Décors Barbares is the textile company and design studio of Nathalie Farman-Farma, who specializes in fabrics inspired by the decorative history of Iran, Russia, and Central Asia. Prior to that, Nathalie worked in the publishing industry in New York City. She was an associate editor for The New Yorker magazine and a cultural producer for the Charlie Rose Show.
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Nathalie, why did you become involved with The New Yorker and later assist the former talk show host Charlie Rose in his interview programme?
I studied Greek and Latin at Brown University and then I studied at EHESS (L’École des hautes études en sciences sociales), without ever giving thought about what I wanted to do professionally. I wanted to be connected with the literary world, which I love, but I fell into it in a passive way.
Isn’t it difficult to be passive working in the most important literary magazine of the United States and with, at the time, the most famous interviewer in the world?
I was on the production side as an editor. My dream job then would have been to write book reviews for The New York Review of Books. Now I’m much happier in the decorative arts. The intellectual satisfaction is the same, and I have less anxiety. I’m doing what I want to do, and I like working by myself more than being in a competitive atmosphere.
How come you moved to England, changed your life and became involved with interior decoration?
I was disillusioned. At The New Yorker back then there was no time for mentorship of women. Although I had a friendly rapport with Charlie Rose, I was never taken seriously in my work. I felt dissatisfied with my career. When I got married I took a break from work for a few years and then I thought, completely out of naiveté, that I was going to make fabrics that didn’t exist. I was ready to do a new project and didn’t think that I was starting a career. My children were still young.
Had you decorated your family home?
That was the catalyst. Getting married to Amir, who’s Iranian, all of a sudden I was plunged into a culture that I didn’t know and I found that very exciting. I started learning Farsi. I was looking at all sorts of Iranian art. I wanted to create a home that would be east and west, reflect the both of us and be a home for my children.
“I am shocked that there’s not a single person who doesn’t like fabrics.”
The living room in Nathalie Farman-Farma’s London home in Chelsea with a mix of antique textiles and Décors Barbares fabrics.
David Netto – a Los Angeles based interior designer and writer – says in the introduction to your book Décors Barbares: The Enchanting Interiors of Nathalie Farman-Farma that in Paris you were attracted by the work of the revolutionary decorator Madeleine Castaing, and that at the same time you were interested by the work of the Ballets Russes and especially Léon Bakst, Diaghelev’s set and costume designer. Why?
Madame Castaing was a literary decorator. Hers was a nostalgic revival, and maybe we’re due for another period of nostalgic revival. She was so completely herself in style, and her store was unlike any other store. While I actually never met her, I met the vendeuse (saleswoman) who was also very eccentric. Things were for sale and not for sale. I found it magical and surreal.
You were raised in New York among all kinds of different artists, and Leon Bakst was by no means your contemporary. Why are you so interested by him?
After I got married, I started looking at the way Eastern themes were treated by the Ballets Russes as a source of inspiration and costumes. They have this form of orientalism which is very different than Western Europe. They feel it’s a continuum between the cultures of Asia and their culture, and then the French culture that they so admire, and they mix them up in this interesting way.
You took the Persian culture, the Russian culture, the culture in Paris, and then you mix it up with your American background. Is this the mindset of Décors Barbares?
I like things that are not clearly defined as one culture, so it is about the borders. I don’t want something to look like a Russian fabric or an English fabric. I want it to be like a spice that works with other things, an element that helps make things hard to place or disturbs the patterns in the room.
Do people like fabrics?
I am shocked that there’s not a single person who doesn’t like fabrics. It’s like a fundamental material of human life. Fabric is one of the oldest art forms. With poetry and pottery, it’s part of our common human history.
Who buys your fabrics?
I work with more than half of the top one hundred decorators. They buy something from me in order to make what they want to make. I’m not trying to put my stamp on somebody else’s house.
How do you research your fabrics?
I have so many books. I think, what is there that doesn’t exist? How would I create a fabric that needs to be there that’s not already there? Thinking of that I take everything out and I look at it again. It’s funny, because some things are in my head already – 20 years ago I ripped a page out and didn’t know that I would eventually do something with it.
Who makes the fabrics that you design?
A very good factory in Alsace, France. I trust their execution.
