Excerpted from “John Barman Interior Design” by John Barman and Anthony Iannacci (The Monacelli Press, 2015).
The best contemporary interior design speaks about today: new materials, the latest technology, inventiveness, unexpected use of color, unconventional applications, a piece that looks like it could have come from the Salone Internazionale del Mobile in Milan or Maison&Objet in Paris. Not all of these generally make their way into any single residence, because we seek above all to make our homes truly comfortable, but it’s always good to include something “of the moment” to keep a room current. It takes verve, spirit, and enthusiasm on the part of both a designer and a client to use unconventional elements. Hotels and restaurants, which often strive to reflect the latest styles, are frequently the originators of cutting-edge design. Our mobile society is greatly influenced by these trends, and people often request something new they experienced on their travels—scaled correctly—for their residence. These diverse influences appear in the rooms that follow.
Interior design always endeavors to be creative, but the design process is still inevitably and inextricably shaped by convention. It takes knowledge of tradition to distill the canon of historical styles for use in contemporary interiors and to reinterpret their various details in modern ways—and a creative eye to do so successfully. The new millennium is abundant with ideas and opportunities for expressing different genres of design, and any at any given time different styles, different moods, different colors can be appropriate. Now more than ever, interior designers are expected to be able to switch styles and periods effortlessly, and to be driven by the preferences of an educated client. To do it in good taste is the challenge. Rooms from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries particularly continue to inform traditional interiors today, especially in regards to furnishings. However, unless a client truly wishes to install a “period” room, traditional conventions are brought into the twenty-first century with an easier and less formal execution, maybe one that is even lighthearted or romantic. Here, layering and embellishing the decorative elements is key—not to imply that every surface or window always needs to be polished, upholstered, or draped. Traditional rooms have specific assignments: foyer/gallery, living room, dining room, library, bedroom, study. Architectural details will be applied accordingly to walls, doors, and built-in pieces. The use of color, texture, and pattern may be complex, but can also be extremely simplified, even pared down to one color or pattern.
Contemporary art is recommended to tie these spaces firmly to the present.
The terms “modern” and “contemporary” are often used interchangeably although to designers they mean very different things—but they are related. Contemporary, technically speaking, just means “produced recently” although in practice it usually refers to an aesthetic of open spaces, a casual atmosphere, and furnishings that are obviously current. Today’s modern interior, by contrast, is influenced by elements introduced in the mid-twentieth century, by ideas and concepts that were part of the modernist movement. While forward-thinking for their time, modernist pieces have since become classics, and are ubiquitous. Now, modern interiors can range from exuberant to understated, colorful to neutral to monochromatic, or luxe to rustic. Most modernist furnishings have clean lines; there may be hard corners or soft curves, but all are united by an uncluttered look that is free from unnecessary adornment. Finishes are smooth, whether lacquered or stained. Textiles are innovative but also comfortable or utilitarian. The approach is refined, curated, and thought out. Modern interior design relies on the details: when so much is unadorned it needs to be executed skillfully.
A relatively new term in interior design is “transitional.” This means more than just finding a happy medium between historic and contemporary pieces, however. A transitional interior draws on both while striving to be comfortable, soothing, and familiar. Architectural elements may indicate a preference for either traditional or modern, but are counterbalanced by furnishings that stop the architecture from dictating only one mood. Earlier eras of design are drawn upon and reinterpreted with still recognizable origins under cleaner lines, or, conversely, period details are elaborated on and executed in new materials and finishes. Textiles referencing historic textures and motifs, in particular, are often rendered in new scales or colors. The most overused, abused, and misunderstood term for an interior is certainly “eclectic.” Often rooms described as eclectic are little more than a random mixture of styles and objects.
When applied conscientiously and effectively however, an eclectic approach melds elements together like varied ingredients in a delicious recipe. Contrasting colors are used to create a dialogue—although often just one color family and one contrast color, to avoid overwhelming the eye. Eclectic interiors need one dominant feature, which should be accentuated by the placement and incorporation of alternative shapes, finishes, and motifs. What unites eclectic interiors and keeps them pleasing to the eye are correlations of one object to another—or the creation of obvious contrasts. Eclectic interiors are popular with collectors; the eye of a collector will have varied interests, but most gravitate to a common underlying concept that appeals to them. Carefully edited eclectic rooms have the potential to be very successful.
Of course today interiors are not limited to any one defined genre, so neither are the spaces that follow these pages. Specific furniture, materials, or even architecture does not define a genre or style; it is the overall use of the tools and aesthetic put forward by each that is the defining factor. It is important to have a vision that is focused, but the most important thing is to have