Learn about Laurel Burch
Laurel Burch, founder and CEO of a leading female-owned business, and prolific artist with a 50 year career at the world-class level, was born Laurel Anne Harte and she grew up in the San Fernando valley in southern California. She was born on December 31, 1945 with a rare bone disease called osteopetrosis which caused excessively fragile bones which were prone to fracturing and splintering during normal activities. Laurel was finally diagnosed with osteopetrosis after a series of broken bones. Burch tells the story that her legs “broke in midair” when she was seven and eleven, and that she broke another leg by falling at the age of thirteen.
Laurel began her career out in the public eye with a newspaper blurb about her, at age 4 ½, and her sister selling their bumper crop of over 60 pumpkins to neighbors. Laurel went on to a career with dozens of notable mentions in Los Angeles and San Francisco newspapers and numerous articles in other prominent Art papers and magazines across the country.
Already the young budding businesswoman at age seven, she did not let the illness get the better of her but rather sought to entertain neighborhood children with “circuses in her garage” which earned her a little spending money. Laurel’s parents, Ann and Russell Harte, divorced when she was young. Both parents married and remarried multiple times over the years, leaving Laurel with a complicated home life. Ann Harte was a talented seamstress, designing items for singer Peggy Lee and her young daughter. Laurel had the creative epiphany young, often wandering on her way home from school to try to find “secret hideouts” full of “other-worldly treasure”. Laurel and her mother had a stormy relationship when she hit teen years, and after living with her father for a time, she left home for good. She ran away from home at the age of 14 with just a paper bag of clothes in her hand.
The repercussions of running away was being sent to a Catholic boarding school. Along with the other children, the school was run by almost 30 nuns. At the convent, Laurel entertained herself with a an imaginary world filled with fantastical creatures. She put her artistic ability to use, “converting her convent room” into places filled with the culture and color her imagination dreamed up. “I’d put on a grass skirt and dance to recorded music from Bora Bora, read The Prophet, or pretend I was a flamenco dancer,” Laurel remembers, “I was the one with hair down to my waist, who made exotic coffees, who lit candles in my bedroom”.
At age 16, she moved back in with her father who lived in San Diego, and she was the eldest child of eight there as her father had remarried. She also took up singing at the Old Globe Theater while there.
In 1964, at age 19, she married Robert Burch, who was an African American jazz musician and later they had a daughter, Aarin, which was risky because Laurel’s fragile pelvic bones could have shattered during delivery. Laurel described that point in time during an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000: “I was scared to death, 18, on welfare. Her father wasn't there.” Laurel, estranged from Robert Burch, moved to San Francisco a year later with the small baby girl. According to Wikipedia, Laurel “supported herself by claiming welfare payments and making jewelry with occasional help from Ann”. Her shining soul soared high still in her inner dream world that was the bubbling source for her great art despite her limited circumstances.
In the 1960s, Laurel was also developing her skills in designing with fabric, like her mother did. She sewed what she called her “artwear dresses” that were full of “Global Spirit”, complete with “beads, embroidery, applique, paint, collage, and everything from horsehair to Native American trade beads, and even old coins from other countries”. It was this multicultural effect that was to become her signature look, delving deep into the ancient roots of exotic cultures that still had an aura of authenticity and spirit, looking for the hidden connections between living things. This was also the beginnings of what would later become thriving t-shirt and totebag product lines.
Laurel described this period of her life in an interview in 1974 in the Los Angeles Times: “I became aware of living in other cultures in another life, in other times. I have never copied anything and had never been exposed to ancient cultures. But about nine years ago I found I was doing things that looked like they had been dug up. So then I know I had lived in some other cultures and I just let myself go.” This acceptance of herself led to her art maintaining its unique feel and authentic edge.
In 1966, Laurel was living in the Haight-Ashbury area of San Francisco. She earned her room and board by cooking, cleaning homes, working as a nanny, and other odd jobs. She began making funky artisanal jewelry in her kitchen to give to friends whose hospitality helped her get started in the Haight. Laurel collected metal from junkyards to create decorations, hammering it out on the bottom of a sturdy kitchen frying pan. She combined the metal with Egyptian beads, bone, and Chinese coins to create unusual jewelry, which she described as a kind of lifeline to hold on to her inner dream world. She also began to paint the vibrant fantastical art that later became her iconic look.
