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In Conversation with Jojo Barr

In 2014, Jojo established House Nine Design. Under her watchful eye, her enthusiastic and highly capable team have completed several high-end residential properties, large developments and hotel projects across the UK and overseas. Her projects span from residential refurbishments and new-builds to key commercial and hospitality fit-outs. She believes in a hands-on approach to design, creating individuality in every new assignment, applying vigorous research and understanding of the client's brief, and a deep understanding of the nature of the building and its surroundings.

What projects have you on at the moment?

We’ve got quite a few sites on the go at the moment. This one I’m on now is in Chiswick, and it’s a beautiful, big, six-bedroom family home that we’re entirely gutting. It’s a bit like sitting in a shell. It’s due to move in at the end of August, so we’ve got our work cut out.

How did you become an interior designer? What were the influences in your life to get you to this point?

I always had a creative bone in my body. I was never really that good at anything else at school. And I went to an academic school, and when you’re in an academic school, you’re always slightly pigeonholed. You’ve got to do all these things, and you’ve got to pass all your exams. It wasn’t a very creative school at all. I said to my parents that this isn’t working and I’m just not happy here. They said, why don’t we just get you out, go to another college. It was very media and art orientated, so I flourished, and I loved it, but then I still didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I left school.

I did a bit of private modelling in between, but I was like, what am I going to do in my life when I finish modelling? So I started working at a couple of estate agents, and the bit I loved the most was just nosing around people’s houses. And I ended up working my way up. 

I was buying and selling a flat with my dad at the time. And I took the money from the flat that we had sold and I put myself into design school. I suddenly felt like I found my calling and worked my ass off until my fingers were bleeding. And then just jumped on any work experience I could. I was 25 at the time. I just loved it, threw myself into it headfirst and worked my way up quite quickly. And then, about six years into doing it for other people, I thought, no, I’m going to do this myself. So I set up my own little practice, House Nine, and then I worked myself for a couple of years and then hired someone else. Now, I’m me, plus six.

Studying design, other people that inspired you in that process and were your first jobs, who were you working for?

I went to work for a little firm called Sarah Hudson Design in Chelsea. After that, I went to work for a company called The London Furnishing Company. It was brilliant because an arm of their business was show homes. So we had a warehouse full of stock. We would essentially go into properties of people, developers, or people that couldn’t sell their flats and houses. We’d just deck them out top to bottom. And then it would sort of sell within a few weeks. It was really fun, really fast-paced, long hours.

I was at London Furnishing for probably three or four years, and I was at the lovely HAM Interiors for probably another three years. It was from there that I went and set up on my own. I guess I took all this inspiration from the companies I worked at. I think wherever you are, you tend to design in an in-house style. It’s only when I set up on my own that I realised what my true style was. It took a while to get there because you always try and put in what everyone else wants you to do. Now we’ve been going long enough that I feel like we have a style. We have a look.

So what is the look? How would you articulate it?

If I’d said a style influenced me, it probably would be the American dream style. I was always really in love with Ralph Lauren style, dark wood, mahogany, and white boarding. Everything we do has boarding, sort of traditionalist, but in a contemporary way.

I love to walk into a room and feel like it’s timeless, but there’s something different about it. Slightly eclectic, like it’s got something different, but that it’s always going to look good. I’m not into fads. I don’t believe in trends. It’s very easy to fall down and find holes. I love to feel like I’m in a room that I really want to spend time in. So I’d say my style is quite natural, quite earthy – comfortable. I would live the California dream all day long. 

Back to your modelling days…

I did a bit of lingerie, swimwear, a bit of catwalk and stuff. I was thrilled. I loved the jobs, hated everything else. I always felt like it was really soulless. 

Were you travelling?

Not too much, no. I started travelling because I met a tennis player and travelled with him around on the ATP tour. That was fun, I really got to see the world.

I was a bit of a loner for a while because modelling is a bit lonely. Travelling on a tennis tour was pretty lonely as well. It always feels like I’ve had so many past lives.

What emotion do you hope that your clients take away? 

One that’s so important to me with every project I take on is that I have a relationship with the client and there’s authenticity there. Even when I meet them, they’re meeting the real me. We have to get on, and it’s just as much on their side as it is on mine. There has to be trust and a relationship there, and an understanding that we have the same vision that I can make come to. It’s so important for me from the beginning that they feel that we have that relationship.

When we get to the end of the project, you’ve formed a friendship with this person. You want them to feel like they’re home straight away. There’s nothing lovelier than when a client just says, “You’ve just got it. You just got everything I sort of wanted.” I’ve got a client whose house I did eight years ago. I saw her the other day for a drink, and she said, “Even now I walk into my flat, and it still feels to this day, like new, like home, every time I walk in, I feel proud that it’s my home.” That means a lot.

What do you think you’ve learned over the last six years of your practice? 

