John Barman

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John Barman was one of the designers in our very first batch of HOUSE interviews and he had us reaching for the names of movies that we thought would best describe his style sensibility—James Bond! Austin Powers! This time, after his sophisticated renovation, we were thinking Bertolucci films. But in the end the look is very much his own. It’s colorful and swanky—something we haven’t seen for ages and we hadn’t realized how thirsty we were for a bit of true glamour. “What’s wrong with a little glamour?” he asked us. “It’s not like you get up in the morning and it’s a problem.”

Click to order John Barman Interior Design.

So looking at your book, John Barman Interior Design [The Monacelli Press], it kind of made me feel happy because there was so much color — we live in a world, where, increasingly we seem to be moving towards what everyone depressingly calls a “neutral palette”. I was wondering about the kinds of people who come to you, who really want color … are they …


Well, are they more optimistic than other people?

Sometimes I have to talk with them about the introduction of color … they’re scared of it. Historically it’s hard to understand because throughout history people have always said “color.” Eighteenth-century France, 19th century America … it kept going. The 40s in America were very colorful and so were the 80s. Then all of sudden in the 90s everything became beige.

Do you think that was a response to the excesses of the “Bonfire of the Vanities” look?

Well that might have been a good response at the time but it didn’t have to last for 25 years! But then they got a little surprise when it became grey—but one thing about grey is that grey accepts color a lot better. I did this room thinking that I wanted to do it a little more “normally” and I did it in grey …

Contemporary work, including this painting by Jack Goldstein, lines the walls of John’s foyer and main hallway.
A painting by Barnaby Furnas hangs opposite “Omerta” by Norbert Bisky.

Yes … looking around this room, I realized it’s actually quite quiet …

Well, I was trying but I was very unhappy and I had to put the color in. It didn’t give me pleasure. Also the way I use color, it’s very easy to change it. It doesn’t have to be that scary.

Do you miss a bit that over the centuries, aside from color, we’ve also moved further and further away from adornment to unadorned surfaces? I keep wondering how we’ve turned our eye away from all that skill to something else.

It’s such a good question. I’ve never thought about it before. It’s just a style trend but …

The living room is a long space, divided into three distinct seating areas and a desk area.
John shares the apartment with his partner Kelly Stuart Graham and their adorable sixteen-year-old pug, Buster.
Lacquered walls in a neutral gray provide a quiet backdrop to the contemporary and mid-century furnishings as well as the art that fills the expansive living room space.

A sinuous and highly reflective chrome room divider with a pattern of convex spherical forms announces the presence of bold geometry in the living room.

Tangerine side chairs, raspberry and orange pillows contrast with the neutral grays of the living room. Blenko and Venini glass objects in yellow and red add extra color.
A French desk from the 1940s in sycamore veneer is combined with a pair of Pace chairs with Lucite legs.
In the far corner of the living room a vibrant painting by Karin Davie hangs above an L-shaped sofa. The chrome-plated table lamp dates to the 1970s and is by Curtis Jere.

A painting with a nostalgic twist by Paco Pomet hangs above a 1940s French bar cabinet.

I think it’s something more than a trend. I’m wondering if we’ve lost it forever, the love of ornate decoration that required all that skill.

It could be cultural, like in Thailand, there is still some of that. There was just an article today in the Times about the room at the Armory. I went on a tour one day and it’s so ornate with so many interesting elements and all the intricacies of it but it’s just not the taste of today.

I guess mass production overwhelmed so much. I also wonder if it has something to do with the way life is so much faster than it once was. Perhaps smooth surfaces are calming?

I was reading something about life being faster. In the beginning of the 19th century, armies even marched slower. And if people from the 18th century came back, they would wonder why the people are on the street were walking so fast, what it was that they were running from.

In the library John and Kelly installed a bright-blue cobalt lacquer as a transition between the dining room and gallery. A painting by Lisa Milroy hangs above a custom sofa covered in blue flannel from Loro Piana. Mid-century swivel chairs are upholstered in a Mongolian lamb fur; vintage plaster and gold leaf tables lamps stand atop side tables by Paul Ferrante.

A vintage Art Deco style mirror hangs above a 19th century Empire console.

Favorite glass objects and books are carefully arranged upon the library coffee table.
A view into the dining room from the library.

Amazing Buster.

Perhaps with the eye itself, you need more time to soak up that ornamentation. You need to slow down to look at it. But we don’t want to have to deal with that. Hotels cater to that, that smooth, beige hotel-look.

A lot of clients want that. You don’t go to designed houses very often. Hotels and restaurants are where people see design.

So from when we last interviewed you, what has changed?

Well the electronic part of it is major. If you’re working on a luxury apartment, there are all these decisions about how much is needed—you don’t want too many switches or have it all too complicated. Maybe we could even get back to the concept of just one switch.

Imagine that!

And it all has to be hidden within the walls.

Custom stainless steel cabinets were installed in the bar room which is just off the central corridor.
The abstract black-and-silver paper echoes the black-and-white floor tiles.
To foil the boxy dimensions of the dining room an oversize table sits on a round carpet insert. To bring the eye up and give the illusion of a height, John and Kelly created a large circular coffer in the ceiling and painted it a high-gloss yellow. The painting above the mirrored Tommi Parzinger console is by Kelly.

