Behind the scenes with Barneby Gates
Vanessa Barneby and Alice Gates set up the fabulous BARNEBY GATES nearly 10 years ago and this veritable British wallpaper and fabrics brand has gone from strength to strength. In a Wiltshire barn, Alice Gates and Vanessa Barneby create their own range of distinctive wallpapers and fabrics that has a dedicated following all over the world. We were treated to the best of both worlds - a tour of the Barneby Gates Wiltshire workshop and also a visit to Vanessa Barneby's family home in Hampshire.
Did you come together to create the brand or have you been life long friends?
Alice and I met when we were 10 years old and have been friends ever since. We grew up living next door to each other in Hampshire, then went to university together in Edinburgh. After uni, we both moved to London to start work and it was 10 years before we decided to start a business together.
How do you balance the work load between the two of you? Do you both have distinctive roles or are you so accustomed to working together that you both swirl around finishing off each others tasks?
We never officially sat down and delineated who does what, but our roles kind of developed organically according to our strengths. Alice is the trained artist so she is our draftswoman. My background is in magazines and interiors styling, so I tend to be in charge of photo shoots, for example. But day to day, you are spot on – we are so accustomed to working together that we finish off each other’s tasks as much as we finish off each other’s sentences!
If you had to encapsulate in three words what motivates your designs and colours what are they? Nature? Seasons? A holiday you have returned from or want to go on?
Three words is impossible! We are inspired by anything and everything. Nature has always been a huge influence – we are country girls through and through, and our surroundings are a constant source of inspiration. But art, architecture, travel, nature, film, music…. The list goes on!
You launched your brand before people were comfortable with our new online existence; did this make it harder for you or were you the apple of the interior market for being new and tech savvy?
When we launched in 2010 it was pretty unusual for a wallpaper brand to be available solely online, and for the end consumer to ‘distance buy’ products such as wallpaper or fabric. We had a ‘request a sample’ button on the website right from the start, and made our product available to the end consumer at the same time as building relationships with interior designers and distributors worldwide.
How did both your backgrounds help with your brand or maybe not?
Alice (left) had a very classical art training in Florence, and then after university went to City & Guilds in London where she got a Masters in Fine Art. Prior to our working together, she had collaborated with the fashion label Libelula, designing prints for their ready-to-wear collections. She is a completely self-taught print designer, so the experience at Libelula was invaluable.
Meanwhile, I left university and went to Hampstead Decorative Arts where I learnt the art of trompe l’oeil and restoration. But I had always had a passion for interiors - particularly textiles and print – and this led to my first job as a stylist at House & Garden magazine. After 5 years there I moved to Vogue to be their Living Editor, where predicting and writing about upcoming trends in design, styling shoots, and examining the correlation between fashion and interiors were all part of my job. I think both our backgrounds have hugely informed what we do today, and the roles we’ve slotted into within the brand we’ve built.
In really simple terms can you explain the process of making wallpaper from initial design to a finished roll?
Everything starts as a hand drawing – and this will go back and forth between Alice and I until we’re happy it will work. Then it’s scanned onto the computer where it is played around with – the scale and other elements of the design tweaked, or reworked, until it creates a comfortable pattern repeat. When the basic pattern is agreed on, we print it out in a few different sizes, so we can physically hold it up against a wall and see how it looks in situ. Next, the team from our printing factory come down to visit us at the studio and we talk through the design and how we envisage it printed.
We traditionally print all our wallpapers using various techniques, but Surface Printing is our absolute favourite – it’s the closest you can get to hand-block printing, with a lovely painterly feel to the touch. Once we’ve decided which technique will work best with the design, cylinders are engraved (one cylinder for each colour in the design), and sent up to the factory, where we then meet for a colour proofing day prior to printing. This is a really exciting part of the process, when you actually see the design come to life for the first time. It’s also an incredible part of the process watching the colourists mixing the inks by hand, tweaking the colours bit by bit, all by eye, until they’re perfect. Then finally we go back to the factory for the final printing day, so we can sign everything off before 150 rolls of each are printed up and sent to our stock room!
Did your fabrics come in later or did you launch everything together?
We launched wallpapers first in 2010, and in 2013 we launched our first collection of fabrics
Do your clients like seeing your products in situ digitally or are samples still the medium of choice?
