Since joining Tim Barber Ltd. in early 2018, I've made it my mission to learn everything I can about my new team and in the process, had a big revelation: there's an incredibly interesting history behind the firm that's crucial to understanding what's at the heart of our work, that was -- until now -- not part of our studio's public narrative. To fix this, I recently sat down with Founder and Principal Architect, Tim Barber to learn more about his trajectory from [comparatively] small town Ohio to premiere Los Angeles architect, and how being in Southern California has shaped the way he designs and lives. Read on for highlights from our interview and let us know what you think in the comments below! - Katelyn
“I have no interest in being a one-man band,” confesses Tim Barber, the principal and namesake of our Los Angeles-based architecture firm, Tim Barber Ltd. While having his name literally emblazoned on the door seems contradictory to his claim, the humming atmosphere of his studio confirms that he walks the talk. Just outside the office where we sit, a 20-member team of architects and designers work smoothly together to help design or even helm their own projects.
“I believe architecture is best when it’s made with a team -- with my team in particular. We have both generalists and specialists,” he continues, alluding to our experienced project managers and in-house interior architectural designer and 3D software systems trainer, the latter two roles of which are often outsourced or overlooked entirely within our industry. “The way we work together makes our work better. Including our clients and collaborators and using their best and brightest ideas helps create something better than I could've made myself."
Tim’s modesty is genuine and refreshing, especially for an architect who has spent the last 24 years designing notable homes in the nation’s most exclusive zip codes for world-renowned luminaries. Reputed for their immaculately detailed and high-quality work, Tim and his team have the rare luxury of being extremely busy and selective of both their projects and collaborators. "We work with the best artisans, builders, designers, and engineers because our work requires it and our clients deserve it," Tim explains -- and he would know how to make the distinction. "I learned much of what I know in the field," he offers before recounting how, even before his first decade, he had already received a masterclass.
“My grandfather was a finish carpenter, a framer, finisher, and a cabinetmaker; he installed the moldings, he hung the windows – he made the windows. When I visited his job sites as a child, I remember there was no electricity on the site, so they used hammers and saws, and brace and bit. There were no radios, no compressors, no nail guns. It was a very different environment from ours today,” Tim recalls.
When his Ohio hometown experienced a building boom some years later, Tim was drawn to explore the new structures. “In my teens, I spent afternoons after school wandering through nearby construction sites. I'm pretty sure I didn't break any laws climbing over the construction fences. I would imagine what the rooms would be, or once they were finally framed, where the millwork would be. It was an imaginary hotbed for me.”
Tim later worked for a master carpenter building prominent estates in Florida, where he learned the price of perfection. "Every hammer dent was a big deal and mistakes came out of my pay." (Fortunately, his first dent was his only!)
His training also came from his historic Ohio hometown, which was rich with Federal and Victorian style homes. He grew up fascinated by the elegant shapes, tall proportions, and logical layouts of the Federal style, which were comparatively subdued to the neighboring Victorian buildings’ “complete crazy quilt” of brick and wood, porches, stained glass, turrets, and castle forms. “Comparing the two styles side-by-side brought me an epiphany that architecture can be magical or serene -- or both,” a lesson Tim now imparts on his own work decades later and thousands of miles away.
“In my hometown I'd see those two ideas juxtaposed. But in Southern California there are twenty – or two hundred ideas juxtaposed. That contrast of cultures and materials and building ideas makes California vibrant,” as does its climate and geography, Tim continues. “Designing for living partly outdoors and with windows open most of the year is essential."
"In Los Angeles, we can go to the beach and the mountains and the desert all within one day. For me, that’s a rich experience. I'm fascinated with the light and the air and the use of the yard. The full enjoyment of a property is key. Patios and pergolas, arbors and walkways, vineyards and covered porches, or roof terraces -- these are the environments I wouldn’t have designed back East that I create here quite a bit.”
This is not to say that California has completely transformed Tim. Rather, Tim has, in some ways, transformed California. “When I came to California, I knew immediately that they needed some architects out here. There’s some really beautiful work, and then there’s a lot of work that really needs help,” Tim admits.
But don’t mistake him for a "fixer" or “renovation architect". “As much as I appreciate the puzzle of a historic renovation or an addition to a house that already has some really good qualities, I love creating a new home."
