Studio Visit: Paul Barbera

words & Images: Tag Christof

July 03 2016

Paul Barbera is one of those rare photographers whose life and work merge seamlessly. I first met him about five years ago when I worked in the Italian photography agency that represents him in Europe. His portfolio was always my very favorite on the roster, as it was filled with cheeky, honest, refreshing portraits of many of my design school heroes, and interiors that somehow managed to convey both lived-in emotion and an excellent sensibility for design.

A couple years later in East London, I joined he and a group of his friends – designers, artists like Paul Knight, musicians, and photographers from all over the world – for dinner and a few dozen pints. I knew nobody when I arrived, and left friends with half the table, thanks mostly to Paul’s warm conviviality and natural ability to bring good, like-minded people together.

It’s no wonder at all that he is, indeed, a renowned portraitist and one of his signature projects, Where They Create, has seen him photograph the inner sanctums of creative powerhouses like Acne Studios and Fantastic Man, as well as the more personal spaces of era-defining creatives like Kenya Hara, Jasper Morrison, Gaetano Pesce, Olaf Breuning and one-time Human Being Journal cover girl, Ana Kraš. Paul is an undisputed master of the studio visit, and the second Where They Create book, focused specifically on Japan, will be out later this year as a follow up to the 2011 original.

This week I stopped into his light-filled home and studio, in a building surrounded by green on New York City’s Lower East Side just as he was preparing for a new show, Studio Views, that opened Friday.

I was just off a seventeen hour drive, so Paul put the espresso on as soon as I walked in. He uses a top notch coffee grinder, sent over from his family in Australia and plugged into a converter, because good coffee doesn’t have much regard for international electrical standards.

Over what was perhaps the best cup of home brew I’ve ever had in America, I learned that Where They Create and Paul’s lifelong passion for creative spaces grew out of a sort of happy cosmic accident. While unprepared for an art school assignment, he and a collaborator improvised a story out of thin air about shooting architects’ workspaces to juxtapose with their built work, which then grew into an actual project. That profound, yet elusive, relationship of personal space with creative output is something he has been exploring ever since.

Meanwhile, out in the studio, prints of scenes from around Japan for the new show were drying, to be hung at the gallery later that day. I fumbled around with the Fujilm X-Pro 2 he uses as his “toy” snapshot camera while he snapped a few shots with my jerry-rigged Nikon Df. His assistant, Jono, was busy putting the finishing touches on a short film to run on loop during the show. The exhibition foreshadows the upcoming book, but with a twist: it shows the views from some key studios Paul visited, rather than the interiors themselves.

Paul offered up an unexpectedly delicious slice of fruit cake his mum sent over from Australia that I scarfed down while we admired some particularly beautiful pieces of furniture around the apartment. Aalto stools, curved wood chairs, delicate trapeze-like lamps, and one richly-toned midcentury Danish desk with gently curved, cantilevered legs and perfect proportions scored for a song from another apartment in the building. The space is a mix without pretense that all works together exceptionally well – it’s no mystery why he is a go-to for the likes of Knoll, Vogue, DWR and Marriott. Just a few feet from the desk is the “cat wall” he and his wife, Queenie, keep opposite their bed – nothing better than waking up to some fluffy positivity.

Photos below by Paul Barbera. 

Catch the Studio Views exhibition at Lazy Susan Gallery at 191 Henry Street in New York City. Follow @wheretheycreate on Instagram and check out another of Paul’s projects, Love Lost. Big thanks to Jono Ngo. 

Tag Christof does all sorts of stuff in New York City and out on the road. Follow him at @americaisdead