It all started in 1992 with a magazine photo shoot, recalls Greenwich designer Charlotte Barnes of her foray into the world of interiors. “I was living in London and working for Ralph Lauren womenswear,” she says. “A friend of mine thought my house was simply amazing and mentioned it to an acquaintance at British House & Garden who photographed it for the magazine. The next thing I knew, people were calling and asking if I could design their homes.”
For Charlotte, the timing of the article could not have been better: Having tired of the fashion world, she was in the process of leaving Ralph Lauren and in the midst of relocating her family, husband John and teenage daughters Lexi and Grace. “I was still searching for the next thing and not entirely sure that interior design was the right next step,” she remembers. But after thinking about it, she decided that if people were responding to her work, it wouldn’t hurt to try.
Another factor in Charlotte’s career shift was her aunt, Leigh Pomnvert. “She was a decorator in New York and one of the highlights of my childhood was visiting her apartment,” Charlotte says. “The mix of things was always so interesting. She would think nothing of pairing a Lucite table with a traditional camelback sofa.”
Fast-forward thirteen years, and the business, which is run out of the upstairs of the home, has taken off, a fact she willingly attributes to her training at Ralph Lauren and the influence of her aunt. “Everything I did in the fashion world was tied to creating a lifestyle,” she says. “It wasn’t just about wearing pretty things, it was about providing things that added beauty, warmth and comfort to your surroundings.”
And it was the idea of all these things that two years ago attracted her to the quaint Federal-style farmhouse where her family now lives. Though the family wasn’t looking to move, the home was simply too good to pass up. “I saw the listing at ten o’clock, and two hours later I had convinced myself to move,” she says.
One of the major selling points was the preserved character of the house, a layout that Charlotte loved and details that were intact. Another was the well-proportioned living room with vaulted ceiling and windows on three walls that framed views of the wooded lot. “The house was built in 1840, so it’s a rather unusual feature,” she comments. “In those days living rooms were often cramped and narrow, but this really has space to spread out.”
It was, however, the placement of the family room, right off the kitchen, that sealed the deal. “In our previous home they were at opposite ends of the structure,” she says. “We enjoy cooking and hanging out together in the kitchen, so this is more convenient.”
On the other hand, the family was more skeptical about the move, especially Lexi and Grace. “The house was quirky,” Charlotte says. “It had a lot of dated wallpaper and my daughters weren’t convinced that it could be made to feel like a home.”
Mom, of course, knew better. Relying on a formula she developed while living in London, she set about making the place more comfortable. Her secret: pairing family heirlooms with cherished artifacts and mementos. For example, the focal point of the master bedroom is a large, four-post chrome bed that was designed by her aunt. “As a child I used to crawl into that bed thinking it was the coolest thing,” she says. “So when my Aunt decided to give it up and none of her children wanted it, I couldn’t help but take it.”
Her daughters, too, have come to embrace the idea of living with things that have been handed down from one generation to the next. “The bench in Lexi’s room used to be in my dressing room,” she points out, “and her bed is an American piece from the early 1900s that my husband had long before we were married.”
Adding to this handed-down sense of style are Charlotte’s many collections of objects from around the globe. “When I worked in fashion I never bought clothes. There wasn’t any need,” she comments. “Instead, I would travel and invest in furnishings from the places I visited.” One favorite find is a pair of Chinese pots that she picked up on a trip to Hong Kong. Another is an Aubusson rug that she purchased while honeymooning in the South of France. Both are still part of her arsenal of decorative pieces that she moves around the house at whim. “If you buy things you love you’ll never have trouble finding a place for them,” she says.
Of course, not everything in the house is old. Sprinkled throughout the first-floor living spaces are things that Charlotte designed, like the Lucite bookshelf in the master bedroom. “My aunt loved Lucite and used the material frequently in her interiors. I guess, like me, she felt they were a good foil for her more traditional furnishings.”
To temper the eclectic mix and allow her many collections to take center stage, Charlotte painted almost every wall in the house white. The exception: the dining room, which she reworked in Farrow & Ball’s Eating Room Red, a color that not only reminded her of England, but also brought an inviting warmth to the room. “Besides, with a name like that, how could I not use it in that particular space,” she says with a laugh.
While the house came together in a matter of months, the result, thanks to Charlotte’s masterful mixing and matching, appears to be anything but rushed. On the contrary, the rooms look as though they have evolved over time, a quality that instantly puts people at ease. She says, “I could never create a room that looks like the decorator just got up and walked out the door.”