Friday, March 25, 2011

Barbara Barry at WestWeek: Taking Us to New Worlds Through Design

Yesterday, I saw Barbara Barry in person for the first time, and to describe her in a word, she was inspiring—a breath of fresh air in a world of fast-talking, larger-than-life (mostly snooty) designers.  Her demeanor forced listeners to take pause, to reflect long enough to see and enjoy the beauty that can be found in the everyday little moments of life.  Her very presence created a sense of calm, which is reflected not only in her designs, but in her latest line for Kravet:  Indochine, meaning “Indo-China.”    
Barbara was dressed in a subtle, powdery grey from head to toe.  Her chestnut hair was perfectly plumped and pinned back in front—not too uptight—loose, yet not a hair out of place.  She wore a cashmere/wool shift and a monotone jacquard scarf with a delicate and almost indistinguishable paisley motif.  The swirls of pattern of her scarf were more like wispy clouds in the sky, difficult to separate one from another.  She even wore semi-transparent grey-tinted stockings with grey pumps, just the right height, no more than two inches (probably 1½).  Around her neck draped two long strands, one of pearls, the other, matching beads.  Impeccable.  And though grey may sound lackluster or dull, it was simply the backdrop allowing her brilliance to show through.  Her face, with slender delicate lines of age, absolutely glowed.  She had a wide, warm smile and eyes that sparkled with sincerity as she reached out, while she was speaking, to clasp the hand of someone she recognized in the crowd.  What was supposed to be an intimate “tea” with Barbara Barry in the Kravet showroom, turned into a crowded must-see event and was moved into a larger rented space below the showroom to accommodate the many fans who waited in line and crowded the door, nearly knocking each other over, just to get a closer view of Barbara.  I was one of them.       
Time seemed to slow as she spoke.  With each word carefully chosen, she shared about herself, her background, her perspective and her inspiration.  She talked about growing up as the daughter of an artist, and how her upbringing is reflected in her values, particularly her aesthetic values (though I would argue, for most artists, they are one and the same).  She said for her, “living simply and with quality is the highest form of luxury,” and this ethos is very clearly reflected in her products and designs. 
She is also deeply connected to her femininity, and certainly not ashamed of it.  She says it is the reason she often depicts her product lines, and the associated inspirational images, with photographs of women (often seen in luscious taffeta gowns and full skirts).  She referred to herself as a “woman who dreams a lot,” and spoke of how she sees the world through the eyes of an artist, naturally drawn to light, form, color and texture.  To her design is “proportion and balance in both tone and texture.”  Again and again she reiterated her search for calm and harmony.  “I can’t be in an ugly space for too long,” she said, “it makes me sick.”  Despite the laughter of the crowd, Barbara’s words were serious and are echoed in her design philosophy:  beauty is both healing and inspiring.
Barbara then introduced us to her newest line “Indochine” and showed us the inspiration for this collection—her travels to Asia.  Traveling, she says, is both her hobby and her inspiration.  Rarely, can she take a moment away from work, but travel affords her the opportunity to steal away from the busyness of life and be inspired.  On an overhead screen, she projected the most beautiful images from her travels to Asia—all of which she had captured with her digital camera.  Without any cropping or touch-ups, her composition was so balanced, so precise, you would have thought they were taken by a professional photographer.  Clearly, this woman is an artist, whose creative expression knows no bounds.  Her snapshots all had something in common, whether she was capturing color, pattern, light, proportion or balance in composition, there was an overarching peacefulness and serenity conveyed—a mood.   Barbara describes this essence better than I.  “I’m not concerned with what things are,” she said, “but with the mood it creates.  Design brings us into our feelings.”   
With the images from her camera, she transported us into her world.  With each snapshot we floated with her from one moment of inspiration to the next.  “I feel like a whale,” she said, “sucking up small inspirations, one moment at a time, just as whales suck up plankton from the bottom of the sea.”  She showed us images of bright green leaves on damp concrete, repetition in the Tokyo marketplace, the colors of a Buddhist temple, and the intricate patterns of Eastern architecture.  She sees beauty everywhere—in a Japanese tea set, a wooden bowl, and plain white ceramic china on a bamboo serving tray.  And what is more, she collects these beautiful pieces and uses them as an inspirational springboard for her collections.  As she tied up her slideshow presentation, Barbara invited us upstairs for a “sneak peak” at her new collection.  She invited us to “play” with the samples of carpet, wallcovering, fabric, and various other inspirational knick-knacks she had picked up along the way.
Like mice following the Pied Piper, the crowded room quickly emptied, following Barbara upstairs to the Kravet showroom, where one by one she relished every sample and swatch in the collection.  Both color and pattern in the designs were muted offshoots of the photographs we had just seen.  She of course incorporated her signature neutrals of creamy whites, cloudy greys, and khaki taupes, but added hints of deeply complex and saturated color:  aubergine, cocoa, and dark putty hues added visual weight and substance to the collection, and an earthy, leafy “Asian” green (the kind you see on those beaded bracelets or carved jade figurines) also accented the collection.  She even created her own chinoiserie toile with an Asian pastoral theme.  All of the designs in the Indochine collection capture the pattern, the repetition, and even the colors of China, in a muted, water-color way.
The image Barbara selected to represent the Indochine collection is authentic vintage artwork—a depiction of a 1940’s American glamour girl venturing to unknown lands.  Sitting upright next to a large picnic basket, wearing the traditional Asian sedge hat (a cone-shaped straw hat) and a charming, red one-piece swimsuit, the adventurous tourist is surrounded by various international artifacts and souvenirs.  For Barbara, this image represents her collection.  For me, it represents Barbara:  elegant and poised, curious and observant, eager to travel to distant lands, and cherishing even the smallest detail in the world around her.    
“I’m not just in love with design,” she said, “I’m in love with the world.”  And after spending an afternoon with Barbara, you will be too.   

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