Barbara Barry doesn’t mince words. She speaks quickly and without pause, calmly stating exactly what she means to say in short quips. She motions gracefully, gesticulating assertively.
“I have a philosophy of making some really strong decisions, which for me, have been really consistent all along,” says Barry, who is propped on the edge of her seat with her elbows resting on her knees, in a quiet booth at IDS Vancouver. Barry is the epitome of her own designs: confident, graceful, clear. She has built an entire empire—a worldwide design firm and collections with the likes of Ann Sacks, Baker Furniture, and Kallista—on the trust of her own instincts. Born and raised in California, Barry can be credited as one of the formative designers who established what the look of the state could be. Creamy, simple colour palettes and nods to American Craftsman, plus Hollywood glamour and an indisputable Californian practicality, are present throughout.
Barry’s own instincts for design grew out of an organic, natural passion. After spending some time in art school, Barry set off sans diploma to Europe to meet the great loves of the continent: wine and cheese. Upon returning home she opened a cheese shop in Mendocino, where people first took notice of her penchant for design. From there, one thing led gracefully to another. “The world was very different. There wasn’t internet, there wasn’t as much access to materials and to companies,” she reflects. “And I think I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”
Barry eventually moved to Los Angeles (where she is still based today), establishing her design firm in 1985. “I was very fortunate to be able to connect in the design world. I just started drawing everything. If I wanted something, I drew it. And I just found a Mexican upholsterer and I asked, ‘Can we make this?’ And I learned how furniture was made by working with places like that,” she says. “Design is expression, and I look back now and I realize I just had a lot of energy and I had an opinion. Because what’s the difference between a weed and a flower? An opinion.”
Her sense of direction hit her early, inspired by her Californian upbringing. “I came from a family of painters, and for me design is all about a way of looking—a way of seeing—the world,” Barry says. Her mother had a particular influence on her. “My mother painted all over our walls,” Barry says, smiling. “She was a Renaissance painter, she mixed her own paints. She never really travelled but she channelled Michelangelo, Tiepolo. She was a real eccentric woman. We hated it then, ‘Our crazy mom’—but I look back and see so much that I got from her.”
“Design is expression, and I look back now and I realize I just had a lot of energy and I had an opinion. Because what’s the difference between a weed and a flower? An opinion.”
Barry herself has some strong, eccentric tendencies, as well. For one thing, she is adamantly against the use of patterns in her designs and products. “To me, life is a pattern, so I am anti-pattern in terms of decorating,” she says, though she also doesn’t like to use the term “decorating”. She continues: “Patternment comes from your face, your clothes, the fruit, the books, the children, the art, the stuff.” Her hard resolve is the result of years of study towards a single goal: calm. “It’s a way of surviving. It’s all I’m doing,” Barry states. “I’m groping in the world to make simplicity and harmony and beauty and calmness.”
It’s not difficult to see why Barry has been so wildly successful in her field. The trust she finds in her opinions, her sense of direction, is admirable to the point of emulation. It’s an aspirational quality, but one that can only be gleaned with the passing of time. “It’s just something that builds,” she says. “But I think it’s ultimately important to look inward and try to understand what it is that you have. What is it that you have to offer?” It’s easy to see what Barry has to give to the world, and she wouldn’t have it any other way.