Despite a portfolio rich with renovations, the majority of Tim Barber Ltd.’s work actually consists of new, ground-up, custom homes and estates in the most secluded and affluent corners of the Golden Coast. Tim’s humble demeanor and design restraint have made him a household name among a set of fiercely private clientele who live in those places, many of whom are reluctant to publish their homes or draw unwanted attention. This is a perfect fit for this architect, who seems to have never designed for accolades or notoriety, but instead specifically for his clients’ convenience, comfort, and families.
Tim notes that his and his team's work has always been rooted in a Vitruvian virtue: “Firmitas, utilitas, venustas”.
“The assignment really is to build something that will last, that is useful, and that is beautiful,” Tim explains. "If it doesn’t meet those requirements, it’s not architecture. That’s my top priority.”
This idiom tasks our team with creating residences that remain useful and appealing (and remain, period!) for generations, as families grow, and priorities, technologies, and the environment change. While this seems a difficult – if not impossible undertaking without the aid of a crystal ball, Tim comes to every commission armed with one of the mightiest tools in architecture: tradition.
“I think it’s hard to put a label on what we do because every project is so different… yet our work consistently incorporates history. Some people say we make ‘traditional’ architecture, but that's not it. We make architecture that is ‘tradition-informed’.”
The craft traditions and history that inform Tim’s work are rooted deeply in his personal experiences: the restrained or exuberant architecture of his historic hometown and the careful craftsmanship and insistence on quality materials imparted unto him by his mentors. Add that to the uniquely Californian way of adapting cultural elements from other places and periods, and you start to get the picture.
"Some people say we make 'traditional' architecture, but that's not it. We make architecture that is 'tradition-informed."
“We've made many ground-up houses that make use of the traditions we've inherited, and sometimes turn then on their head. Two of my favorite projects, one I would call a "California Colonial Revival", and another which I call "Shingle style", were devised to take advantage of the Southern California climate with porches, terraces, and French doors -- features these homes might not have included as they were first invented. The materials and the volumes, the way rooms expand or surround you, the light bouncing off the terrace and onto the ceilings inside requires rethinking the original idioms. What once would've been dark, tightly clustered spaces with crusty materials and intricate millwork are now airy and light-hearted. They're structured and yet improvised. They take tradition and do something new with it, but don't repeat it."
Some of Tim's Favorite Ground-Up, Custom Homes
The same might be said of Tim’s own home, a 1924 Spanish Colonial Revival residence that he renovated in 2006. “It doesn’t capture a specific time in history, although it has elements of different periods, especially my favorite, the 1930s, in terms of the restraint, simple materials, and bold gestures. I find that period, especially in Southern California to be brilliant and rich, a product of the immigration, frugality, and collaboration that happened in the '30s. The power of the art that immigrants from all over bring to Southern California is still rocking my world. I've explored it in my home."
In the living room, Tim repurposed his yard’s former wooden fence to create a beam and plank ceiling reminiscent of Spanish Colonial Revival interiors. He retained and recreated the complex arches popular of the period that now distinguish the different rooms of a decidedly modern open floorplan.
Tim's light and bright kitchen and baths look authentically part of the home's nearly hundred-year history, despite the fact that their design is an entirely 21st century invention.
The most Californian aspect of Tim’s home, however, is its rear yard, which boasts a semi-covered deck for indoor-outdoor living and a brick-paved (pervious) terrace. An edible garden with a surprising variety of yields is fed by a sustainable laundry-to-landscape water recycling irrigation system. Tim's garage-turned design studio is wrapped in bi-fold glass doors that can transform the space from entirely enclosed to open-air in mere seconds.
“Though I love my home, it’s not fancy,” Tim is somewhat apologetic, and to a certain extent he is right, but ‘fancy’ is not what makes architecture exceptional. Rather, his residence endures (with the past decade undoubtedly credited to him) by integrating appealing aesthetic elements of bygone eras with a contemporary plan, suited to his busy-but-tranquil lifestyle. It is, in fact -- after all we've learned -- everything you'd expect Tim's house to be: lasting, useful, beautiful, and tradition-informed, carefully designed for California living.