Seeing Beauty Through The Eyes Of Barbara Barry

Barbara Barry has a very hands-on relationship with beauty.

Seconds after meeting her in the VIP lounge at Interior Design Show Vancouver, where we had both given presentations earlier that morning, she placed a hand on my face as though we were old friends. “Well, aren’t you a beautiful man,” she said, before turning her attention to the items haphazardly spread across the table. As we spoke, she began to rearrange them: a white porcelain tea-cup and matching saucer, my company cards, a pen, a centerpiece containing a white orchid and fanned palm leaf. She laughed casually at her own actions, but when she was finished, there was something inarguably more pleasing about the arrangement.

Later, the pattern on my collar caught her eye. She told me about being shown a beautiful piano in one of the show’s booths, and even though the saleswoman had been speaking about the instrument’s design, Barry had become transfixed by the cloth in the woman’s hand as she wiped down the lid. It was a faint checkered pattern of pale blue on white, similar to my collar. “We don’t have that sort of paper towel in America,” says Barry, thumbing the material. “Beautiful.”

Barbara Barry has a knack for finding beauty in everything, including the mundane. “What’s the difference between a weed and a flower?” she said during her presentation. “An opinion!” She speaks often of finding inspiration in the shapes and textures of the natural world: cut peonies, the curling peel of an onion, ridges of aloe leaves, an egg. “Is there anything more beautiful than an egg?” she asked the audience.

As she sits with me later on a plush sofa in the lounge, speaking humbly about her beginnings in design, it’s striking just how far she’s come. Barry has no formal training in the field. As a young woman she dropped out of art school and went to France, where she became fascinated with the art of making wines and cheeses. “The way it was made, the way it smelled and looked, the whole process around it — I thought, I have to do this.” And so she opened her own shop in which the true pièce de résistance wasn’t necessarily the wines or cheeses, but the ambiance of the shop’s design and décor. “I was creating beauty around me, and a mood,” she reflects. People who entered her store were blown away by the aesthetic; they would say to her, “I want my home to feel like this. What can you do for me?”

But despite her inherent knack for design and early signs of promise, Barry spent the early years of her career struggling with the fact that she had no formal training in the field. She felt, in some ways, as though she didn’t deserve the success she was getting. By her own admission, she would tell strangers that she was from San Francisco and had attended the Academy Of Art College, but conveniently leave out the fact that she had dropped out after just two years. “I just let them think, ‘Oh, she’s educated,’” says Barry.

It’s a struggle I can relate to, not having schooling as an interior designer myself. But, like Barry, I’ve come to view that as an asset.

“Over time, I saw the gift in only listening to my own voice,” says Barry. “I always knew what I was interested in. Why teach a bird to swim or a fish to fly? I realized that the privilege of a lifetime is just being who you are.”

Barry comes from a family of painters, so it’s no surprise that when we begin to talk about her process, she pulls a worn notebook from her purse and begins to flip through pages and pages of sketches. “It’s kind of just note taking through thinking,” she explains. Barry is well known for incorporating watercolors in her design process, and there’s something fascinating about the book in her hands; it’s almost like a window into her mind. Even when she’s on the road, which is often, she is constantly recording her thoughts and inspirations by hand. “It’s almost a way of processing the moment and the anxiety, even, around that moment, because it owns you until it frees you. I get it down, I get it in color, I let it go.”

She often revisits those ideas, however, when working on new projects. “Some of them have become very dear,” she says of the pages of inspirational fragments. “I think some of your best ideas come when you wake up.”

The book makes sense for someone with a lifestyle like Barry’s. She travels regularly to collaborate on product lines with partners like Baker, Kallista, and Kravet—just to name a few—and is constantly seeking out new landscapes as a source of inspiration. Whether hiking through the mountains of Austria or exploring the rugged terrain of Fogo Island, she carries her painting supplies with her and documents her experiences by taking pictures on her iPhone — never adding a filter. These are the tools of her mobile office. “I would not have done well having to stay behind a desk,” she laughs. “Everybody in my office has an office but me. I just rotate around.”

This disregard for convention has served her well in the business world as well, helping her to focus on what’s important. “When you look at people that you might admire—and I’m not saying I’m like them—but whether it’s Frank Gehry or maybe a musician, they’re just at play. And that’s why I try to remain a designer. I’ve learned business and I’ve been fortunate in business. But I’m a designer, mostly. And I want to stay a designer.”

Barry is careful, though, to clarify exactly what she thinks it means to be a designer — and the answer might surprise you.

“Years and years ago, when I started, people used to put something under their name. [For example,] ‘Barbara Barry, Interior Designer’. But I thought, I’m not going to say that because I’m not an interior designer. You’ve put your name, Khachi — it’s you,” she says, referring to my business cards. “And you’re the filter. And that needs no explanation; it just is evident in the choices you make. ‘Designer’ is just a moniker, just a title. I think there can be designers who are mothers at home who are taking care of their children in a beautiful way. There are cooks who are creating beautiful meals. There are people who don’t do any of that, but they are just kind and they have manners. And that’s a beautiful design.”

There are big changes on the horizon for Barry. She recently sold her home in Beverly Hills, a 5,000 square foot home filled with pieces from her signature collections. It’s a fairly traditional home with flourishes of English architecture and hints of classic Hollywood glamour. The home sold furnished for $7.85 million, and this marks the beginning of a new chapter in Barry’s life — and, perhaps, work.

Barry’s new home couldn’t be further removed in terms of style. Earlier this year, Barry purchased a home in Ojai, California: a glass, triangular house situated on a hillside, with mid-century bones and a breathtaking view. This house, in Barry’s words, is ‘masculine’ in design — a definite transition from the feminine style for which she is known.

The move might be surprising to some, but after sitting down with Barry and hearing her talk about life, art, and work, this seems like a natural step for her, merely the next chapter in her lifelong love affair with design and nature.

That passion for nature makes her light up when she speaks. It also might explain her growing obsession with Canada, a playground for anyone fond of the vast outdoors. She becomes animated when talking about the future and the parts of the country she has yet to discover.

“I want to see more of Alberta…I’m a mountain person,” she says. “When I decided I wanted to paint mountains, it was like, oh get real — that’s even harder! I really like to paint snow. So I’m trying to get back to Jasper, right when the ski lifts close but before the snow’s gone and it’s cold outside. I want to get up to Ottawa. I want to go to Nova Scotia. And B.C. I want to do the sunshine coast.” The list doesn’t end there. “And just come back to this great town. And get back to Toronto. And get back to Montreal. And I’ve never been to Quebec!”

It strikes me as a travesty that Barbara Barry has never seen Quebec City, the oldest walled city in North America. I can picture her there, becoming totally enraptured by the old architecture and the cobbled streets and the sheer beauty of it all. I tell her so.

“Take me there,” she says.

Ok, Barbara Barry. I’m definitely up for that.