First published July 1, 2011: John Barman is something of a decorator Jekyll and Hyde – reticent, nervous of being interviewed and (unusual for someone at the top of his game), more interested in other people than himself. And yet all around us was this exuberant, explosive red and quite extravagant form that spoke of another adventurous, creative personality. Contradictions maketh the man. He was born and raised in Manhattan, growing up on the Upper West Side, where he attended Columbia Grammar, so he has not strayed far from his roots and it is, indeed, difficult to imagine him better placed anywhere else, except perhaps, moonlighting as a set designer for a James Bond movie.
Did you like this apartment straightaway when you walked in?
I loved it. It was a model apartment in the 80s, so there was a lot of peach marble and curved mirrors but I saw from the structure of this that you could just strip it and get back to what it might have been had it been built in the 60s. I got my interest in modern design [that way] … a lot of it came from this. You should work with the architecture and go with what you’ve got.
In what ways has your taste changed?
My last apartment was more traditional, more Empire. But now, the more modern I make it, the more I like it. A lot of people think ‘trendy’ is a bad word to use for design but if you think of design throughout history, you can go back to the 18th century or the 17th century and you can give a date [to the style]. You can say George II or George III, and that’s not considered ‘trendy’, but it was at the time. Louis XV came and they got rid of Louis XIV furniture.
What’s the style now?
I don’t know. I know that style has to move though, you can’t hold it back. ‘Eclectic’ is the most difficult style to do.
How about the style in this apartment? Do you like Austin Powers?
[Laughs] Yes, I do! This is taking it to an extreme that I don’t really do for my clients! You don’t have to go this far.
Do you think ‘green’ design is going to be in?
Very much so. I think that it’s nice to be kind to the environment and recycle things but in a strange way, using older pieces of furniture is a way to be helpful to the environment.
You have a whole herd of zebras on the floor in your house in Sagaponack. Do you ever get environmentalists taking you to task on those zebra skin rugs?
They’re not endangered. They use them for food. They’re bought from a man who is very interested in African animals. If someone did say something, I’d say, ‘Well you’re wearing leather shoes.’ We have leather chairs! It’s the same thing. There are some magazines that won’t have them [in the pictures]. You have to take them out of the room. But from the decorating point of view they’ve been using them since the 20s. They hold up. I also like them because they don’t define the space in the way a square rug does.
How do you live in this apartment, this space? How much do you use it?
I think for anybody being in any space, you only need the bedroom and the kitchen, so you need to find reasons to go to the other rooms, even if you only have one other room. I read the newspaper in here [the living room] in the morning. The light is nice in the morning.
You studied for a business degree at Wharton. Why did you decide to become a decorator?
My mother was a decorator. I was fascinated by it. Her colors were black, white, and red.
Was she ever interested in your input?
You said earlier that you weren’t nervous when you did your first job. What sorts of things do make you nervous?
You’re making me nervous now! [laughs] I don’t get so nervous anymore. I mean maybe about medical procedures or something. But as you go through life you learn to handle it, you calm down as you get older, at least I hope so. That’s the whole point! I don’t let [responsibility] eat me. My father’s whole life was eating him, every day. For no reason. Every day he was upset about something. He woke up with ‘the problem of the day’. It was something I was not going to do. It was a conscious decision not to get upset about something you don’t need to be upset about. I don’t avoid problems, I’m happy to handle them. I deal with the situation.
Where have you been traveling recently?
I went to Brussels, and on to Maastricht for the antiques show. Brussels was small, beautiful and they have a point of view on their little Northern European sense of style. It was a nice surprise. I’m going to Saint Tropez next week. And I was in Japan. You go to cities like Tokyo and a lot of the cities in the Orient and you come back and realize that New York is really an old city.
You always think that you have to go to Europe to find an old city but New York is as old as many European cities. We have old buildings, we have history. You go to Tribeca and you have those big slab stones on the sidewalk. We have so much character.
You’re a native New Yorker so what would be your ideal day in New York?
I like to go around the city and look at things. It’s so much bigger than it was when I was growing up, not just in physical size but there are so many more areas that weren’t there. When I was growing up there was the Upper East Side, the Upper West Side, the Village and there was SoHo. Tribeca wasn’t a place, 14th Street, well you just went through it. And now Brooklyn is so interesting. The city has expanded so much and it’s so much safer than it was when I was young.
Is there a recent art exhibition that you’ve enjoyed? Did you see the Dorothy Draper show?
Yes. It was a little disappointing. She was such a force. She was so bold and so amazing. How she worked on during the war and all the places that she worked on where there was no communication! I’m reading a book about her. She went down to work on an empty hotel in South America that had been a Nazi internment camp. How was she able to work without faxes, or FedEx, or telephones? I’m totally fascinated by the operational aspects! I’m very influenced by her look.
What do you like to watch on TV?
I don’t watch TV very much but I think that TV is very important to keep up with what’s going on. I use TiVo and tape a lot. I like the silly shows … The Gastineau Girls … Desperate Housewives, and Ivana Young Man, which was so wonderful. It was a great show. She was very funny.
What would your choice of meal be, you know, the one you get before you get executed?
Prime rib … and Yorkshire pudding.
And to drink?
Vodka soda. (Ketel One vodka.)
Are you a good sleeper?
I’m the best sleeper. I aim my head to the pillow and then it’s morning.