ISSUE 6  |  Amore

Ask the Expert: Romantic Luxuries for Less, 12 Questions for Designer Barbara Barry

February 12, 2016 4:00 AM

BY Margot Guralnick

Who can resist asking a pro to share her wisdom? Barbara Barry, the LA designer famous for her quietly romantic, old-Hollywood-style interiors, recently wrote to tell us she’s a Remodelista reader. We, in turn, responded with a lot of questions for her.

Barry grew up in Northern California in a family of artists and studied at the Academy of Art College in SF (though she says she never had any formal training in design). She’s been running her own firm for 31 years, along the way designing collections for Ann Sacks Tile, Baker Furniture, and Kravet Fabrics, among many others (plus assembling her work in a book, Around Beauty). She describes her look as “painterly, sensual, and warm modern,” and talks about the importance of mood: “We respond to a room on a visceral level, not an academic one.” We appreciate the underpinning of calm and comfort in all of Barry’s work—and graciousness, a quality that extends to her answers to our queries.

Remodelista: What’s the most flattering paint color?

Barbara Barry: Believe it or not, green. Why? Because it’s the opposite of red and if you dial it way back, (think soft, neutral gray-greens) then skin tones look soft and rosy against it—picture all those John Singer Sargent portraits. Some paint shades that fit the bill: Benjamin Moore’s Silver Marlin, Gray Wisp, and Misted Green.


Above: A watercolor by Barry via Baker Furniture.

RM: What’s your go-to neutral white?

BB: I think the perfect white is a fraught concept. That’s because color in general, and white in particular, is sympathetic, meaning it reflects what’s around it. So if you have a red brick wall, a cement wall or a green garden outside your window you need to correct for that. To keep it safe choose a warmer white that will neutralize the situation, such as Dunn-Edward’s Whisper, Benjamin Moore’s White Dove, and Farrow & Ball’s All White.

Barbara-Barry design in Jackson Hole, Wyoming |Remodelista

Above: Barry painted this Jackson Hole, Wyoming, house creamy white on a landing (L) and a brighter white in a hall (R) fitted with built-in storage.

RM: Ways to add luxurious texture without spending a fortune?

BB: Luxury comes in many forms and one of them is sound. If you want your space to feel more luxurious think of layering it with sound absorbing materials. A simple drapery panel hung on a wall behind an upholstered piece of furniture can work wonders. Top it off with a comfy throw and soft down pillow. Each of these layers and textures absorbs sound and makes the room feel rich.

Wood paneled romantic bedroom designed by Barbara Barry | Remodelista

Above: A textural Malibu bedroom from Barry’s portfolio.

RM: How do you make a bedroom instantly more romantic?

BB: Super-light down everything and low lighting. Never underestimate the power of beauty to deliver a sense of well-being.

RM: Have you learned anything of interest over the years about bed making?

BB: Freshness is everything. Every part of the bed can be washable, from your mattress pad to your pillows (buy all down, not feathers, with all-cotton covers). The bed is not the place to make a decorative statement, it’s the place to get restored and renewed, and nothing does that better than a good night’s sleep in fresh linens. As for the correct number of pillows: Any pillow that isn’t being used for support or sleeping is too much.

Designed Barbara Barry watercolor and detail of her LA house | Remodelista

Above L: “I love the way watercolor lets me to tease an idea alive,” Barry says. Photograph via Baker Furniture. Above R: A corner of Barry’s own house in LA, via Town & Country.

RM: What’s a nice touch that makes a big difference in a bathroom?

BB: Every room feels better with soft light. If space is tight, think of using a wall sconce with a fabric shade. For a larger room, a shaded lamp on a vanity is heaven, And for real drama, put in a floor lamp. Soft materials, such as terry and linen, and upholstery are also luxurious additions.

Barbara-Barry-Classic-collection-for-BedBath&Beyond |Remodelista

Above: A sampling of Barry’s designs for Bed, Bath & Beyond

RM: What’s your favorite simple, affordable window covering?

BB: I like to think of window coverings as another layer of architecture. Shades and curtains can help correct a potentially not-perfect window shape. Keep them simple and choose a plain fabric in the same color family as the wall thus extending the space.

Barbara-Barry-Beverly-Hills bedroom and closet | Remodelista

Above L: A linen cupboard in a Barry-designed Beverly Hills house. Above R: In the master bedroom, she paired French doors with a Roman shade that harmonizes with the walls.

RM: Tips for creating romantic lighting?

BB: Balanced and diffuse light is the most flattering. And for a romantic vibe, instead of overhead lighting, think of “pools of light” at eye level.

RM: What’s your pet peeve when you walk into people’s houses? 

BB: Too much clutter! We tend to not see all that we’ve brought into our homes, but space is precious. Clearing out and keeping your home fresh is a form of visual health as well as mental health. I love John Pawson’s phrase: “The presence of absence.” 

RM: Can you fill us in on some basic design rules that amateurs don’t understand? 

BB: I don’t think amateurs fathom the power of a single idea. With so many products available, the tendency is to buy visually arresting pieces without thinking about how they all hang together—and then lacking the discipline of an overarching design concept, the room becomes a humble jumble of stuff. If the goal is a calm setting, then it demands that everything be simple and work together in a harmonious way. If I’ve learned anything it’s this: A single idea or color story is enough, and simplicity is always best. You can’t have everything say, “Look at me!

ikea-storjorm-mirror with integrated lighting | remodelista

Above: A Barry favorite from Ikea: the Storjorm Mirror.

RM: Favorite Ikea designs? 

BB: Here are my top five: 

1. The Aläng Ceiling Lamp and Aläng Floor Lamp for powder rooms and closets. 2. Storjorm Mirror with Integrated Light: Great design at an affordable price.
3. Friheten Sofa Bed with Chaise: It includes a place to store the bedding.
4. Kuggis Box with Lid for organizing your things.
5. Alex Desk: It incorporates a place for cables.

RM: Guilty secret: What’s something we wouldn’t expect you to live with, but that you do—and love?

BB: My mangle. I could not live without it. I like everything ironed, and you can get really good and fast at putting your sheets and linens through the mangle, pajamas, too.

Modern mangle: the Miele pedal-operated rotary iron | Remodelista

Above: The pedal-operated Miele Rotary Iron, a modern version of the mangle, is currently on sale at Williams-Sonoma for $1,999.95 (down from $2,199).

Go to Barbara Barry to see her portfolio.

And for more Expert Advice, take a look at: