Barbara Barry Talks Style

Wearing a vibrant purple dress and Hermès scarf, powerhouse interior designer Barbara Barry breezed into the Michigan Design Center in Troy recently to promote her “Brushwork” finishes for Henredon. Following are outtakes from her conversation with Detroit Home Editor Rebecca Powers.


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“I tend to work in a backdrop so that the decoration isn’t the main event, and it’s not in competition with the stuff of life: paintings, children, books, magazines, animals, food, what you have on that day.

“When you make a room of a lot of different subtle shifts, it might not bowl you over when you walk in, but it’s going to support you. Life’s chaotic. I’m always trying to pull things together for harmony and balance.

“Painted furniture is a great option for wood. We’re wooded to death. Everything’s brown, brown, brown. I think paint can be really sophisticated. It’s a breath of fresh air. But generally, it’s done in a country sort of way. Battered, splattered.

“[My inspiration is] nature, nature, nature. That can mean looking at a pistachio and seeing, ‘Oh, look at that lavender with that kind of off-celery color — there’s a room.’ Nature has intimate, elegant color pairings.

“When I started [in this business], the world was different. There wasn’t the Internet; there weren’t a lot of knock-offs. I don’t copy-cat; I design from what I want. I’m never without a sketchpad. I don’t try to do styles.

“Trends? I say let’s talk about something more meaningful. Beauty. A thing of beauty lasts forever.

“I don’t think Europeans decorate; they collect and sort and assemble. You have a wardrobe and you work with it.

“I don’t want things to look too studied. When it becomes too studied, it breaks down.

“Décor is really about how I feel. It’s not about any one thing … a room has a mood.

“Personal luxuries, the lining of a jacket, the sheets we sleep on, the fineness of the china — all of those sensual things that are the closest to the body are the ones that give us our sense of well-being. Design is about how it feels. That’s why I love designing furniture. You can’t sit in any of my furniture and not say it’s comfortable.

“I love to keep [dining rooms] quiet, tonal: a fabulous gray-green silk on the walls, all the moldings in the same color. I love how they come alive for candlelight. It’s the one place where you actually sit and get intimate with people.

Barbara Barry Talks Style

Open Oval Cabinet, Brushwork Interior in Ivory

I don’t like to do very done-up dining rooms. Seating and lighting are key. [In my dining room], I’ve just pushed the table over against the wall, not in the center of the room. I opened up the room, and I’m doing a small table with two chairs [too], so that it’s a little more of a room that I might go into. And when I’m having a meal with one or two, it’s used more. At the end of the room, I’m anchoring it with quite a big banquette, so that when you walk into the room, the invitation is to the body, saying, ‘Come sit in me,’ unlike typical boardroom dining chairs.

“I’ll sit in there alone with my feet up and some pillows. I think they are rooms we need to use and maybe break them apart a bit from the formal. Stack the table with books when you’re not using it. Display some fabulous pomegranates. The room will have some life in it. And if it has life in it, you tend to go in there more.

“I never really decorated for myself until now. I just bought a new home, and I’m decorating it — and I’m finding it to be a bizarre experience. It has challenged me. Until I treat myself like a client, I’m not engaged in it. I’m not a person who uses my own house as an experiment.

“I live in Beverly Hills [Calif.] in a traditional house up in the hills. I love to think of Beverly Hills in that elegant time of the 1940s — cocktails by the pool, that kind of thing.

“It’s kind of neoclassical. I didn’t design it. It has a European feel. It’s a little more grand and stuffy and traditional than I might go toward in the future, but it called for decoration, so I’m really trying to decorate it.

“I go very slowly and I really study. Clients don’t allow that. They’re on a schedule. For myself, I want to live in this room for a while. I just ordered a huge rug of my own design that’s going to be 25 feet by 17, and I can’t do anything else until that comes in.

“We get very static with the stuff we walk by every day. Clear every surface in the house. Look at everything and decide what you need to put back. If you do that one exercise, of clearing everything, maybe 50 percent goes back on. The stuff of life just adds up. You need to purge. Polish the table yourself, and you’ll feel what a beautiful wood table you have.

“Get in touch with your own things. People are feeling like they have less, but we have more than any nation. Take things down. Put them back up. Get connected. We come from a culture of need [as in] ‘What else do I need?’ Move the room around. When you start to clean your closet, you feel the energy.

“I was watching Julie & Julia, [and thought] any good kitchen is made up of different elements. It’s not all copper pots or Teflon, nor is it all stainless. You’ve got a great Teflon pan for omelets and stainless for this. A good cook uses his tools. A good room or a well-dressed person uses a mix.

“I’m holding fast to my core belief of timelessness, elegance. If you have an authentic style and you know what it is you have to offer, you’re lucky. I’m not trying to do anything else except authentic Barbara Barry. We live in a time when so much is derivative. I’m like, ‘Get an idea of your own.’ People ask, ‘What is your inspiration?’ I always go back to nature.

“I’m really drawn to spaces that are quiet and calm. When I first walk into a room, I’ll think, ‘Too much stuff, too many ideas, about 10 ideas too many.’ If someone has the confidence to know when to stop, you can tell it right away. Underdone is always better than overdone.

“Think of your rooms after the fact of being lived in. Your feet were up. You had that light there that you were reading by. You had that throw over your lap. You just had a cup of tea or you watched TV. I design to support the acts of our daily lives.

“Window dressings are an extension of the walls. They’re part of the architecture. If you have poor windows, you can make them look grander by keeping the fabric the same color as the walls. You can go higher or extend [the coverings] a little wider. I think of them as an integration. If you think of them as a lamination, you’re in trouble.

“Nothing stands alone. Often in design, you get excited about this fabric or that chair. Each object comes with a certain energy or personality. If simplicity is your goal, then you have to see the end picture in the beginning. When I design, I’m thinking about what room it will work in, not so much as an object.

“Modern is not so much a style as it is the confidence to leave space.”

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