Laurel was a self-taught artist who was preoccupied with trying to provide for her children while dealing with the limitations imposed upon her by her disease. “I was entrenched in trying to take care of my children when I had no skills, and trying to sell my work,” Laurel said in 2000 during an interview with SFGate. According to the San Francisco Examiner, “her husband, Robert, would occasionally reappear for short periods before disappearing again.” Laurel’s son Jay, who she sometimes referred to as Juaquim in interviews, was born in 1968 to Laurel and Robert but unfortunately, the marriage fell apart and they divorced in the early 1970s.
Later, Laurel worked for a jewelry store and was being paid $1.25 per hour, nearly half of which she turned around and paid to a babysitter for watching her two children. She said of this period in her life that “I felt the deck was stacked against me. I didn’t have any vision of life other than what I was living.”
Later, recalling her early start in business, Laurel mentions that she had “no sense of profit and I valued my own time at zero”. Over time, she learned how to better market her products and how to price them so that a business could be developed.
Laurel got the business to grow organically at first through word of mouth and direct sales at flea markets and street fairs. After Laurel put a lot of hard work into creating fascinating art with striking bold color, she happened to enter a store owned by Lois Smith in Ghiradelli Square wearing one of her creations. Laurel scored her first big contract that day. Some other local businesses also noticed how vibrant and relevant her art was and started stocking her jewelry lines and asked her to create original painted artwork to decorate restaurants and business places. Her personal brand was ascending rapidly.
Laurel met up with Cathy Hardwick, an old friend, while on a trip to New York City. Cathy loved the necklace Laurel was wearing and told her, “Come on, we’re going to Vogue”. “The result was two pages of photos in Vogue and three pages in Harper’s Bazaar”. It was an incredibly lucky boost to her artistic reputation.
Shashi Singapuri, a businessman from India, was known in California as an expert at importing from China, which was at that point in its infancy and required a lot of finagling and was fairly difficult to pull off. Singapuri helped Laurel Burch get access to the few Chinese factories taking orders from American firms. He took samples of her work with him to China in 1971 which led to an invitation from some Chinese businessmen for Laurel Burch to visit the People’s Republic of China in 1972 and resulted in helpful contracts for manufacturing Laurel Burch designs in China. Laurel Burch’s great strength was creating colorful art and translating that into wearable commercial products and her business got a big jump start from these manufacturing relationships. Laurel Burch was one of the first American companies to produce their designs in China for import to the USA market.
Laurel was excited to get a chance to finally visit China, which she saw as an exotic Far Eastern culture. But more than that, she encountered cloisonné enamel techniques and quickly realized how alive it would make her fantastical animals look and quickly went back to the drawing board and painted new art work to transform into 12 groundbreaking multicolored enamel earring creations.
This new series of jewelry was a big hit and started the “Burch phenomenon”. Laurel continued to create exotic art and grew her small network of local craftsmen who learned how to mass produce Laurel’s designs under her watchful eye.
Also in September 1972, Laurel Burch displayed some of her boldly primitive folk art in a Los Angeles fashion show. The two pieces were ankle-length tunics embellished in her unusual “artwear” style, celebrating cultural diversity and a connection with the earth.
Laurel Burch’s jewelry was described in the Los Angeles Times as “incorporating Chinese buttons, netsuke carvings, and fragments of hair ornaments” in an article about a local gift shop written in January 1978. Despite moving from serious art to commercial design, Laurel’s designs never lost that irrepressibly bold connection with the earth, sinuous curves, and explosive color. In an interview in the Arizona Republic in 1989, Laurel said, “art really has nothing to do with how much things cost. Because of my background, I didn’t have enough money in the beginning to buy precious materials to work with, so it was important for me to do things that were affordable for both me and the customer.”