Do you trademark your designs?
I don’t, because it’s so expensive, and unless you’re going to sue them because they copied you it’s not worth it. My insurance is that nobody will do it as well as I do it.
Fabrics have a very long history. Do people still cover their walls with fabric?
Yes, but it’s expensive. The price of using fabrics has gone up because you just don’t have the workforce. People used to have on their street someone who could cover a chair. Now you have to fight in New York for the good people, and you have to be on a waiting list to get something properly done. It’s not given to everybody to be able to do that.
Do people get tired of a particular fabric?
The English do it so well, because if you do things in an eclectic collector way, Christopher Gibbs’ style, then you are never tired of it. My house changes all the time, because I get something new and then I put what was there over there. If you have a very clean beige room everything is a statement when you add to it, whereas you could put a carpet in my house and nobody would even notice there was something new.
Is your combination of elements attractive to the originating countries?
I am sensitive to cultural appropriation and those issues around design. The only country that I know well outside of the West is Iran. I’m huge in Mashhad. It brings tears to my eyes that it makes all these Iranians proud that someone is using Iran and liking their fabrics.
What do decorators want today?
On the Internet you see all sorts of styles, all sorts of things, and decorators have to respond to this demand from the client. Often this new cacophony of visuals and possibilities is very confusing, because they want all these things that don’t fit together. A small brand like ours has a cohesive aesthetic, which is why I wrote the book. Try and find your aesthetic from your things that you love and the life that you’ve lived. Take everything, all that noise and all those images, and if it’s things that you like and relate to you, it’ll be your style.
Décors Barbares: The Enchanting Interiors of Nathalie Farman-Farma by Nathalie Farman-Farma, photography by Miguel Flores-Vianna, foreword by David Netto. Published by Vendome Press 2020
Nathalie Farman-Farma’s studio in London’s Chelsea.
Nathalie Farman-Farma’s studio in Chelsea with Bakst Peasant woman drawing over the mantle. The fabrics are all Décors Barbares. Framed old Russian lace up top.
Nathalie Farman-Farma’s family’s summer home on Lake Tahoe in California with Décors Barbares floral curtains in “´Eté Moscovite” and “Véra”on the chair.
A bedroom in Nathalie Farman-Farma’s mother’s house in Connecticut, with “Véra” fabric on the walls and Nathalie’s collection of Russian fairy Tale books illustrated by Ivan Bilibin.
Another bedroom in Nathalie Farman-Farma’s mother’s house in Connecticut. The walls are upholstered in a fabric which is a Russian print called “Zénaïde” which Nathalie found inside an Uzbek robe.
“I’m most proud of being able to be creative on the business side as well as make fabrics.”
Is London a good place for this kind of work?
All decorating styles now are really babies of the English decorating style of the global collector, and living here has exposed me more to it. London is a dynamic city with great home decor publications, and people care about it. They came to Italy on their grand tours, they had this take a little bit from everywhere approach to decorating, which is very 21st century.
What is Décor Barbare?
Romantic. Outside of the bounds of the familiar. The colours that I have are a little bit brighter. I want things to look like they’ve always existed.
Does Barbare mean that you create disorder in the established order?
The first person to use the word barbarian was Herodotus, one of my favourite authors. A barbarian was initially just a non-Greek, someone who didn’t speak Greek. It has a very negative connotation, but that’s always as seen from the centre. The barbarian is the other, a bit of disruption which in itself becomes a style.
Do you want to be shocking?
No, I’m not someone that likes to shock at all. I hope that my fabrics are elegant.
What does elegance mean for you?
Beautiful colours, beautifully made, the methods of printing and colours are all 19th century. Evocative of travel and sophistication, and hopefully there would be a little bit of refinement.
What are you particularly pleased by?
Ironically, the thing that gives me the most satisfaction, aside from the creative side, is having a business and being able to run everything from A to Z. You’re always faced with new little challenges. I’m most proud of being able to be creative on the business side as well as make fabrics.
What is your ambition?
To be perfectly run, but not grow too big. It’s difficult to go from small to just a little bit bigger, because then you have to manage people. I’d like to do more collaboration, do more of the creative work and keep my own business as small as can be.