John Barman, a prominent interior designer here in New York, died last week after a valiant battle against pancreatic cancer. I met him and his life partner Kelly Graham more than 25 years ago here in New York. Like so many friendships I’ve had, the NYSD was messenger.
John was already prominent as an interior designer, but he had modesty about him. I learned only recently that he’d started out in life getting a graduate degree in business. I wasn’t surprised because aside from his talent, he was a serious businessman with a sunny quality about him. He was easy to laugh with; his impeccable manners a matter of fact.
He and Kelly were active hosts and they gave wonderful dinner parties in their penthouse like apartment (on the 18th floor with sweeping city views east, west, south and north). They also had houses out East where there were dinner parties with lots of friends and weekend guests. It was a good life.
He wasn’t a quiet man but he was clearly a man who followed his intentions. Clients for example expect perfection. So did John; that was his ace. His passing is a great loss to all who knew him, and a greater loss to his partner Kelly; they were a team in life, both people who like people.
John was an early interview when JH and Sian and Lesley launched our HOUSE section. There was a second one, below, which we ran in 2016. The meetings were always an interesting conversation between Sian and Lesley with John, while JH was busy with his photographic conversation with The Subject’s Interior. — DPC
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.”
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 …
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 …
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.
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.
And it all has to be hidden within the walls.
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.
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.
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.
[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.