It’s a thing decorators say all the time: Buy what you love, and you’ll find a place for it. What the pros don’t always explain is that keeping an attic filled with every whatnot you ever went gaga for until the shining moment that that tramp art mirror or gilt palm frond pilaster finally gets its spotlight requires patience—and a lot of trial and error. Connecticut-based designer Charlotte Barnes is a buy-what-you-love tub-thumper, so when she and her husband downsized from a rambling five-bed- room farmhouse to a three-bedroom charmer of a carriage house in Fairfield County, she stylishly put her money where her mouth is.
“I’m always shopping, and I also have things from my parents and grandparents,” she says of a trove decades in the making that needed to be snipped down for tighter digs. “I had to choose my most favorite objects.” She also had to figure out how best to showboat a lifetime of must-haves into spaces with less-than-ideal proportions. While the house was packed with charisma—soaring ceilings, Dutch doors, a turret!—it also had its pickles, like a long, narrow living room (25 feet by 14 feet) that clobbers you the minute you walk in the door, and upstairs bedrooms angled with eaves.
Barnes, who has the gumption of an inveterate hunter and gatherer, didn’t bat a single eyelash. Take the living room. “I must have rearranged it 15 times,” she says. What she nudged into existence is a gallery-like space, dotted with welcoming seating arrangements (there’s a reason she calls it the party room), where roller-coaster legs on a painted Italian cocktail table banter with sharp-limbed nesting tables of her own design and a clever folded metal piece that’s another end table in theory, but looks like an art installation in practice. “I took all the sculptural things that had been spread out in the other house and put them together here,” she notes. The geometry of the chevron-patterned floors she installed plays off of those sculptural edges, while their finish gives the space a bright luminosity.
But with all those hard lines, she risked obscuring those room’s curves. “It was feeling very handsome, but quite severe. Also, the suzani pattern on the curtains screamed for something else soft,” says Barnes. Out from her batwing caftan sleeves Barnes pulled a standby trick: wallpapered ceilings. “They’re a great way to jazz up a space,” she explains. “This one’s a painterly marbleized pattern that just made the room. Even though there are lots of traditional pieces in there, the push and pull made it feel modern. It’s traditional but not. The overall affect is timelessness.” And personal. If a house is a biography, this story could be no one else’s but hers.
In fact, you can see a direct correlation between the boho-chic caftans that Barnes favors and the pattern-on-pattern maximalism on display in the family room. “For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted a room like the one Renzo Mongiardino did for Lee Radziwill,” she says, referencing the iconic 1960s drawing room in which the walls were completely stitched over in printed Indian textiles. Barnes eventually homed in on a vivid cotton print swirling with paisleys and arabesques to cop the look. “Even my wallpaper guy was like, ‘Are you sure? It’s a lot.’” She was uncowed, knowing that the large scale of the pattern would update the aesthetic and breathe fresh life into her vintage and antique pieces. So she was off to the races, adding in a swirl of elements— Christopher Spitzmiller lamps with placeholder shades from storage that ended up staying for good; rich velvets, linens and flannels in solid colorways; antlers; art; heirlooms—to make it her own and a family-favorite destination. “It’s the heart of the house.”
It’s also a lesson in the rewards of dragging home the things that enchant you and playing the long game. “You can put a million things on a CAD drawing and fill a storage unit with everything in the plan, but when it comes to install, sometimes the chair you meant for the living room works better in the master bedroom and if you have the oddball pieces you bought only because you fell in love with them, then you can move things around,” the designer says. “You have to leave room for the ineffable, the surprise. I don’t like to just fill a room. That’s too easy. I would rather wait for perfection— even if it’s imperfect. That’s how you create spaces with meaning.”
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE SPRING 2022 ISSUE OF FREDERIC. CLICK HERE TO SUBSCRIBE!