Design Icons: Q&A With Barbara Barry
SoCal’s design powerhouse—and esteemed judge on our 2014 Designers of the Year furniture design panel—talks about sharing stories, appreciating space and emphasizing simple (but stunning) beauty.
“I’ve always wanted beauty around me,” says Barbara Barry, who mirrors the effortless elegance of her furniture as she reclines on a namesake Barbara Barry porter sofa in Home Couture’s showroom. Since entering the design world by way of her interior projects in L.A. during the ’80s, Barry’s touch has been golden—sometimes literally—from flawless furniture lines to the minute detail of carefully designed cutlery. Barry answered a few of our questions prior to an afternoon book signing of her first publication, Around Beauty—revealing the down-to-earth person behind the brand’s designs and reading much like her book itself: unpretentiously polished and brimming with stories.
Around Beauty has been called a diary, a memoir, a biography and an idea book. How important was it to incorporate a personal narrative?
I felt it was very important to maintain my own voice and to tell stories versus preach about design or describe the project. It is a more intimate form of sharing. People care about the person behind the brand because they connect with personal stories.
You collaborate with a number of furniture and decor accessory manufacturers to produce lines branded under your name. How have you been able to maintain creative direction and control of the company vision as Barbara Barry Incorporated has grown?
I have maintained my vision by growing slowly and keeping a small office. I’m involved in everything but have a dedicated staff that lives the brand. It’s as though we share DNA. After working together for long enough, you are completing each other’s sentences and sharing thoughts; there remains a single eye behind the BB brand.
You write about the transformative nature and positive effects of beauty, and are known for a delicately calming, feminine aesthetic. What is the most powerful result of a beautifully decorated home and how does this guide your work?
Beauty is not just important, it is essential. A beautifully decorated home is our sanctuary, our place to restore ourselves and to be renewed before going back out into the harsh world. We are involved in the entire process, right down to the selection of sheeting, towels, silver, china, et cetera, because it is the small things we use daily—the perfect cup for coffee or tea and the crisp ironed linen that accompanies it—that make us feel taken care of and give us our sense of well-being. Once a house is completed, the beautiful background and millions of small touches feed the soul daily. It is that love of beauty, from the smallest detail to the large final product, that drives my work.
Could you share some of your most basic decor advice for readers looking to capture this classic Barbara Barry aesthetic in their own spaces? What should they keep in mind as they tackle a new decor project?
Keep it simple. Choose your palette and keep that palette limited, meaning choose wall colours, drapery and fabrics that are all closely associated and plain…not patterned. Life—the dogs, kids, art, food, all of the magazines—will provide the pattern!
What aspects of the Western Canadian design scene stand out to you? Why do these elements appeal (or not appeal) to you, and why do you think they function north of the border?
I love the B.C. painters and have purchased a lot of their artwork; the vibrant colours and the painterly way they work is like nowhere else. I come to Canada often for inspiration. I just spent time on Bowen Island and will be speaking at the Jasper Park Lodge in November. My father was born in Toronto—he had that classic Canadian accent—so I am half Canadian and very proud of it.
What inspires you most in design, business and life? How does your Southern California vibe apply to a Western Canadian lifestyle (and beyond)?
Spending time in nature and feeling healthy and strong is what inspires me in life. I need to have quiet time to gather myself and I need time to reflect. Beauty ultimately depends on health and well-being. Living in Southern California with the constant light and warm air allows me this kind of lifestyle.
How has your style evolved and adapted over the years? What has significantly changed and, in turn, what will always remain constant?
Beauty never goes out of fashion. I don’t follow trends, as I believe a quiet and calm interior is timeless. I work from a soft palette of colours that slowly evolves and subtly changes over time, but not drastically. What has changed is wanting less: not filling up the rooms with so much but rather leaving more space for you. It feels younger, fresher and more modern. I love the term “the presence of absence.” It’s about the beauty you find in a single flower, a quiet church, a line or two from your favourite poem.
Who are your own design heroes and icons? How have they affected your career, and how do you hope to affect the careers of other designers?
Jean-Michel Frank (France, 1930s), John Dickson (San Francisco, 1960s), Michael Taylor (San Francisco, 1970s) and John Saladino (New York, current) are a few of my design heroes as I feel their work looks as good today as it did in their time. I certainly hope my body of work inspires other designers with the simple fact that I have always done what I believed in. I hope that gives other designers licence to follow their unique paths.