June 1, 2010

Barn Again: John Barman Re-Imagines A Connecticut Barn And Farmhouse

A farmhouse and a barn—both constructed in the 19th century, joined in the 20th, and surrounded by fields in Roxbury, Connecticut—should have been destined to be a decorating no-brainer, a country-casual cliché. But the property’s new owners, a New York couple with a teenage daughter and son and a serious contemporary-art collection, couldn’t abide the thought of a predictable mix of rustic furniture and folk art. To assess the situation, they turned to John Barman, whose namesake firm had decorated their city apartment with French 1940’s savoir faire. 

“The place was very kitschy, with farm animals painted on the kitchen cabinets,” Barman says. Figuring that it was what it was, however, he suggested simply doing Modern Barn. “I couldn’t really explain what I meant by that,” he admits. “So we all went shopping.” When they found a pair of orange pendant fixtures that looked a bit like old farm equipment, Barman proclaimed: “This is Modern Barn.” Those fixtures, now hanging from the cathedral ceiling of the double-height living room, established the gutsiness that pervades the 10,000-square-foot interior. 

Funky vintage lamps are everywhere, as are circle and cylinder motifs that pay homage to the barn’s corner silo. It now contains a yoga studio, partly below-ground, a breakfast room, and an office. Barman added windows to the latter to take advantage of the views, and he notes that there are no window treatments anywhere in the house, not even in the master bedroom: “The owners were really serious about the views.”

Despite all the windows, New England days can be gray. Barman therefore decided on a palette of yellows and oranges to make the house feel sunny whatever the weather. “We used bright colors, because the stone fireplaces, wood flooring, and heavy beams just eat the light up,” he says. When he reworked the kitchen, he specified open barn-board shelves to be stocked with colorful dishes and canned goods like a pop art installation. For the silo breakfast room, he designed a color-blocked round rug. 

Rugs are defining elements throughout. In the living room, Barman needed one to fit inside the quartet of existing posts that would delineate the seating area while making it obvious how to walk through the space. “It’s the house’s central passageway,” he explains. “To get from the kitchen to anywhere else, you have to go through the living room.” He chose a white rug covered in yellow, orange, and green ovals that coordinate with those crucial orange pendant fixtures overhead. “The rug was the last thing we got for the room, and it made everything pop,” he notes. 

While country flooring tends to be chosen for how well it will stand up to muddy boots, Barman chose rugs to be enjoyed by bare feet. In the sitting area by the kitchen fireplace, for example, a green shag rug looks like a patch of grass. “It’s a 1960’s element that you wouldn’t normally see in the country, which is what makes it Modern Barn,” he says. In the master bedroom, the tufted squares scattered across another shag rug evoke a field of freshly mowed hay. For the combined library and game room, he had a multi-textured rug pattern from the ’60’s recolored to look like spin art, again in bright yellow, orange, and green.

In every room, multicolored, textured ceramic lamps and pendant fixtures have a California-modern vibe. “Most of the lighting is rather quirky. Once we started down that road, though, we needed to carry it through the whole house,” Barman explains. He guesses that the kitchen’s pair of mid-century hour­glass pendant fixtures on gold chains once hung over booths at a Los Angeles coffee shop; the fixtures are now installed, improb­ably, over a long Japanese-style dining table topped with a single slice of tree trunk. 

“Modern Barn is not about modern furniture per se but a modern attitude,” Barman continues. Nonetheless, he purchased more than a few mid-century armchairs, reupholstering them in nubby or fuzzy fabrics for country coziness. “I especially like the Hans Wegner Papa Bear chairs I covered in white lamb ‘s wool,” he says. “The owners asked for somewhere comfortable to read in each room. Did you notice that there are reading glasses on tables everywhere?” He also points out that there are only two TVs. “It’s an old-fashioned notion, going to a specific room to watch TV,” he says. One is in the master bedroom, the other in the den.

Fulfilling the owners’ request for a house that feels like a playhouse, there are foosball and Ping-Pong tables in the library and game room. Another room is devoted to billiards. Like the rest of the decor, the custom-built billiard table’s yellow felt top lightheartedly defies the custom of the country.

Photography by Karim Rashid.

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