This column is not for sale-although I admit it often seems that way. But I accept all those free trips in the spirit of deductive reasoning, like Descartes. I remain detached and unmoved by them even if they do provide a transitory pleasure.
This month, though, is different. I’m doing the whole thing to get a Barbara Barry sofa.
I know it’s a long shot. The only real merchandise I’ve ever gotten out of this column is beer and some make-up designed to appeal to teenage girls. But it’s worth a try.
And I certainly won’t be prostituting myself. Barbara Barry is as good as it gets. Those of you who follow decorating can probably close your eyes and summon up visions of her elegantly simple rooms. And those of you who don’t know Mario Buatta from Melvin Dwork, well, think of Barbara Barry as the Meryl Streep of decorating. She’s at the top of her profession. She gets all the best jobs. And every room she does is deep, original and true, like Ms. Streep’s acting.
I’ll never forget the first time I saw Barry’s work in Architectural Digest. It was a house in Los Angeles, and I got the feeling she was designing it directly for me. It featured her signature colors, shades of greens and taupes. ("Green is my favorite color," she once said. "I even dream in green.") The furniture was perfectly spaced; I seem to remember flowers and highly polished mahogany. There was no pattern to speak of. I decided then and there: Finally-a decorator I could work with.
So when I heard she was going to be giving a talk at Robb & Stucky in Naples, I dropped everything and drove down. So did a lot of people. There was literally a traffic jam on U.S. 41 of people trying to get into the parking lot. It was like a John Grisham appearance at Barnes & Noble.
The woman who introduced her said she reminded her of "a little porcelain teacup with pearls," and when Barbara came out I could certainly see the analogy. She has the style and self-assurance of a French movie star-classic, soft and feminine. There was no overt drama, but when you looked closer you could see the carefully thought-out details. She was wearing a short-sleeved twinset of crochet work (by Dior, she later told me) and a faceted pendant of pale amethyst suspended on a thin gold chain.
It’s tricky when you meet your idols. They usually turn out to be bores or monsters, and you realize you’ve never really been in sync with them after all. But one minute into Barbara’s talk I started to feel like Roberta Flack in that song Killing Me Softly. In stating her philosophy on lifestyle and design, she was echoing my own. Yes, it was like she had found my design notebooks and read each one out loud.
As I listened I took notes, and here is my interpretation of the Barbara Barry lifestyle. First of all, it doesn’t have to be expensive, which is a relief. "Isn’t it funny how money doesn’t buy happiness?" she asked her audience of wealthy Naples matrons. (You should have heard the rueful laugh that greeted that remark.) "I delight in the things that exist freely in the world." By this she meant natural things, like a bowl of green apples or perhaps some arum lilies, which, if not exactly free, are at least obtainable down at Whole Foods. As she pointed out, design-wise there’s never been a better time to be poor. Good design can be purchased in a myriad of places, and nature is these days accepted and even glorified in design.
Second of all, the Barbara Barry look is like a good martini: sophisticated and for grown-ups. It considers the home as a place of luxury and beauty. The concerns of children and some of the messier pets are not addressed. Fine with me. It’s a calming influence after a hard day’s work, a place to rejuvenate. As Barbara puts it, home is that "out breath."
Third, while Barbara’s work is not historically driven, meaning it doesn’t ape styles of the past, it has been influenced by them. Fortunately she has chosen the best. One can see echoes of the great Syrie Maugham, who worked in London back in the ’30s and who came up with the first all-white room. (Yes, she was Somerset’s ex-wife; he left her for his male secretary, whom he later adopted.) Even more striking are the references borrowed from the great Frenchmen of the period, Jacques Emile Ruhlmann and Jean Michel Frank. And overlaying the whole thing, a bow to the Regency period, which existed in England from 1810 to 1820 and is now recognized as perhaps the most elegant style of all.
Barbara was there, of course, not just to talk about philosophy but to introduce her new collection of furniture from Henredon, which is being sold exclusively by Robb & Stucky, at least in Florida. It was surrounding her as she talked, and I was already picking out the sofa I wanted, the Graceful model. That’s its real name-and yes, it was graceful. Small in scale, tightly upholstered, with a subtle curve at the front and tapered wooden legs. I wondered what the employee discount was. If I could at least get that, then I might splurge and get them to throw in a Poodle table.
After Barbara’s talk I managed to arrange a private word with her. I led her to a Graceful sofa and we sat ourselves down. "My, what a comfortable sofa," I said, patting it. A lady came around and offered us little tiny eggs Benedict on puff pastry.
"So tell me," I asked. "Who’s your favorite decorator?" Then I bit into my eggs Benedict, and the yolk dripped down onto the Graceful sofa.
I have no idea what she said, as for the rest of the interview I was much too concerned about the damage I was doing to the Graceful sofa. It was too late to say "Oops" and blot it with a napkin; I had to pretend it never happened. So I kept inching over until I was sitting on it. I was terrified that once we were finished and stood up to say good-bye she would notice it, so I cleverly solved this by saying, "Oh, look! A Poodle table. Let’s go look at it, shall we?"
Still, I’m glad to report that Barbara and I really hit it off. Just about the only difference I could tell between us is that she’s created a design empire that actually exists, whereas mine is all in my head. But still, her every decision is design-driven. The model of Mercedes she wanted didn’t come in the exact shade of ivory she wanted; she almost had it custom painted, but even she knows that sometimes you have to draw the line. (She does wear driving gloves, though.)
So be sure and attend one of the events this month at Robb & Stucky concerning the new California look, in which Barbara’s new line is a key component-think "Hollywood glamour." They’re going to be the most amazing things ever. Now when do I get my sofa? And please-not that one with the egg yolk all over it.