Ann Carlson Birt could transform any room. She’d walk in, take a look and then start moving things around — a chair here, a plant there. Suddenly, the space was better than when she’d arrived.
“Ann just had the gift of what we call ‘the eye,’ ” said her husband, Michael Birt. “What she’s done has really never gone out of style.”
Birt, a successful interior designer remembered for her integrity and poise, died June 9 of ovarian cancer. She was 80.
Birt spent her early childhood in Pine City, Minn. Her father, who ran the local mercantile, died of a heart attack when she was 7. Left without an income, the family moved to St. Paul, where there was work at Macalester College. Birt’s mother took a job as a “house mother” in an on-campus dorm and Birt, an only child, grew up there.
Her father’s death and mother’s resilience had a lasting effect on Birt, her family recalled. She had a deep faith that remained throughout her life, as well as a drive to succeed.
After graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1956, Ann Birt — then Ann Carlson — married Michael Birt. The two had met as teenagers at St. Paul’s Central High School.
“I’m one of those guys that never attracted the good-looking girls,” Michael Birt said, “so I thought it was terrific.”
As newlyweds they moved to Boston, where Michael attended graduate school and Ann worked to support them. She’d chosen a career as a home economist — one of the few careers then available to women — and had a passion for design. In the early 1960s, she started her own company, Ann E. Birt Interiors.
The couple had two children and moved to Milan and then Tokyo for Michael Birt’s job with 3M. Ann Birt always acclimated — she learned the language, she taught classes, she joined local boards, all in addition to raising her children, her family said.
“I don’t know how she raised us with such grace,” said daughter Wendy Jo Miller. “She just made everything look so effortless and easy.”
Birt took design jobs in each new place and derived inspiration from what was around her. In addition to living overseas, she traveled extensively, venturing as far as Egypt, Russia and Nepal.
At home, she received numerous honors in recognition of her work and got involved in a slew of organizations, from museum boards to the Eden Prairie Parks, Recreation and Natural Resources Commission.
“The list goes on and on and on,” Miller said.
Birt was a cherished friend, remembered for being fun, talkative and good at giving advice. A CaringBridge page created during her four-year battle with cancer drew more than 4,200 visits.
Outside of work and volunteering, Birt enjoyed playing tennis and bridge and spending time at her cabin. She also loved to garden.
“I’m trying to keep all the house plants watered now,” Michael Birt said.
Miller said her mother’s design sense was always on. After growing up without many luxuries, she developed a strong appreciation for things of quality, and it showed both in her work and in the way she lived her life. Even when she became ill, she retained a sense of style.
“We’d joke after her surgeries that her hair was always in place and her lipstick was still on,” Miller said.
Birt took on fewer design clients late in her life, but never retired. The Eden Prairie home where she died, surrounded by family members, still has a home office full of fabric, tiles and wallpaper. And there’s still a closet full of beautiful clothes.
Birt is survived by husband, Michael, son Christopher, daughter Wendy Jo and four grandchildren. Services have been held.