As late as 1978, Laurel Burch was reported to still have her company named Tsuru in the Los Angeles Times. It was not until 1979 that she gave her company a different name, founding Laurel Burch Inc as president and designer, and ending her business ties to Singapuri. Laurel was unhappy with the partnership with Singapuri because she felt he was too focused on profits, amongst other complaints. Despite the fact that the business with him made $1.5 million, Laurel bowed out and was told by her attorneys to declare bankruptcy to make a clean break of it. She says, “It was a very painful situation; I’m not a fighter, and I left my life’s work.”
To get back on her feet, she was able to find three investors who each invested $60k, becoming minority stakeholders in her new business venture. Her initial product line included only 15 designs, and she filled the rest of her booth at her first solo trade show with large painted designs that wholesale buyers urged her to turn into products, which ended up being the catalyst for her note card division. She was on a roll at this point in her career, and quickly enlarged her product lines to include clothing, handbags, mugs, and paper products. Third husband Rick Sara called Laurel’s art “healing and nurturing and positive.” With the playful accents and blossoming rainbow of color, the primitive outlines touched something in the spirit of her customers.
Laurel was quick to realize that her products sold better when she created a ‘store within a store’ for them to be properly displayed in because presentation is vital to conveying the spirit of the work. She had a Laurel Burch section in every Macy’s store, which was a prominent and geographically widespread department store at that point in time, and in Bloomingdale’s. She said, “I integrate design with the place where it is displayed, bought, wrapped, presented.” In this respect, she was a forerunner in advancing marketing techniques. And these skills led to results: she was leading a multi-million dollar company by the mid 1980s. It is said that at her peak, Burch had more than 400 employees and numerous warehouses and office buildings to manage. When Laurel was introducing a new design collection in 1986 at a Macy’s in Citrus Heights, she did it in dramatic style, bringing a “special show she called ‘Thasia’ that included several exotic solo dance performances” which delighted her public as they got to experience the vibrant spirit of her art in a more unique way. Her designs were also available at the de Young Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
The osteopetrosis caused her to experience “40 fractures and numerous operations” by 1985, which were caused by “anything from a violent sneeze or a strong hug to a fall”. But Laurel had a stubborn tenacity to pursue her art and to support her family, and she continued to dig deep and produce prodigious amounts of artwork.
In 1985, still living in the Haight, Laurel’s life was totally different than it had been growing up. She told the San Francisco Examiner that she “needed at least 5 wardrobes” and that she had converted one of the bedrooms in her Edwardian style home into an enormous walk in closet, carefully color coordinated. Her sophisticated home is described in detail, an exotic and inspiring artist’s paradise, with stacks of books, original Burch art and sculptures everywhere, and a lively flock of birds including a pair of macaws, a toucan, and a pair of cockatoos. Laurel said of them, “I’m a very instinctive, sensual person and animals don’t have a highly developed intellect. I relate to that. I’ve always lived life instinctively.”
Laurel Burch produced a benefit for the Conservatory of Flowers in Golden Gate Park in 1987, in conjunction with Macy’s California. It was a pricey $50 a head tropical themed event.
Burch was wise to remain true to herself and what made the art authentic, full of exotic meaning. Laurel told the Santa Cruz Sentinel that “I could have made much more money and expanded much more quickly, but I made a decision that I would maintain myself as an artist. If I allowed my designs to be mass-reproduced and if I worked with assistant designers, I might lose control of the product. I want my signature to mean something.” It was a hard road to walk, needing graphics designers to convert her art to be placed onto products but not wanting those same designers to have input into the creative process. Laurel Burch did hire a staff of graphic designers “for gift-product development”, which would involve converting one dimensional art to the formats used by the product manufacturers to print her artwork onto products. Laurel gives some insight into the design process: “It’s nine months to a year from the time I paint the original figure to the appearance of the product,” she told the Arizona Republic in 1989. Carlotta Ahern, Laurel’s personal assistant, said that Laurel “goes into ‘design seclusion’ and doesn’t emerge until she has a collection” and is thus able to preserve her creative abilities while successfully running such a large company.
The Santa Cruz Sentinel called Laurel’s home a “menagerie” in 1988. Laurel Burch even brought two of her macaws, named Majorca and China Blue, with her to a personal appearance at several department stores in Sacramento. According to the Kokomo Tribune in 1991, Laurel Burch “has a lot of animals which give her inspiration in her artwork… She had two bunnies, ...two horses, three dogs and six big bright colored parrots [and] soon will be getting two baby llamas.” Her favorite dog, Basso, was the subject of a collection of dog pins.
