By Stephen Ostrowski | October 14, 2016 | People
Fashion photographer/reality TV star/author/model Nigel Barker adds yet another slash to his successes with his foray into furniture design. We met up with Barker at the line’s unveiling at Art Van Furniture last week to get his thoughts on how fashion informs home decor, what social media has done for modeling, and why the presidential candidates are the people he’d most like to host on his podcast.
By his estimate, Nigel Barker first visited Chicago two decades ago on (but what else?) a photoshoot. It left an indelible impression. “I could literally sense and feel the history of the city,” Barker reminisces. “I could feel the ghosts of Chicago past.”
Now, the fashion photographer’s Midwest ties are cemented with the debut of his eponymous collection for Art Van, a past-meets-jet-setting-present panoply of pieces “based on really a lot of heirlooms that I’ve had in my family that looked fantastic 30, 40 years ago,” coupled with cues culled from decades of international travel.
Commemorating the release with an exclusive meet-and-greet at the brand’s Downers Grove showroom, the America’s Next Top Model alum dissected design and more with Michigan Avenue.
Fashion and style very much reflect the time. Can you make the same argument for furniture?
NIGEL BARKER: I think when great furniture is made—and at certain times in history, whether it be the Victorian times, or Art Deco, or certain moments—there are certain aspects of design that surpass just a fad, and a trend, and they really become iconic moments in both fashion, and, as a result, design. Those moments are really what I’ve always cared about.
Personally, being someone who’s always been interested in portraiture, it’s always about the story and the narrative of the person that I’m photographing or even the landscape—what do the clouds say to me? What is the mood? So, even with furniture, the color, the comfort, the practicality, the narrative within the use of the furniture, as well, is all very important to me in how I approach decorating and designing my homes. And I absolutely feel that great furniture has an iconic value, is also inherently fashionable at all times, and I think that is something which is a very special moment.
If you could distill a historical personality—like just ‘drop’ them into the line—who would that personality be? Who is this collection made for in that sense?
NB: Well, it was made for me [laughs], but if I was to stretch as far as my own influences in my life, there are elements to this collection—and I almost blush as I say it—but there is a James Bond aspect to this. Obviously [he’s] an icon to me, but somebody who’s also known for world travel and great taste and there are elements of practicality that I’ve always loved about what he represented and his taste.
But also there’s a lot to be said as well in the collection, if you were to think of some of the great British adventurers, who took their furniture with them on their backs to India, parts of India, the empire, and what have you. My grandfather was the general manager of British American Tobacco in Bombay, both my parents were born in India, we have extensive ties to that part of the world, in many respects.
Nigel Barker's designs for Art Van.
What do you think is a piece that anchors any room that, if you take it away, it just falls apart?
NB: I think the signature pieces are the bits that have all the personality: They’re the ones who shout who you are, where you’ve been, what you’re doing. They’re the ones [that] when people come into a room, people say “Oh my goodness, what is that? That’s really interesting, what’s the story behind this?” And ultimately story comes from experience; the narrative comes from everything—from the color, to the design, to the scratches and the wrinkles. That’s why, ironically, being a fashion photographer, I’ve always loved wrinkles on someone’s face because that shows whether they’re a smiler or a frowner and that’s a big part of their story and I hate to erase all of that.
How do you consciously stay original to your vision?
NB: Ultimately, one thing you discover, the older you get, is that every time you have an idea there’s 100 other people having that same, identical idea at that very moment in time, not to mention it’s been had many, many times over the years. The question is, is it original to you?
It’s a bit like designing a car: This will take us from A to Z, but does it have to be in a Ferrari, or can it be in a Mini? Obviously there are huge design differences between a Ferrari and a Mini, so when I approach anything when it comes to design or even an idea for fashion or a story, I think about the people who are living in that world, the person who I’m photographing: What’s their story, who are they? What’s important to them? What’s important to me? What is the chemistry between the two of us?
Who in your life has informed how you carry yourself as a businessman or as an entrepreneur?
