‘Zones’, ‘pitstops’ and being a ‘bouncer’ – interior decor for a changed world

Author’s new book, Décor Galore, willbe catnip for anybody who struggle to make best of their home

Laura de Barra, author of Décor Galore and The Gaff Goddess. Photograph: CJ Nash

Laura de Barra, author of Décor Galore and The Gaff Goddess. Photograph: CJ Nash

 

Laura de Barra, all dark shiny hair, red lipstick and glinting gold jewellery, is on a zoom call from her home in Hackney, London. We’re exchanging hellos, but really I’m sneaking a look over the shoulder of this Cork interiors and DIY guru trying to figure out the aesthetic in the apartment she shares with her partner. I spot tasteful glassware on a shelf, and some minimalist art on the walls before she shatters the illusion showing me a sleek black, unashamedly kitsch, ornament in the shape of a cat which she swears is more indicative of her home decorating style. “I use this space for work zoom calls but really my home is full of trinkets and leopard print. If anyone saw it they’d think I was running a brothel,” she laughs.

We’re here to talk about her new book Décor Galore, a book that will be catnip for anybody who struggles with making the best of their home, which is an awful lot of us. “I’m glad I wrote it during the pandemic,” she says. “Because I found, as many people did, that during all the lockdowns my perception of home completely changed.”

Décor Galore is a natural follow up to De Barra’s best-selling first book Gaff Goddess, which contained “simple tips and tricks to help you run your home”. It was full of down-to-earth advice from this savvy Irish Times contributor, covering everything from dishwasher maintenance to drilling to fixing a dripping tap. It was a smart, no-nonsense and relentlessly breezy guide to tackling repair jobs and taking the fear out of DIY, or as proud handywoman de Barra calls it She-I-Y. It came from the frustration she experienced as a property management consultant readying homes for new tenants. While teaching herself how to do simple repair jobs in flats rather than “calling in a man”, she encountered patronising attitudes in the DIY shops of London. She was patronised as a “silly, fluffy” woman out of her depth, but equally there were men in those shops she noticed being dismissed as “useless” because they didn’t know about drill bits. “I wrote Gaff Goddess for women like me and those men.”

We stayed indoors, we locked down, we appreciated our spaces more. It led to her thinking much more about senses and tactile experiences at home

De Barra has an interesting theory of how the pandemic has changed our perceptions of our bodies and also our homes. From discussions with friends she says she realised “since the pandemic, we now see our body as something that looks after us. And our home is the same. I’ve been so thankful for both during this time. When it comes to homes and bodies, and you’re less likely to complain about them, when you find joy or safety there. In the last while we got to know our homes as a safe place, a sanctuary. We stayed indoors, we locked down, we appreciated our spaces more.” It led to her thinking much more about senses and tactile experiences at home. She thought about how in the absence of a commute “bare feet on a rug and other sensuous experiences were important in creating a warm, safe environment”.

“Our anxiety was through the roof, we were worried, so it was interesting writing the book at a time when I’d developed a new mindframe about what home now represented. And I really didn’t want to write a book about aesthetics. Some people are like [adopts posh voice] well, ‘I’m going to write a book about style’. And then it’s like, ‘well, Claudia, I don’t want my house to look like yours ...’ so this is not a book about how you get my style, because I’m sure not many people want a house full of shiny cats and leopard print.”

So what is the book about? “Well, some style books just want to give people fish,” she says, and by fish she means glossy pictures of perfect couches or aesthetically pleasing lamps and a very long list of stuff to go out and buy. “I want to teach people to fish.” She is more interested in helping readers with technique and with understanding what they need from their home, which is why she has a problem with programmes such as the revived Changing Rooms and even Queer Eye for A Straight Guy. “They’re like, don’t like your life? All you have to do is physically change yourself and change your surroundings and my point is no. There are steps to feeling happier in spaces. And the first step is finding out who are you and what makes you happy.”

She says there are traditionally two attitudes to interior design: “Get rid of everything and start all over again or get rich,” she says. “And neither of those are practical. Also, it might sometimes seem like people with loads of money are better at it than you, but actually they are just paying people to do it all.”

There’s an evangelical zeal to de Barra as she talks about the knowledge she wants to impart, and the ways in which she wants people to feel empowered to make changes, small and big, to their homes. She talks about Zoning – the art of sectioning rooms into areas of use, from a place to read to a skincare zone. She says all rooms have “routes, the paths most travelled through the space. These routes might seem unimportant, but they are a vital element when it comes to decor. They will dictate where furniture is best placed, what kind of rug will go down, what materials are best avoided.”

