You Are What You Read

You Are What You Read: Barbara Barry

Interior and product designer Barbara Barry talks about the book that most inspires her.

By Barbara Barry and Steve Kroeter June 20, 2017

In our second installment of You Are What You Read, Los Angeles-based interior and product designer Barbara Barry talks about beauty, American design, and her favorite book. In this series, Designers & Books asks prominent designers to describe — in words and images — a book they have found to be particularly inspiring. Barbara selected A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century by Witold Rybczynski. — SK

Watercolor created by Barbara Barry for You Are What You Read, inspired by A Clearing in the Distance.

Barbara writes:

“Over the years I’ve come back to this powerful book again and again, recalling the impact it made on me as a young designer. Few books have that lasting impression and power to help form one’s thoughts and that is why I chose A Clearing in the Distance.

The Book

A Clearing in the Distance Witold Rybczynski

Each time I put it down I would contemplate why it touched me so deeply. Perhaps it’s because it expanded any notion I had of beauty, and did so on the grandest possible scale. Perhaps it’s because of the way in which it presented the sweep of history of our country. How during the hardest times and against all odds this man’s singular vision rose up and he carried on.

The scope of Frederick Law Olmsted’s vision is like that of a great artist facing a blank canvas, because that is what our country was. Out of the chaos and cacophony of a burgeoning nation his vision brought beauty and order to everything he touched. He worked tirelessly on a vision that wouldn’t ripen in his lifetime but that continues to serve and feed the souls of so many of us today.

Barbara Barry.

Whenever I lose my way, professionally or personally, I think of the overwhelming obstacles and setbacks Olmsted encountered. I think of his determination and his powerful will. I think of the majesty and breadth of his ideas and the years of preparation he put into them before they were realized. And he did so passionately, and forcefully, because he believed in himself and his ideas … and in the power of beauty.

Wherever I am in my life’s journey, when I come to this book, its
story always humbles me. It buoys me up and it puts the passion back in my guts and inspires me to carry on. In some profound way Frederick Law Olmsted frames my pursuit of, and passion to, create beauty. He makes me proud to be an American—an American designer.”

As part of You Are What You Read, we ask designers for a favorite quotation from the book they selected.

Barbara chose:

He [Olmsted] is trying to combine economics, aesthetics, landscaping, nature, moral and intellectual improvement, and salvation. It is a bewildering mix of ideas, but he is persevering. He is making his own way.

From A Clearing in the Distance: Frederick Law Olmsted and America in the 19th Century by Witold Rybczynski (Scribner, 2000, 1999).

You Are What You Read: Design World Luminaries Recommend the Books That Most Inspire Them is an ongoing series. Read our first installment by architect Denise Scott Brown, and watch for he next installment from graphic designer Harry Pearce, partner in Pentagam's London office.

There are 39 independent bookstores that have committed to helping readers connect with the books selected by participating designers, as well as books written by the designers. You can find the list of bookstores here.

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