Sir John Barnett doesn't take no for an answer. It is perhaps one of the more obvious character traits of the man who's amassed a list of celebrity clients from Karli Kloss to Joan Smalls and .
What's much lesser known about the celebrity makeup artist, however, is that he got his start in design, studying art history and going on to create another kind of visual feast, on the merchandising team of high-end department stores like Barney's and Bergdorf Goodman.
This year, Sir John, like scores of other East Coasters, decamped for LA, where he sat down with ELLEDecor.com to muse on his return to the world of interior design.
So when exactly were you doing window installations and how did that translate to makeup?
I went to school for art history in Atlanta. I left Atlanta and moved to New York at 19 to open the Bloomies SoHo MAC location. I was working in makeup for a while, got let go from MAC for being late at 22, and then I went into visuals.
My first job in visuals was at Henri Bendel. I did the holiday windows. I also used to work at Calvin on Madison, doing visuals there.
Did you just leverage your college degree to do that?
I don’t believe in the word no. Just go until someone gives you a yes.
I was working at Bendel and saw these guys bringing in huge trucks of trees and cranes and thought, “Oh my god, this looks so fun.” I went up to the visual merchandising director and said, “Hey, how do you get involved in this?” He laughed and said, “You’re going to have to spend the night in the store… tonight.” I became part of the visual team there and let makeup go for about 2 years.
A lot of people don’t even know that about me.
It was fun. You’re creating a story every single day you go to work. Sometimes they were like, “We’re going to build a sofa today," or some other crazy shit that was super labor intensive. I got calluses on my hands, but it was very fun and creative, and it allowed me to use my hands in a different way.
In the beauty industry, we always follow the same people, but I tell makeup artists, don’t always follow other makeup artists. If you follow YouTubers, they have just one perspective of how they want the eyeshadow to lay on their face, or they know what works for their brow. But if you want a really wide variety or an unorthodox view of what this could look like, go to a museum, go see how some paint was applied to a 2000-year-old painting, and way the color washed on the cheeks there, and then you’ll have a larger perspective. You’ll have more to bring back to your clients or fashion directors or the people making mood boards for your stories.
So what happened next?
I left visuals when I met Pat [McGrath], and got thrust into that whole scene. I was doing makeup for a while as an assistant at Condé Nast when a friend of mine who was at MAC said, “All of us old MAC buddies are doing makeup at this strip club in Queens, do you want to come do some makeup and make cash every night?" I was like, “I don’t know,” and she said, "It’s $600 bucks a night." I was like, "I’m there."
So I was doing both. I was doing fashion in the morning, going straight from editorial sets with Annie Leibovitz and Mario Testino to the strip club.
I did that for a while until I met B and Naomi and so many other celebs. Priyanka Chopra, Karli and Joan are my best friends.
That’s my story.
Where do you see the parallels between interior design and makeup?
The cool thing is that it’s all creating a story and creating balance and harmony. For example, editors will call me and say, “When you did the Grammys this year for Beyoncé or when you work with certain celebrities, what goes into it?” Honestly, it’s harmony. It’s not just about me, it’s not just about the hair stylist or the clothing itself. How we all align or that exchange of ideas, [is what] makes a great overall picture.
The same thing happens [at] home. You start your makeup routine and you know you're going to wear a red matte lip or a certain dress and everything works around that. It’s the same thing with my home, with this emerald sofa I have or the yellow love seat. You take one of those statement pieces and you work everything else around that. Everything becomes an accessory — the bippity boppity boop around a focal point.
Tell me about your new place. You recently moved from the East Coast to the West Coast. What were you looking for?
NY is great and my soul is still there, but I just wanted a different floor plan. And I wanted a backyard! We don’t have one yet. We just moved, so we’re in a condo, but we’re looking for a home at the moment. The weather is better, it’s super chill, it’s just better on my emotional state.
New York is everything, but… the vibe has changed. I moved there in 2001 and it had more of a soul. The reason we all made the pilgrimage to New York back in the day is because we were artists in search of the dream. But now the dream is bottle service, it's commerce, if you’re not a banker or putting down a huge credit card at a party, it’s not about you any longer. It was not about those guys, it was about the fun, cool kids who dressed nice and were inspired by other artists. There’s a shift and a huge migration to LA, and I hope NY gets some of that back.
So, you’re in a new place. How would you describe the style you’re going for? What does your dream home look like?
My beauty philosophy is glamour. I’m not a minimalist. In my beauty career, I love to make women look like themselves. I don’t want them to be lacquered in heavy foundation or Instagram brows. For me, it’s classy staples that are forever recurring. I love what was happening in beauty in the 1930s and 40s. I also love what was happening in furniture from the regency era of Hollywood.
The reason I got an emerald velvet sofa is because I watched this documentary on Elizabeth Taylor and the emerald suite that Richard Burton gave her. I thought, "That is so amazing!" But I can’t have a huge emerald, so I thought about how I can incorporate the same thing into my home, and for me it’s in a sofa.
In terms of makeup, it would be a tinted eyeliner or some wash of color on the eye. It’s all relative and has to do with finding one thing you love and allowing it to be a sense of punctuation.
What’s next on your home to-do list now that you have these amazing pieces?
I’m looking for a home. This is a temporary home.
Have you imparted any of your home design expertise on your beauty clients?
Totally. They’re all aware that this kind of stuff makes me excited. It makes me happy to have a cool new rug or something on my walls.
I have these huge frames, they’re 3 feet by 3 feet, and what I wanted to do was put nothing in them. I think it's cool and thought proving to just have these huge baroque frames and nothing inside.
Everyone’s seen the sofa. I showed Beyoncé the other day and she was gagging about the color. Karli Kloss saw it; Joan came over. I like to create an environment. It’s not just [what's] in your home, it’s music as well — I like to cook and entertain.