I think it’s important for them to see both. It’s definitely not enough to just see the images on our website – we strongly encourage everyone to order a sample before purchasing. But it does also really help to see images of the products in situ on our Instagram page – that’s where you can see the widest selection of images of Barneby Gates products in other people’s houses, and it’s seeing these ‘real life’ situations (rather than just our styled shoots) that I think really help people envisage them in their own homes.
What key implementation has made running your company easier for you?
Social media I suppose. Pinterest and Instagram have helped reach an audience that would have been virtually impossible to reach otherwise.
What have been your biggest hurdles running an online e-commerce store?
It generally runs quite smoothly to be honest (touch wood!) but of course it’s keeping it up-to-date, moving with the times, making sure it doesn’t look out-dated etc. that keeps us on our toes. It’s a never-ending part of the job!
Can a house have too much wallpaper and patterned fabric? We don’t think so having seen how wonderfully all your patterns work together.
Haha! Errrr NO! But of course it’s important to get the mix right. Many of our prints can be mixed and matched quite easily I think.
Do you create your designs with the intention to be able to layer every design upon each other?
Not necessarily, but I suppose many of them have similar colours or a similar feel, and this enables them to sit well together.
What would you say is the best part of the job?
Probably working with my best friend!
In your home we love the harmonious balance of the more industrial raw plaster and crittal with your delicate eye in your soft furnishings- how would you describe your style?
Oh gosh, I do find this a hard question. I love a comfortable, thrown together look, nothing too contrived, something that looks as though it’s grown organically over time rather than created overnight. I love the mix of old and new, inherited or upcycled bits of furniture, with some contemporary art and pretty printed fabrics.
My favourite colour is probably natural plaster pink – I love it’s rawness, it’s muted tone, and imperfection. We’ve tried so many times to replicate this colour in our wallpapers and fabrics, but it’s virtually impossible to get it perfect because of the tonal changes in natural plaster.
Did you design your house alone or does your partner share a passion for interiors?
My husband has a very strong sense of what he likes and doesn’t like. To be honest, when we met, he was a white cube kind of guy, so it took a few years to get him into pretty fabrics and wallpapers! But we work together on pretty much every decision in the house – I definitely can’t get away with doing things without consulting him like some people can!
What is your favourite room in the house?
Maybe my spare room, which we wallpapered in our Artichoke Thistle wallpaper (pictured left). It has low walls, that slope up into the ceiling, so we wallpapered up the slopes to create a sort of wallpapered canopy over the bed. It’s incredibly cosy, and also has the best view.
Is art or photography your favourite medium? We see an amazing Gary Hume and Hugo Guinness prints, but equally the most covetable of Tim Walker prints?
The Tim Walker photograph (pictured left) is one of my most treasured possessions – it was my leaving present from Vogue. And my husband is an avid photographer, so lots of the photos round the house are by him. But I also love collecting art – Hugo Guinness linocuts are definitely a favourite.
Favourite time of year to be in your home?
Summer is wonderful here because the big glass bifold doors open the kitchen up completely on to the garden. But I love watching the seasons changing from our upstairs windows too – so Spring and Autumn are also just lovely.
Flowers or plants for your indoors?
Cut Eucalyptus by the armful is my failsafe option. My house feels naked without it.
Please name 3 online companies you couldn’t live without in your day to day life?
Riverford.co.uk – as a family we’re making a massive attempt to only buy seasonal fruit and veg, and organic meat from British farmers etc. Riverford is amazing.
And I’m VERY excited about mywardrobehq.com – for renting designer brands I can’t afford to buy for all the Christmas parties!
Can we assume you used your favourite Barneby Gates designs in your house? It must have been hard drilling down on which ones to use?
It’s always so hard! I did use my ‘current’ favourites, but within months of finishing, we launched a whole new fabric collection and new wallpapers, so now of course I want to re-do everything already.
Where do you source your art from?
There’s a wonderful little gallery on Westbourne Park Road called Wilson Stephens & Jones – Christmas isn’t Christmas without a visit there.
Do you have any favourite contemporary photographers?
I love Ivar Wigan’s work
And finally, where would we next find you if we wanted to come and see your wares or are you solely online?
In London, the most central place to view our complete collection of pattern books is on the fourth floor of Liberty. And then we do a show every Autumn – often Decorex, but this year we launched our new designs at a pop-up in Chelsea Harbour in September. I’m not sure of our pop-up plans for next year, but the best place to follow our activity is Instagram.