The Treehouse: Barbara Barry Embraces a Modern Aesthetic in a Mid-century Beverly Hills House
By Nancy Greystone
Oct 01, 2017 | 5:00 AM
Since opening her design firm in 1988, Barbara Barry has been one of the world’s most sought-after interior and product designers. With that has come praise and awards, including the design world’s highest honors: election to Interior Design magazine’s Hall of Fame, Architectural Digest’s AD 100, House Beautiful’s Giants of Design, the Pacific Design Center’s Stars of Design and the American Society of Interior Designers’ College of Fellows. And while decoration is how the iconic designer brings all the elements of a home together, it’s product design that Barry sees as her real calling. “Since working on an all-glass house designed by Arthur Erikson in the nineties, where I witnessed a truly bespoke house, I never looked back,” says Barry. “From hinges to hardware to lighting, fabric and furniture, knowing that if I could design what I wanted, I could get it made—that was a revelation.”
Over the next several months, Barry’s passion for product design will be playing out in multiple launches. Her new furniture collection for Baker (more modern, reflecting her evolving lifestyle) comes out this fall. Her collection for Swarovski’s new venture, Swarovski Home, lands in late fall. Panorama, a fabric and rug collection for Kravet, arrives in spring 2018. A modern bath for Kallista and a tile collection for Ann Sacks also debuts next spring. This, along with design work for a few private clients, makes a strong case for Barry’s embrace of a little stillness, which she is finding in a temporary Beverly Hills residence she calls the Treehouse.
Though her work advances with hurricane force, at the Treehouse, all that seems far away. Yet glimpses of Barry’s famously disciplined approach to her work are evident in the way she lives. It’s there on a list (a long one) of what she intends to accomplish in a single day; it’s there in her pencil sketches for new products; and there again in her watercolor renderings for others. An ardent watercolorist (she describes herself as a “lifelong student”), Barry is known for taking time off to go away and paint. During those weeks that she disappears to Provence, the Austrian Alps or the Canadian Rockies, she disconnects from deadlines, demands and the pressures of running her company, and she reconnects with the beauty of the natural world.
Up in the Treehouse, you have a sense of letting go, of untethering, which is something Barry seeks in life as well as at home. Though “pared back” has always been one way that writers, clients and her many manufacturing partners have characterized Barry’s design style, today the designer herself uses the term to describe her life, as she leaves some things behind while moving forward and embracing others. “Living with less is a revelation,” she says. “The beautiful handmade Japanese ceremonial matcha tea bowl that I used to save for just that purpose is now what I eat my oatmeal from daily. I’m seeing what I have with new eyes.” While she was remodeling her midcentury home in Ojai, one with a definite tilt toward modern, Barry needed a place to perch. Oddly, she found that place on the same block as the house she’d just sold, just four doors down. Four doors down and worlds apart. The Treehouse is the kind of place that makes driving the hills of Los Angeles rewarding. Tucked away and nestled around the hillside, architectural charms like these are the city’s small secrets.
You approach the house, designed by George Foy in 1969, after a long, steep climb—steep enough that, if you arrive on foot, you arrive out of breath. It is set on a two-acre lot, nestled high among old trees. Inside, the spaces are luminous. Though small, the house feels generous due to an open floor plan and the see-through quality of its rooms. Unlike many houses in L.A., this structure wasn’t conceived to impress, and perhaps that’s what is so impressive about it. In this modest and elegant midcentury home, which Barry suggests “was conceived to live in quietly and contemplatively,” there’s a feeling that “living with less feels like more.”
The house achieves that through its intimate scale, its humble materials and its perfect through-lines from room to room. Wide single-pane windows frame the hillside, and when sunlight illuminates the trees, they become the art. This is the Los Angeles living that served as breeding ground for America’s modern lifestyle—not as a place to retreat from the outdoors but as a way of embracing it every day and maintaining an intimate connection with it all year long. Foy and other midcentury California architects celebrated this transparent manner of living, giving it the roots that allow it to flourish today.
“I love the way that modernism, which was so vibrant after the war here and seemed to have fallen asleep, has become revived, cherished even, by a whole new generation,” says Barry. “It’s a generation that sees right through the ‘better, bigger and more opulent’ point of view of the eighties. They’re embracing modernism because it speaks of a more humble way of living in which you love everything you live with. You can’t be a big consumer and live in a modern home.”
In some ways, the Treehouse perhaps serves as a preview of Barry’s life to come in Ojai, where she hopes to dissolve more of the walls that separate living a modern life from experiencing a natural life. For the designer, who grew up in both northern and southern California, this is the essence of California living: connecting with the landscape, connecting with nature, being in and around beauty. And so for her, living in the Treehouse has been not unlike going through a revolving door and coming out in a new direction. “It’s prepared me for what lies ahead,” she says, “which I hope is more time to be quiet, to observe and to find a way to be lighter and freer.”