We chat with interior design icon Barbara Barry

IN THE WORLD OF INTERIOR DESIGN, the name Barbara Barry is synonymous with the designer’s own aesthetic: elegant, feminine, yet with a distinct modernity.


by Karl Lohnes

IN THE WORLD OF INTERIOR DESIGN, the name Barbara Barry is synonymous with the designer’s own aesthetic: elegant, feminine, yet with a distinct modernity. Since launching her design firm in Los Angeles in 1985, Barry’s interior design and product lines have had huge influence internationally. Her work is refined and luxurious, but Barry’s biggest muse is nature, and the inspiration she gets from travel. The California-based designer (and plein air artist) has, in fact, travelled extensively in Canada. “I love the majestic landscapes in the Rockies and the powerful edge of the earth in Newfoundland,” she says. Always, her sketchpad, watercolours or camera are never more than a hand’s reach, so she can capture the inspiration she perceives in the natural world.

Full disclosure: Barbara and I have been kindred spirits in design since we met 25 years ago. On a recent visit to Toronto, we spent a day together exploring the city’s west end. As she says, “time is a luxury,” and our time together was just that: precious, because having this tour de force all to myself for a day is a rarity, but also because Barbara elevates every day occurrences to the level of luxury. We appreciated classic Toronto architecture, shopped for small, simple homemade items, and ate in cafés that served plain, authentic good food. As friends, we rarely discuss business, but on this day, as per usual, our conversation veered to our mutual passion for design. I asked Barbara to define luxury and timeless—words so often used to describe my friend and her work.

Barry in her studio water colouring concepts for her Lumen Collection for Atelier Swarovski Home.

You are a top designer of luxury products and interiors. How has the definition of luxury changed since you started your career?

BB: My definition of luxury has changed over the years. I don’t—and I don’t think many others—want to live as formally as we once did. Time, comfort and health are how we define luxury today and I want to design interiors and products that support that awareness. Whether it’s relaxing after a day of skiing in an Austrian chalet with rough wood walls but luxurious beds; or slipping into a wooden canoe that glides seamlessly on a clear lake, I want the time to take in the experience viscerally. Luxuries to me are the things I use every day: crisply ironed linens, a freshly laundered bed and the time to walk in nature in a lightweight down jacket and cashmere scarf, and with my dog, and to take in the world around me.

Barbara Barry painting in Newfoundland.

Your X-back dining chair introduced in the 1990s is one of the best-selling items you’ve designed. Why do you think it sells so well?

BB: I think the Oval X-Back Chair came out at a time when there was either fancy traditionalism or cold modernism, and it spoke to that “sweet spot” in the middle. It is a pared down and more generously scaled French bergère, albeit through my American filter, which is traditionally the piece that finishes out a living room. It has generous proportions (think of a girl with hips) and shapely legs. It appeals to both sexes!

It does, absolutely. The X-back became quite iconic. What can fans of your work look forward to seeing in the future?

BB: I am on a roll right now and having the best time. 2020 will be a big year of new fabric collections, new furniture for McGuire and for Baker and lots of accessories.

“The master bedroom is really the most special place in the whole house, it frames the expansive and ever-changing view like a moving piece of art. The large Monterey Pine is like a Japanese sculpture and creates dimension to the wide open beyond.”

Barbara Barry
Barbara Barry’s Bedroom, Beverly Hills.

Most of what you design is priced for the higher end market. What advice would you give to achieving liveable luxury for individuals on a stricter budget?

BB: Live with less and buy better. Something well-made and beautiful commands quite a lot of attention. Choose wisely. One of the new fabric collections I’m working on is called Barbara Barry Home and is a diffusion line of better priced fabrics from Kravet, due in the Kravet showrooms in Spring 2020.

Where do you see your design focus directed in the future: product, interiors, branding/marketing, online?

BB: I love design in all its aspects and I see myself continuing to design in all arenas, but what I really love to do is to help companies. Help them with their strategies, their message and help them streamline their products. With so much choice in the world I believe companies need to have a clear message about what it is they offer to aid the consumer. And that, too, is design.

Your work is often described as timeless. What elements make a room’s design timeless?

BB: Timeless design is quite simply things you don’t tire of. It’s a feeling or mood that comes from layering elemental forms together. If you look at my work it doesn’t shout at you but, hopefully, holds you in quiet ways with subtle colour and tonal textures that support you and serve as a respite from the busy world that we all tire of! Nature is timeless and uncontrolled, and I hope my work is perceived that way, too.

Lumen Collection for Atelier Swarovski Home; atelierswarovski.com
Brazilian masters like Sergio Rodrigues were the inspiration for the essence of the pieces including the dining chairs in this space. This interior inspired Barbara’s newest collection for McGuire Furniture available in Spring 2020; mcguirefurniture.com

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