Laurel’s story is one of triumphing over adversity, starting with her bone disease. In 1988, Laurel Burch was reported to have broken her thigh bone and the recovery from this took several months of home rest. This was a real setback for Burch because she had gone a record 10 years without any broken bones before this break. After getting a metal rod implanted into her leg, she wore a brace for a year and used crutches to get around. It was very hard for her to find inspiration for art during this period, but her mind was still soaring and dreaming despite her physical limitations, and she continued to produce art even while in recovery. “Survival has to do with passion,” Laurel said. While in recovery, she painted a collection of “amulets and fetishes” which made her feel like she was once again connected to her roots.
“I didn’t have a family. I had an interracial marriage. I spent some time on welfare, and I have a rare bone disease that has involved dozens of broken bones and major surgeries--- I have nine inches of metal in my legs,” Burch says of the things she has overcome in an interview with the Clarion-Ledger. “My path has been one of tremendous uncertainty. I didn’t come into this world knowing how to draw, to run a business or speak in public. I had to find out how. I had to learn to believe in myself.” And her dream world helped launch her to success. The iconic expressions of mythical, fantastical creatures were wildly popular. And Laurel continued to push herself to expand the mediums she was able to work with, including weaving and pottery, and worked hard to keep her art authentic.
In 1988, she met Jack Holton on a plane ride from New York, and she eventually got married to “her sweetheart” Holton and their blended home included his three children, ages 2-9. Laurel enjoyed being a “mother in a universal sense” in addition to creating a home that was a very inspiring environment … where children can be really creative and expressive.” At some later point, she divorced Jack Holton, who was her second husband.
In 1988, total sales were at $12 million and in 1989, Laurel Burch was said to be introducing three to four new design collections yearly. 1989 was also the year of the opening, in Old Town State Park, of the Laurel Burch Gallerita at Bazaar del Mundo. The Gallerita displayed the entire line of Burch artwork, including “more than 600 detailed earring designs”. Laurel Burch also branched into some offerings for children, including backpacks and t-shirts. She also opened a Laurel Burch Gallerie in Sausalito, which did $25,000 in sales in its first 10 days. Laurel Burch said of her design collection named ‘The Art of Human Being’ which was new to the market in 1990, “I wanted to celebrate the diversity, as well as the similarity, among peoples of the world”.
The Laurel Burch brand was booming. Forbes ran a article that profiled Burch. In 1990, Laurel Burch Inc. was reported to have accounts around the world with approximately 4000 stores and boutiques nationwide carrying her products. The Chamber of Commerce in San Francisco named her one of their two “Entrepreneurs of the Year” in 1986.
In 1991, Laurel Burch visited the Blair Pointe Elementary School in Peru, Indiana to encourage the children to pursue their artistic dreams. The mayor of Peru, in an overdone gesture, declared September 19 to be “Legends of Myth and Magic Day” in her honor.
Wisely, Burch sold her properties and moved into product licensing in 1994, as supervising her product distribution became too much for her health. She continued to create vivid artwork, which she called, “"the most precious and important things I can do," in an interview with the San Jose Mercury News.”
On of the companies that she initially licensed her artwork and designs to was Sunrise, Inc. of Bloomington, Indiana which primarily manufactured greeting cards which were wildly popular at the time to send during holidays. But Sunrise also obtained the rights to artwork on “mugs, t-shirts, music boxes, jewelry, collectibles and textiles”. The Marin Independent Journal relates that recently “her designs have been sold to companies that manufacture, promote and distribute her work in the United States, Egypt, Japan, Italy, England and Greece.”
In April of 1995, Laurel spoke at the Woman Expo in San Francisco as a featured speaker with her topic being, “The Evolution of My Personal and Professional Life”. At this point in time it seems that Laurel Burch had renamed her company to Laurel Burch Studio Inc. to reflect the change in direction.