NB: There are certain people who are key to my sensibilities, and that’s really my mother and my grandmother, who worked incredibly hard. My mother was a model who was a Miss World contestant in 1969, and brought our family from Sri Lanka to England, and it was often watching how hard she worked in entertainment—she was a singer, she was a dancer, she was a model—but she was also very modest and quite humble, and did it to help our family go from one situation to another.
My grandmother was well-educated and had an incredible personality, [but] because of her ethnic background when she came to England, she was really unable to get a job better than working as someone’s secretary, when really she was much more qualified than half the people she worked for and a very brilliant individual. But you would never hear her complain or grumble, she was just happy to be able to work and to be able provide. And when you watch someone, as a child you don’t understand the concept of pretty or beauty in the same way, but you do appreciate how hard they work.
Nigel Barker with his furniture for Art Van.
I’ve read a little bit about your views on social media—even though it may equal the playing field, you still have to do something with that access.
NB: Ultimately people are very critical of people on social media. The old supermodels from the 90’s have come out and said Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid have become famous because of social media. Well, maybe so, but that is the new currency, that is the new portfolio, that’s how people are getting recognized and they would have been no different from them in their time if that was the way it was done then. It doesn’t make them less famous or popular.
Likewise, Instagram and Snapchat and Facebook and everything else have given people a voice…. That’s why some of these Instagram photographers are legitimately very good: It isn’t because they’re just applying a filter, but they actually have an eye. A camera is just a camera: if you’ve don’t have an eye, it’s like jumping in a Ferrari and not knowing how to drive it.
Are there any photographers that you looked at when you were younger, that you absolutely loved and you tried to imitate, and as you’ve gotten older and more experienced, you say, “I’m glad I steered away from their influence or admiration”?
NB: No, I don’t have that. There are a lot of people who I admired then and I still admire them today. I’ve never been one, though, to really imitate; it’s just not my style. I’ve never gone through magazines and ripped out pictures and gone, “Oh, I’m gonna do this.”
I literally approach people and go, “What is it about you here, right now, that I find interesting and fascinating?” If you look at the people who are the greats in photography, very few, if any of them, you can really think of as imitators. There are people like [Richard] Avedon, like Irving Penn; even as outrageous—if you like—is someone like [Robert] Mapplethorpe; the graphic nature of what some of them did, to the simplicity that others did, but it was about the emotion and the narrative and the story that I always found just incredible and brilliant, and how they were able to listen to silence and hear a symphony, and I think that is something that I’m constantly trying to do.
What was the motivation to start a podcast like Sirius XM’s The Gentleman’s Code?
NB: It was because I feel that definitions are so stereotypical half the time. What is a man? What does it mean to be a man?
I think men need to realize that the best thing we can do for ourselves is realize how much opportunity there is for us to live a broader and bigger life, bigger than what is expected of us, or how it’s described in the stereotypes about how men should be, and that we miss out on a lot when we don’t care, when we don’t laugh, when we don’t give ourselves the ability to appreciate color and design and fashion and to think that somehow that’s not masculine or emasculating or whatever. There are many different descriptions and we can be all different types—just as masculine as the others but in different ways. That was the conversation and that was the reason for the Gentleman's Code.
Who’s a guest that you’d want to see on the podcast?
NB: I would love to have the presidential candidates on the show. I’ve interviewed and been with Hillary Clinton in various scenarios over the years, and I do think she’s a remarkable woman. I’ve also worked with Donald Trump several times, as well as with Miss Universe. I was a judge for the Miss Universe Pageant more than once and Miss USA, so I’ve worked with both of them. That would be a lot of fun to have them on and actually just quiz them. Not everyone on the show has to agree with me or be like-minded, that’s also part of the conversation. If you just surround yourself with the mutual admiration society, you don’t really get much done, so I feel that upping the ante a little bit, and having people on the show that perhaps push some buttons, might be the right way to get the conversation really going.
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY ART VAN
January 4, 2019