A colorful painting by Agathe de Bailliencourt commands attention below the yellow tray ceiling.
A dramatic chandelier by Claude Ferre was retained from Kelly and John’s former dining room.
A banquette adorned with pillows and shades in a modern Greek key motif provides a perch in the corner of the dining room for taking in the city view.
Peeking into the dining room from the kitchen.

I have to say that there’s just the two of you in this enormous apartment—how do you live in it?

Oh, you get used to space so easily.

Do you ballroom dance around? Tell us how you use it.

I always tell my clients, you’ve got to use the rooms! All people need is a bedroom and a kitchen—everything else is extra.

And a bathroom.

A bathroom! Yes the bathroom first! But you should use different rooms at different times of day. In the weekend I read the newspaper in here because it’s light. You follow the light, I guess.

John swears that he really does cook in this totally immaculate kitchen.

The walls of the glamorous guest bath are covered in a Romo wallpaper.
In the powder room a bold marbleized wallpaper is from Romo. Vintage Blenko glass objects are arranged atop the glass self.

I think your house and your style is very glamorous.

Do you mean swanky? A little glamour is nice. What’s wrong with a little glamour? It’s not like you get up in the morning and it’s a problem.

You grew up in Manhattan. Could you ever live anywhere else?

I can’t … I lived in the Hollywood Hills for a three month period. It didn’t work out. I finally realized there was nothing there … in search of a city is what it is.

There is one thing I love about New York that you don’t get anywhere else—there are no dreary Sunday afternoons. It’s as lively on a Sunday as it is on any other day of the week—in a different way maybe, but it’s still lively.

It’s so funny because a friend of mine who travels a lot and she said something about Amsterdam: “It’s like Poughkeepsie on a Sunday afternoon!” I always think of that phrase when I go there.

Looking down the sleek lacquered walls of the bedroom hallway. Flooring transitions from black and white stone to red carpet to indicate a shift from public to private spaces.
A plum L-shaped sofa fills a corner of the media room. The dining table is by Holly Hunt and was altered to a height between coffee table and dining table–all the better for casual dining or working in the cozy setting. The chairs are mid-century vintage as is the Arco sweeping floor lamp.

A projection TV mounted on the far wall transforms the room into a fabulous movie theater.
Wonderful city views towards Fifth Avenue from the Media Room.
John and Kelly knew they had the perfect spot to hang “Invisible Heaven” by Ross Bleckner when they purchased the painting.

How often do you have people over?

Kelly and I try to entertain more at home rather than go to restaurants. I think it’s nicer. People like it better. People are so surprised to be invited to someone’s apartment.

But then you can’t get up and leave.

That’s not the problem in America. They leave so early. The problem is keeping them … the minute you put the dessert fork down, they’re out the door.

You have a library, so I guess you read a lot.

I don’t really watch television but in the library, there are no reading books—they’re all design books. I put the reading books away. I don’t think a library now should be books that you read because that’s like showing off your old clothes. It’s like saying, “I’ve read all these books” It’s like showing off. I have books on my Kindle. Why do you have to have out a book that you read? It’s like keeping your old sweaters on display.

A work by German artist Frank Thiel hangs in the entryway to the master bedroom.
Mirrored walls camouflage closet space and reflect light (and Jeff and Jeff again) in the master bedroom.
Marcus Leatherdale’s photo of Mme. du Barry’s Chair hangs in the entryway to the master bedroom.
The master bedroom features dramatic black walls, a red carpet and white accent walls and niches. A Lucite chair by Plex-craft is tucked under a wooden desk by Pierre Guariche.
Kelly’s painting hangs above the bed outfitted in linens from E. Braun. The vintage night tables are from Herman Miller.

Buster’s toys.
The colors of a painting by Claude Vernard play off of the red wall-to-wall carpeting from Stark.

Vintage glass, flower paintings and other favorite objects are arranged on glass shelves in the master bedroom.
A vintage cabinet in red, white and black laminate featuring iron legs perpetuates the bath’s strong geometry. The painting is by Kelly.
Unlike the large scale of the public areas John and Kelly shifted to smaller-scaled shadow box mosaic floor in the master bath.

The guest bedroom. A lithograph by Sonia Delaunay hangs on the right wall.
A Joe La Piana photograph and a vintage lamp are arranged on a round glass-top night table.
Design magazine fill the shelves of a wood table by Dunbar.
Vintage objects, art and design books and a flat screen TV fill the master bedroom bookcase. The painting next to bathroom door is by Peter Dean.

[Sian] You should see Lesley’s apartment …

I don’t decorate with books. Books you have to read. Have the book out that you’re reading.

[Lesley] I love seeing what people have read. And I liked it when people had their vinyl LPs out and you could see what music they have.

I think it’s cool to have the old records because you have to deal with them. But I liked it when you could stack them and they dropped down. I would love to have a turntable.

Do you listen to a lot of music?

I’ve had a lot of problems figuring out what I’m going to listen to. I go to Pandora and you have to tell Pandora what you like … and I don’t know what to tell Pandora.

You talk about what’s changed in the last five years … that’s what changed.

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