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While this diverse knowledge base informs his work, it’s clear that his greatest interest is making his clients’ dreams come true with beautifully designed spaces that will continue to captivate them for years. We asked Barber about his myriad inspirations, his use of color, and the stories behind his furnishings
Q: It seems like travel is a big influence for you. Where have you been recently that inspired you?
A: The last trip I had was to Copenhagen. One of the things that astonished me there was the modernity of some of the 17th-century architecture. There was a dressing room in the Rosenborg castle that was all done in black glass with gilded edges on all these paneled doors. It looked like it could have been made yesterday. The opera house on the harbor is clean and modern and emphatic on the outside, and when you’re inside it functions like a classic opera house. It has this great grand staircase that gives you the ability to people watch and get the entire theatrical experience. I found a connection between modern and antique there that I really don’t see much in Los Angeles.
Q: Speaking of that connection, you’re currently the president of the Southern California Chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Classical America. Why is classical architecture important to you in the 21st century?
A: I love the study of classical architecture. What the ancients knew about proportions, shadow, light, detail, and scale, are all things every furniture designer needs to know. If you don’t learn it, your work isn’t as alive and detailed, and ultimately as appealing as it could be. I think that studying history, whether you travel and sketch, or take a class on the Corinthian order, what you learn is something you can apply directly to design and furniture.
Q: Is there an example of how that training comes across in a piece in your collection?
A: There’s one called the Howard Chest that’s really a simple box with an asymmetric drawer on a steel stand. The entire box is made with exposed dovetailed joinery that shows through the exterior of the casework so you see all the ways it was put together—ways that were developed over centuries and that don’t require screws and nails. In the big flat sections where you would normally panel a door, or do something kind of rich, I kept it flat but selected burl veneers. Burl veneers are kind of an old-fashioned idea—they were really popular in 17th- and 18th- century furniture design—but you hardly see them used any more. So for me to take these two really classic furniture-building approaches to create a modern piece that’s really streamlined and functional and simple creates this eye-catching quality that to me makes a room.
Q: It seems as though much of your work shares a soft, somewhat muted color palette. What are your thoughts on color?
A: I’ve studied watercolor since I was 10, and what I learned from my first teacher was if you want blue, you don’t put blue on the page, you put green, lavender, indigo, and maybe a few other colors to get the depth of the blue that you’re after. So when you see the fabrics that I use, you’ll find either muted colors or layers of similar colors that aren’t matched. I try very hard to set up a little bit of dissonance when I’m repeating the same color over and over in a room so it’s not the exact shade of red seen throughout, but it’s a range from the browner to the bloodier reds, even to the blue reds. If you go on a hike in the fall and you look at leaves on the forest floor, you’ll see 90 shades of orange and red and green underfoot. I try to do the same thing in a room.
Q: What else, in your view makes a room great?
A: First it has to do what it needs to do—whether it’s a dining room or a bedroom. It has to accommodate its functions. It also has to be extraordinarily comfortable. If there’s a chair that’s uncomfortable in that room, get rid of it. Most of all it has to be interesting to you over time. But to make a room great—not just serviceable—it’s got to be beautiful. For me beauty has to be integrated with integrating it with other aspects of your life and your values. The details really need to be personally tailored to the owner. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have a strong hand in accessorizing, detailing, and choosing colors and forms, but all those choices also have to resonate with the person who is going to be there years later waking up over that morning cup of coffee and thinking, “I’m so glad that I live here.”
Q: Does your approach to designing furniture differ from your approach to either architecture or interiors?
A: One strong difference is that with furniture design you’re much more your own client. Maybe because there are so many ways to solve a problem, so many ways to make a chair, so many ways to make something comfortable, so many choices of finishes and details, it’s a much more personal experience for me. When you’re dealing with architecture, you’re dealing with the site, the climate, the owner, and their values, the city and its constraints, the contractor and his abilities—it’s much more complicated. With furniture you’re more free to make choices yourself. Maybe that’s why my collection is so idiosyncratic.
Q: What makes it idiosyncratic? What was your overall approach to the collection?
A: There are several things that set it apart. The scale of the pieces is relatively modest. I don’t have any giant sofas or huge items. Also, the time period from around 1915-1955 is such an inspiration to me, not just in American design but also in French furniture. In America, some of the best streamlined, yet classic furniture and architecture was built then. To me it’s worth a second look as we try to forge our way forward in the early part of the 21st century and I think these pieces reflect that. Lastly, my furniture reflects an affinity for things that have been assembled by hand and with some thought, not crisp shapes with highly lacquered machine finishes. I wanted to see a hand in it.
Q: How would you envision the pieces working together?
A: My clients lives are so flexible—in any given month they’ve added a couple pieces of furniture, they’ve moved things around, or they’ve furnished a guest house or vacation home—so the ability of these pieces to work together or to complement products from other designers or someone’s existing furniture is essential. I like that you could pull out a chair and replace it with something else, or move it to another room and use it in a different position, so that the house doesn’t stay static. I’ve tried to make my furniture clean, unfussy, durable, and thoughtful, so it can work in a variety of settings, and as you live with these pieces over time and you’re sitting there month after month with your morning coffee and have a moment to be reflective you can appreciate the scale or the detail or the texture.
Q: You’ve penned some fairly ribald descriptions for your Dering Hall assortment. Are you secretly into romance novels?
A: If you count Edith Wharton, I am a romance reader. I read voraciously. In these descriptions, what we’ve done is we’ve picked our favorite authors from that same period, the early part of the 20th century, and if the piece had a certain flair to it we tried to pick an author—from Gertrude Stein to Raymond Chandler—who might have a similar flair in their writing and used that as a point of departure for the description. When we started describing the furniture we wanted it to be fun. People could enjoy reading these and they could actually associate it with something. It can’t just be a chair. It has to be a chair with a tale to tell—a history.