Betsy Olmsted’s pillows. Her cheerful designs also brighten tea towels, tabletop fabrics and wallpapers, among others. They are a peek into an enchanted natural world made in the center of the city. Here, the reindeer are rose-colored, the owls and goats; touched by tints of green. “At heart, I’m an artist and that’s where this all came from,” said Olmsted.
WIDE OPEN SPACES The Betsy Olmsted Design Studio is located in a renovated horse stable attached to a carriage house in downtown Saratoga Springs. Built in the 1890s, the space was converted by the home’s previous owner and the interior design reinvention work completed by the Phinney Design Group. The open floor layout features bright white walls and rustic wooden beams as the backdrop to Olmsted’s mid-century furniture and radiant pops of color everywhere. “This color sense I have, came from when I studied in India. I like bright, crazy, fake color. There, the landscape is very brown and the people wear very bright colors,” she said. After studying fiber arts and ceramics at Skidmore College, Olmsted graduated in 2002 and worked for an architectural design firm before attending graduate school at Philadelphia University. She moved back to Saratoga Springs in 2016, where she lives with her husband Peter, two sons; Emmett and Wells, and two dogs, Winnie, 13 and Hank, 2. It’s a busy life where making art doesn’t wait for inspiration to strike. “I have to do it whenever I can,” said Olmsted. From her studio, she can keep an eye on what’s happening around her, invite her boys in to color and create (without worry) on the concrete floors, or duck behind the dividers to focus on production. The sliding barn doors and the original iron lattice horse bay partitions separate the work space into distinct sections. The dye kitchen is Olmsted’s chemistry lab, where she experiments with pigments and inks. The second stall is where she paints her quirky watercolor designs and uses her computer to digitally prepare them for print. In the final section, a wall of finished fabrics is stacked, ready for shipping. “In the studio, things can get very messy. It feels like this space was made for me in a way. It divides things up nicely. It’s all about function and flow,” she said.
CHANCE VENTURES In addition to creating a great product, taking care of a million little things a day is what has built up the Betsy Olmsted brand into one that has been featured on HGTV, in Country Living magazine and has resulted in multiple collaborations, wholesale and licensing deals. “It’s a big, huge, time-consuming thing that takes time away from being able to paint,” said Olmsted. Some of her most fortuitous business opportunities however, have happened by chance. Just after Olmsted moved back to Saratoga Springs, she met Virginia Fretto, owner and designer of Razimus Jewelry, at the school where their children both attend. “She said to me, ‘I think I’m using your fabric for my jewelry’. That was like instant friendship,” said Olmsted. At trade fairs she met a representative of Windham Fabrics (a textile producer of fine quality quilting and sewing fabrics that she now designs for) and was approached by an acquisitions editor to write her own book.
LIMITLESS POTENTIAL Olmsted’s book, Hand-printing Studio: 15 Projects to Color Your Life – a visual guide to printing on almost anything, was released in 2016. “It was a great way for me to share all the education I’ve had. It encourages people to loosen up,” she said. Behind the scenes, the book’s stylized photo shoot was completed in a chaotic mess of ink, piles of samples, and with a dog that insisted on chewing up the block prints, she said. It was a process that mimics Olmsted’s overall design philosophy, based on the straightforward advice from her former Philadelphia University professor, Hitoshi Ujiie: everything isn’t so precious, just paint and paint a lot, despite criticism, because within all that production, there just may be a gem to be found. “I see things objectively and judge them based on if they look good, not based on what I feel. I’m very thick-skinned about it. A constant barrage of criticism is part of the process to getting it right,” said Olmsted. Betsy Olmsted and Razimus Jewelry’s Virginia Fretto will both be at the Country Living Fair in Rhinebeck, on the Dutchess County Fairgrounds, June 1st to 3rd, from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. daily. Olmsted will also be hosting a book signing and workshop there at 3 p.m. on Sunday.