Burns was an early exponent of the Art nouveau style in Scotland and an outstanding decorative artist. He returned to Edinburgh after periods studying in London and Paris and travelling in North Africa. A talented painter and designer, Burns followed the example of artists of the Arts and Crafts movement, engaging in projects involving a variety of materials. These also furthered the relationship between the arts, commerce and industry. His most famous and complete interior designs were for Crawford's Tea Rooms on Princes Street. He combined commercial projects with teaching and became Head of Painting at Edinburgh College of Art.