Inside the Head of Carol Isaak Barden

Laurann Claridge
October 01, 2012

Carol Isaak Barden isn’t a woman who shudders at the thought of a challenge. This former caterer turned globe-trotting journalist turned bespoke builder runs with abandon toward the unknown. When the World Trade Center was attacked and her source of income (travel writing for Travel & Leisure, Condé Nast Traveler and Southern Accents) all but evaporated, she took charge of her destiny: She wrote yet another chapter in her life’s story and set up shop, inspired that she could build a better town home. A decade ago, she launched Carol Isaak Barden + Company, armed with oodles of style and exposure to the best architects and architecture the world over yet nary an ounce of commercial building experience. Thriving today, her focus has shifted from spec properties to high-end custom houses, working with architects ranging from Francois de Menil to award-winning firms such as Suyama Peterson Deguchi and Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen — the latter two from Seattle, the city where she was raised that still influences much of her lifestyle and design aesthetic. Step into the mindset of a woman dripping with sophistication and armed with a steely determination to find her way in the world, no matter how daunting the challenges.

On switching hats midstream. For 20 years, I logged thousands of miles a year writing features for the glossies. It had been a dream job, but suddenly the airlines were flying empty, and I was grounded. Six months after the Twin Towers attack, I became a real estate developer. Surely I could build smarter townhouses than the ugly ones I saw going up all around me. I enlisted architect Allen Bianchi, hired a builder and launched my little company. Clueless, I had no idea how hard it would be. Later I would learn just how fast you can lose money in real estate.

On the business of bespoke building. Suddenly, the strangest thing began to happen: Clients began asking me to help them build their homes. After searching endlessly for something they might buy, they gave up, bought a lot and called me. I lead people through the process, guiding them on the selection of an architect, design, bidding and construction phases.

The perfect client. Not everyone should build a house; I’ve watched couples fight and bicker over a bathroom faucet. Barbara Gamson is the perfect client, because she knows exactly what she wants, made a list of her requirements at the start and barely deviated from it. She directed the schematic design, selected finishes and spent endless hours researching the tiniest details. The architect and builder follow her lead, and I have no doubt that her house will absolutely suit her lifestyle.

Defining new-generation living. Houses will become smaller, not larger. New homes are not so chopped up; instead, open living spaces are designed for multitask living. A couple may cook, dine, watch TV, read and work in the kitchen. Living rooms double as media rooms with big flat-screen TVs … everything has been turned upside down by the new technology. Lights, temperature and security are controlled from an iPad, and a homeowner traveling can receive a text on his cell anytime someone enters his house. Homebuyers seem less willing to take on the cost of cleaning, heating, cooling, insuring and maintaining a McMansion.

My fantasy posse. I would love to live in a modestly sized home designed by the divine Christian Liaigre. I admire John Saladino, Seattle architect Tom Kundig, Tadao Ando, Francois de Menil, Ed Tuttle, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. Also lighting designer Alison Berger and Stephanie Odegard, who creates the most magnificent rugs.

Where inspiration strikes. Paris, Istanbul, Marrakesh, Florence, Cairo, the tiny Greek island of Hydra, Petra in Jordan, Jerusalem and Kyoto. The building that left me speechless was the Taj Mahal — far more beautiful than I could ever have imagined.

Life’s not as effervescent without ... My Nespresso Pixie espresso coffeemaker and frothing machine.

Never finish a home without ... An elevator. It’s a must for arthritic dogs (and people) and hauling luggage. Other necessities: an enormous walk-in pantry, an air and water purifier, a generator for hurricane season, a real garden and energy-efficient doors and windows that keep a house cool and quiet.

As someone trained in Paris at La Varenne, my ideal kitchen has ... The biggest Viking range imaginable, an enormous island, Sub-Zero refrigerator and freezer, Blanco stainless sink, two ovens and a microwave. If I could change anything about my kitchen, I would knock out the swimming pool I never use and design a kitchen large enough to include comfortable chairs and sofas.

Go-to restaurant. Uchi. I love going there for a perfect cup of green tea, delicious food and the imaginative interior design. I love all that wood!

On acts of random decorating. My house is eccentric with lots of surprises. There’s a Greek statue in the entrance, French and Chinese antiques, an Empire chandelier, piles of textiles, architectural models, stacks of construction drawings. My studio is here, and so are the hundreds of design books I’ve collected. Because I have shopped globally, my furnishings are from everywhere: France, Italy, Thailand, China, Mexico, Hong Kong, Nepal, Indonesia. I think the best rooms evolve as we live in them. Life is random, unpredictable and always changing. Shouldn’t our homes be the same?

To thine own self be true. I’m all about comfort. My summer staple is stacks of crisp white Claridge + King shirts (sleeves rolled up). I wear black pants and black tees or sweaters all winter, white linen all summer. I love kicky skirts in summer and collect comfortable flats (I despise high heels). I wear lots of chunky jewelry — especially Hermès silver bracelets. I mix gold and silver together and ignore all the rules. I rarely wear color (have never worn pink or blue in my life) but love chocolate brown. For years, I’ve collected accessories — scarves, handbags, glass frames and ethnic jewelry. My favorite garments are from Hermès, especially my oatmeal cashmere shawl coat and my big cashmere scarves that have gone around the world with me as blankets and coats. I can’t live without the luxury of white linen — sheets, nighties, robe, everything. Even my dog, Monk, has white linen on his bed.

Escapist hotel. I have dozens of favorites, but if I must choose one, it’s the serene Amandari in Bali.

Bespoke amenities. We’ve designed a Titanic-size closet for Ceron, the poolside outdoor shower for lap swimmer Patrick Summers, a 40-foot heated pool with LED lighting at 1850 Norfolk. We are currently working on a wine cellar for the owner of The Handmade House.

Repeat visits required. Europe’s stone cathedrals and Kyoto’s Buddhist temples. I always visit houses of worship and sacred sites to both pray and admire the architecture.