Celebrity interior designer comes home from LA
SA man who has worked on homes of Jane Seymour and Ozzy Osbourne is back. By ZARA NICHOLSON
LIFE in South Africa under apartheid forced many people to leave the country and seek their fortunes elsewhere. For some people life became a further struggle, but for others it was a chance to reach great heights. One such person is Jonathan Barnett, who left 33 years ago and went on to design the interiors of homes for movie stars and top musicians in Los Angeles.
Barnett, now in his early fifties, grew up in Johannesburg, then spent a year in London, a year in New York and 31 years in Los Angeles, before returning to South Africa to set up shop in Cape Town
He studied drama in London and helped out at a small interior design store, moved to New York and then to Los Angeles where he was soon contacted by top names to design the inside of their homes.
Barnett has worked on the homes of among others, Sally Field, Rob Lowe, Ozzy Osbourne, Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Jane Seymour, Dr Dre and billionaire real estate investor Tom Barrack.
At the Pezula interior design studio in the city centre earlier this week, a stylish-looking Barnett met the Weekend Argus team.
Despite spending years overseas, he still has his South African accent and a cool, laid-back way about him.
Barnett did his compulsory stint in the army in Walvis Bay in thenSouth West Africa, when he was just 16. Later in the 1970s, when life in South Africa became unbearable for the liberal artist, he went to live with an aunt in London.
“Growing up in apartheid was never a happy place and I travelled to the United Kingdom from a young age. Seeing the other side of the world gave me a real desire to leave.
“I went to study in London and used to dabble in interior design studios over weekends.
“The army experience was scary but I was exposed to meditation since the age of 14 and that helped me survive. I just took the whole situation as if it were a movie and I was playing a role and that it would end.
“After that I was not sure what I wanted to do till a friend, Robert Whitehead (Barker Haines from Isidingo), suggested I study drama in London. While I was there I was exposed to a lot of different and interesting interior designers.”
After a year at the Drama Studio in London, Barnett moved to New York after making friends with some Americans at drama school.
In 1978 it was a “fun, sleazy” time to be in New York when disco spot Studio 54 was the place to be seen. Barnett spent a year partying with singers like Liza Minnelli and Grace Jones and pop art legend Andy Warhol.
“It was wild. We just had money to party and buy new outfits.
“It was hard finding work but later friends of mine from South Africa who were living in LA suggested I move there. I realised that I needed to settle because in New York, nothing ever closes.”
In 1979 he started working at a small interior design shop in LA.
One of the shop’s clients was Nora Kaye – a ballerina from the late 40s and 50s, famous for work in movies like Turning Point and Funny Lady and various Broadway productions. She took notice of Barnett.
“She just took a fancy to me and I worked on her homes and she referred me to Sally Field. The style in those days was very contemporary, but Nora exposed me to country French and country English. It was the trend at that time.”
After doing work for Sally Field, Barnett went to work on various other homes, including Jane Seymour’s homes in LA and Santa Barbara.
“Jane’s house was the first house where I was published in the Architectural Digest, in 1986. It was good because back then there weren’t many design magazines and that was seen as the Bible of the industry.
“Both her houses were big renovations. I really got involved in the architecture. I’m not a decorator, I design the furniture, have it made, do the layout, lighting, audio and visuals.”
Barnett said that while movie stars got a lot of things free they were less extravagant than people in the music industry.
“The guys from the music industry don’t get things for nothing but they spend more.”
Another exciting project he worked on was the home of Ozzy Osbourne. It was the house where the MTV series The Osbournes was shot.
Barnett designed parts of the house as well as Ozzy’s home recording studio.
Asked whether the family is as wild as seen in the show, he said: “It’s crazy, always lots of bulldogs running around. It’s always pandemonium but Ozzy himself can be very focused if you just pull him aside, and he’s very sweet.”
Barnett said his career designing the stars’ homes was successful because of “word of mouth”.
“I had a lot of referrals, I never had to go looking for work. When the time was right, the job would come.”
While working on celebrities’ homes was good marketing for his work, Barnett prefers working for big companies.
“It’s nice working with corporates because you do a budget and a storyboard and you never see them again until the job is done.
“It’s a turn-key job so when they walk in, everything is done, like walking into a hotel suite. I do everything down to the cutlery, crockery, the bar and even the music.”
Barnett never studied design formally and learnt the ins and outs of the industry as he went along.
While he was living overseas he visited South Africa regularly to see his parents who have now deceased, but he decided to stay for good after a trip home in February last year.
Barnett is still deciding on where to settle in Cape Town but is looking for an old Cape-style home.
He has been back since November and is working on two big homes in Fresnaye and Camps Bay.
“People have been really wonderful to me. Much of my generation spent their lives running away from the country.
“Coming back was almost like confronting my fears, I always felt connected to South Africa but never wanted to stay.
“LA is not a friendly place to grow old and now friends and family are more important to me.
“Even with the extremes in your face every day, you still see the light in people’s eyes over here.”
SINGER: Ozzy Osbourne
ACTOR: Rob Lowe