And then there are pit stops. “These are usually surfaces or storage. It could be a hook that holds a dressing gown ... pit stops, if placed cleverly, can enhance the use of a room as well as your day, saving time and making life feel a little smoother.”

The advice in the book is all delivered in a friendly, sometimes irreverent manner, think of de Barra as a stylish best mate you are having cocktails with who is helping you fall back in love with your home.

The days when we just chucked stuff out and put it in the charity shop are gone. Instead we’re asking questions: What is this made of? How long will it last? Does it suit my needs?

The main point is, she wants you to understand your space before you go filling it with stuff that isn’t necessarily going to work in your home. “Everything to do with interiors is based around either the person not having a clue or telling them all the things they are lacking.”

This is not de Barra’s approach. Instead she encourages people to look around and see how they can repurpose items they already own. “I want people to see themselves as the gatekeeper of their homes. Like the most stunning bouncer, looking everything up and down and seeing if it deserves to be there and what it should be doing there.

“The days when we just chucked stuff out and put it in the charity shop are gone. Instead we’re asking questions: What is this made of? How long will it last? Does it suit my needs? And it’s not like I’m telling people not to buy from the high street shops, because I buy high street and that’s where most people’s budget is. But how can we buy on a budget but also buy stuff that is going to last?”

It’s not surprising to hear that as a “bold as brass” child growing up in Cork, de Barra was always creating and doing. She was a crafty, artistic young person, with a make and do slot on The Den as a teenager. She got into fashion, studying patterns and textiles first in Cork and then in Edinburgh. Working for a Turkish company in London, she was head of menswear there, designing clothes for retailers such as Primark.

“I learnt a lot. But then fashion changed. It became about clothes you wear once, clothes with non-functioning zips and pockets you couldn’t put your hands into.”

Disillusioned by fast fashion she moved into property, decorating flats which eventually evolved into her overhauling and troubleshooting properties. She still does that as a day job, while writing is a creative outlet. Her first book Gaff Goddess came about when she was creating a manual of sorts for tenants, a PDF talking them through how to work their ovens or other appliances or quick fixes in the apartments. She was spotted by Penguin when she began posting her repair tips and home hacks on a private Instagram account, mostly for friends. That account grew considerably after the publication of Gaff Goddess but she’s very keen to keep her Instagram nontransactional.

“I’m never making Instagram my boss. I don’t do sponsored content. I want to keep it fun and show people how to do things,” she says. “I want it to stay a source of joy for me.”

During the pandemic, she cancelled her wedding three times and is finally hoping to get married in the summer next year. It will be a She-I-Y wedding. Despite all the “interesting” trends being offered by the venue. Apparently a “first bounce” is a thing, where a bouncy castle is erected on the dance floor for the couple and their guests. “I’d rather throw myself in the river,” she says.

Alpacas are also included in many wedding packages these days. “It’s a huge trend,” she says, laughing. “They bring Alpacas in wearing a veil and dickie bow. A petting zoo is also on the list. And space hoppers.” she lists them out, each trend more ridiculous than the next.

Her own wedding “decor galore” is going to be made of paper. “I will be wetting a lot of it down and making paper sculptures and paper flower decorations hung from the ceiling,” she says. “I want it to be really simple, really calm. I am not doing ‘party favours’. I say to my friends I am already doing you the biggest favour by buying your dinner on the day.”

I think de Barra should write her next book on She-I-Y weddings; she applies her no-nonsense attitude and flair to this as she does everything else. “Sometimes weddings are cut off at a crucial moment by a man dressed like a Peaky Blinder giving out ice-cream. Or Alpacas walking in during the speeches.” Now she’s cracking up again.

But back to her approach to home. It’s an elusive concept for many people at the moment, I say. “I know. And I see many of my friends at various stages of the housing crisis in Ireland. This book is not written with someone in a high-end apartment or house in mind. For me home is a sense. It should look after you. It’s where you feel most safe. And the book is for anyone, even if you only have your own bedroom in a flatshare.

“I want people to really think, without forcing it down their necks, about the concept of home, and I want them to know how to make their space work really well for them, whatever that space might be.”

Décor Galore is published by Transworld Ireland and is out now