“I refuse to have anything in my life that I can’t turn around to something magical and beautiful”, Laurel Burch said, in an article about her in The Los Angeles Times. It was this boundless energy and determination to make the world a more beautiful and warm place that drove Burch to continue to make art despite the enormous pain and frequent hospitalizations caused by her osteopetrosis.
And Laurel continued her global travels, visiting Bali, China, Egypt, and Morocco. Harvey Mackay writes an anecdote in The Daily Herald from Laurel Burch who, on her global travels, met a tribal man deep in Bali jungles. She said, “We didn’t have more than two or three words in common, but when he saw my drawings, he threw his head back and his eyes sparkled. His delight was universal. Now he carves mythical menageries that cluster like shrines in my house, my shops, my displays. All ways of life increase one’s sense of spirit. All offerings come back in such ways.”
Her designs were still so popular that in May of 1998, an Orlando boutique took out a newspaper ad to inform the public that Laurel Burch had taken a break from jewelry design and because of that her designs were sold out of most stores, but that they still had some of her majestic cat earrings left in stock.
Laurel Burch also designed posters for charities, with the sale proceeds from these items going to fund certain charitable projects. One such benevolent project was for the AIDS Awareness Week in San Francisco in 1988. Another poster raised money for victims of an earthquake in Mexico. She also participated in other benefits, like the collaboration with Horne’s to assist a coloring contest for the Children’s Hospital in Pittsburgh, where her products were donated to be used as prizes for the winners.
Laurel Burch gave an inspiring 4.5 hour long speech about her life in August 1988 before an audience of around 500 people at the Cabrille College forum. “She cried when she told of rough times, including bankruptcy and a debilitating bone disease. She laughed with the audience over her inability to keep track of time,” the Santa Cruz Sentinel reports. “Through slides, taped music, exotic dancers, live tropical birds and larger-than-life size Burch designs, she invited her audience into ‘Laurel Land’.”
Laurel Burch has lived in various towns in California including Sausalito, where she moved in 1988 to a water-front home with a whopping 300 degree view; Healdsburg, Mill Valley, Terra Linda, and finally Novato, which is north of San Rafael. She traveled widely throughout her life. Burch told the Santa Cruz Chronicle in 1988 that “I used to feel that I had to go to exotic places to be inspired to design. I find that isn’t necessary any longer. I have so many palm trees in my mind and heart that all I have to do is close my eyes to see them.”
In an exciting article in the Clarion-Ledger in 1989, Laurel celebrates the opening of her first retail store in Sausalito, CA. “For the first time I will have complete control over how my work is presented. I’ll design the sign out front, the gift wrap, the cards, the boards, the whole environment.” And it was a delightful place, with 1500 designs in her collection and each one symbols of sunshine and reminders of mythical lands.
In the early 2000s, Laurel published several books filled with elemental art and outlines of her magical creatures for quilters to use to reinterpret and share in her delightful dream world of explosive color and animal spirit.
At the beginning of 2007, Laurel Burch wed longtime business manager Rick Sara, whom she sentimentally referred to as her “life partner” in a 2004 book. Laurel Burch died at her home in Novato on September 13, 2007, at the age of 61. Osteopetrosis, the bone disease that she had been suffering from her entire life, caused serious complications which led to her declining health and eventually to hospice care at her home. According to wikipedia, Laurel suffered over 100 fractures over the years, which must have been extremely painful. She “had this remarkable spirit [that] kept her alive decades beyond what doctors expected”, said Rick Sara, “she left very gracefully… Wednesday night she was comfortable and seemed at peace.”
Laurel Burch’s two children, Aarin and Jay, still live in California today. Jay is president of Laurel Burch Artworks. Her third husband, Rick Sara, is a photographer and archivist. Laurel Burch also left behind two granddaughters, Soffiya and Karly; and two sisters, Suzanne Neilson and Jil Chandler.
A museum of Laurel Burch art, a traveling exhibit, a book about her jewelry and early art, and a documentary on her life and art were all started at one point and then abandoned. The Oakland Museum of California included several posters and prints by Laurel Burch in the OMCA Collections, an online archive, in 2017 in July 2016, Ravensburger released Laurel Burch cat and butterfly puzzles, including a World of Cats 1,000 piece puzzle, in its Italian and Spanish market, including San Marino and Vatican City.