Photography: Timothy Thimmes
I picked this up on Portabello Street in London.” Barclay Butera carefully hands me a 19th century clock, hands frozen in time. “Now watch this,” continues Butera, with the excitement of a kid with a new card trick. He carefully pries open the back of the clock and pulls out the center piece. As Butera holds the relic up, it is easy to imagine the watch dangling from the breast pocket of a Dickens character. “It’s not at all what you expected, is it?” says Butera, a satisfied smile flickering across the designer’s face. “That’s why I bought it.”
Embracing the unexpected most aptly describes Butera’s ever-evolving style in home fashion and furniture design, a multi-million dollar business he has created over the past 13 years. The British watch is just one of hundreds of “souvenirs” Butera cherry-picks from around the world. “When I travel, I go shopping,” says Butera, who gleans product development ideas from his journeys. Many of his ideas come from clothing. A pair of Parisian milk-chocolate colored pants, embroidered from the knees down, inspired Butera to incorporate embroidery into upholstery. Holding up a London store shopping bag covered in a pattern of colorful stripes, Barclay explains why he kept it. “This clues me in to the cutting-edge color schemes in Europe—they are always about two years ahead of us.”
People are drawn to Butera’s high-quality, handmade pieces but also to the surprising combination of elements he brings together, blending and layering textures, print patterns, and pieces from different time periods. “We try to ensure there’s some generational aspect to any interior we design, and then apply a hip twist to it,” says Butera.
Butera’s ties to Park City began when he started attending the Sundance Film Festival seven years ago; he has faithfully returned every year to soak up the raw creative energy found in the films and the people who have created them. This past year, he hosted celebrity photo shoots and interviews in his Airstream and remodeled the Queer Lounge, a hangout for the Sundance crowd.
Personally, the peacefulness of Park City appeals to Butera. Business-wise, the 2002 opening of his 3,400-square-foot Park City store coincides with the rapid growth of homeowners looking for some “mountain elegance.” At “home,” in his Park City condo, Butera pauses from his fast-paced conversation to take a sip of water. Behind him is a framed photo of him and Kevin Bacon at the after-party for the Bacon Brothers concert at the Eccles Center. Butera’s good looks, in the photo and in person, seem a cross between a smooth-skinned Robert Redford (think Sundance Kid) and a Southern California surfer. Few clues give away his age (39).
Replete with a corduroy-clad couch brimming with faux-leopard and leather throw pillows, Butera’s Park City condominium/showroom is a feast of details. Nothing is random; everything plays a stylistic role. Butera might blend 21st century with the 1700s, Asian with bohemian gypsy, or mountain with modern into home interiors and furniture designs. Vintage flasks and leather-bound books hale from another time; a collection of antlers from Germany’s Black Forest adds a masculine rustic element; yet large white and blue porcelain vases alter the mood like nail polish on a tomboy.
“Barclay mixes and matches with what you already have, blending the old with the new,” points out Kay Mammen, a sales associate at Park City’s Barclay Butera home design store at the base of Main Street. “The dinette set where everything matches is the antithesis of his style.”
“Barclay is extremely open, absorbing the world around him, and then processing it in order to create new designs and versions of himself in his work,” observes Anne Volokh, editorial director and CEO of Hollywood Life Magazine. “He is one of those people whom you suspect never sleeps.”
Like so many artists, Butera cannot separate himself—even on vacations—from the manic creative energy that flows through his veins. While working, or vacationing—both entail a rigorous travel schedule—Butera combs estate auctions overseas, studying old European furniture for redesign ideas. He notes the lines, the seating depth, scale, nail-head detailing, the tufting ... and is able to reproduce classic lifestyle pieces from the 1800s to the present, and make them contemporary.
Butera’s attention to detail, feverish creative energy, and hard work have resulted in a company that has grown exponentially. A whopping 100 percent growth in his home design products is anticipated next year. Some 300 showrooms carry his products, and recently he opened his fourth eponymous store in New York City. He also oversees six showroom/homes that feature his blended style.
Self-assured in his place in the home fashion world, Butera does not underestimate the role of his 107 employees: “My team is golden. I’m the creative force behind the company, and the company implements my dreams,” explains Butera. “What more could a visionary ask for?”
Like most visionaries, Butera is a risk taker. “I always push the envelope on everything,” he says. “In a proper way, of course.” Sam Slater, who rose from shipping and receiving clerk to vice president of operations for the company, has had the chance to observe Butera in action. “He truly operates on what we call “Blink.” (A book by the same name professes that one’s initial gut reaction is right, so people should act on it without over-analyzing). “Barclay intuitively goes for it; he figures out why something will work,” says Slater.
From His Roots to Retail
It is unusual to find such success without a mentor behind the scenes, but Butera doesn’t point to any one person in particular. He is emphatic in his respect for Ralph Lauren, however, to whom he has often been compared. Butera believes that Lauren has maintained integrity in the industry, upholding elegance and refusing to give in to trends. Genetics and environment may have had a role to play in influencing Butera. Growing up in Palo Alto, Butera worked with his mother, Karen, who owned the largest model-home interior design company in the country. Outfitting five homes on the same street in five days was not an uncommon cram session and certainly immersed Butera in the crazy pace of the home fashion world early on.
After earning degrees in economics and political science at Brigham Young University in the late 1980s, Butera tried law school, only to drop out after a year. He started his own beachwear clothing line for men and realized that was not for him either. At 25, he developed a high-end pine furniture business. Pine was “in,” and success came rapidly. By 1994, Butera opened his first showroom in Newport Beach. Two years later he qualified as a Baker and Ralph Lauren dealer. “I’ve broken the mold for these companies. They usually distribute only through large commercial retailers,” says Butera, his business acumen apparent. “We sell more of their home furnishings per square foot than any other retailer—even more than Ralph Lauren himself.” To ensure that his own products maintain their high quality, in 2000 Butera opened his own manufacturing plant in Los Angeles. Its proximity and ownership allows for salespeople to custom-order products and rely on quick turn-around.
Butera has blended his home design businesses with real estate. His newest addition is a home he plans to remodel, located a mere 200 yards from Zion National Park. It will be his sixth showroom, including those in Newport Beach, Hollywood Hills (a home previously owned by Desi Arnaz, Jr.), Park City, and a slew of real estate in Palm Springs (he recently sold his remodel of Frank Sinatra’s home there). Butera literally lives inside the walls of his art and business ventures. Although he is always on the move, people can buy directly out of his homes, which are shown by appointment. His simultaneous attachment and detachment to his stylistic creations and collected relics (that 19th century clock is for sale) is, well, unexpected.
Two years ago, Butera created the charitable Barclay Butera Foundation. “I’m a firm believer that if I don’t give back, the karma is bad. So I always make sure I give back.” Abused children, AIDS sufferers and others have benefited.
He explains that he wants to challenge people who don’t like change or think things should be a certain way. The result is a style with so many combinations possible that it cannot be defined. “My style is about breaking boundaries and I don’t want to follow anyone in doing so. I want to set my own boundaries.”
That is to be expected from Butera.
After writing this article, freelance writer Peta Owens-Liston realized that the only thing “unexpected” in her house was style and order. (Lots of Legos, though).