I’ve learned a lot about believing in myself. It takes a lot to run your own practice. When you’re starting something yourself, you have to really believe in it. Believe in everything you’re doing and believe in yourself. I don’t think I did when I first started, which is why I think it was just me for a long time, because I didn’t know if I could delegate and I didn’t know if I’d be a good boss, and I was constantly questioning if I was good enough.

I eventually broke down those barriers, and now it feels like what I can achieve is endless. But it took me a long time to get there.

Have you become decisive in your jobs?

Being decisive is very powerful. We’ve got thirteen live projects on at the moment. We’re working with a resort company over in the Maldives. They’ve got five resorts and we’re working on one that’s completing in August, a holiday island. We’ve been over there regularly and sourcing trips in various spaces. The whole team’s on that.

We’ve got houses and apartment buildings in the Cotswolds and around London, so I regularly have to drive around, go to various sites, and check in on things. You’ve got your clients, but then you’ve got the suppliers, and you’ve got the contractors, and you’ve got the project managers, and you’ve got the architects. There are so many different people to check in with constantly. So it’s really busy, and I’ve got two little girls at home as well, and we’ve just literally moved house two months ago out in Buckinghamshire. So it’s really full-on.

What’s that been like?

Honestly, when we moved in, it was just hell. Obviously doing what I do, I’m so used to doing other people’s houses and making something look lovely. I couldn’t rush this because it’s going to be a project. I’ve done two rooms at the moment, and we literally moved into our front space. Everything was a complete disaster, so we just had to rip loads of stuff out and just accept it. 

When you’re designing the home, where do you find your attention?

I wouldn’t say there’s any one particular room. If you think of a house, it has so many zones, and each room serves a different purpose. And then each bed for each room has a slightly different feel to it. Although there should be a continuous language throughout the whole house, I actually feel like each room serves a different purpose. Imagine every room you walk into it almost has a different smell, you know? So I wouldn’t say I had a particular room that I like to design more than another. I think, for some reason, the dining room is the hardest to design.

Through the last six years, what projects have been really memorable?

I’m doing a lake house project at the moment in the Cotswolds. I did the client’s house in Gerrards Cross about seven years ago, but it was when I was with my old company. So when she bought this lake house, she called HAM Interiors to ask if she could see me, and they said she’s moved on, she’s got her own thing. It was very sweet.

So I’ve done this project with her, and it’s been really lovely because when I did her old house, I designed it in a particular way because of where I was. And now doing the lake house, she kind of let me have free reign with it because she trusted me and knew me. So we’ve almost designed it exactly as we wanted to. That’s really rare but has been really lovely. I’m so excited because it’s going to be a pretty stunning property when it’s finished. 

How do you balance work and being a mom?

There were quite a few tears. I didn’t get maternity leave with either of my little ones because I have my own business. I was installing a hotel in Devon when I had my first one, and I was really heavily pregnant when it was installing. I had her literally the week of installation, so I had to just strap her on and go. I was on site every day with her as a newborn, and I never gave us a break, and that was pretty tough.

But I think because I never had maternity leave, I don’t know what it was ever like. I don’t feel like I ever missed out, but maybe my body missed out. I don’t feel like I gave my body that chance to recoup and recover. I think eventually, it catches up with you a bit mentally. I think it’s taken me actually quite a long time to kind of overcome all that. But now, I just feel this innate sense of pride in the fact that I’ve done this for them as well. I’m running a business because I love it and it’s my passion. I also hope that one day, it makes them proud that mum’s out there doing it. I don’t get to spend as much time with them as I’d like, but they’ve got people around them and love them.

How did you recognise that you didn’t give your body time to recover? 

I think the internal exhaustion caught up. I think mentally, I was not allowing myself the time. Inevitably, it would catch up with me, and sheer exhaustion was probably the main thing. Actually, I had these flare-ups of eczema and everything like that. But I’ve been learning to meditate, give myself time, and that’s only really come lately actually because now the both of them are that much older that I can now spend the time a bit more on myself.

What’s your morning ritual like?

I’m starting to get into a ritual because I think they’re that sort of age now where they both wake up at about 7:00, 7:30. My oldest will come creeping in the door and then climb in bed with me. And I suppose that’s pretty heavenly really, she has a little cuddle with me and then demands toast with honey. So I’ll go downstairs, make my coffee or tea.

What coffee are you drinking?

I have the most incredible coffee machine that I bought when we moved to the country because it’s the one thing I can’t live without. I purchased this new barista machine, which is like one of those proper ones that grind beans. So I’ll make myself a proper coffee with oat milk. I don’t know what I would do without it. Honestly, it just gets me going in the morning. So my first morning ritual is my coffee.

Where are you getting your honey from?

Locally. We started getting it locally. There’s a lovely farm shop up the road, and they make local honey. When it’s local, they say that it’s meant to ward off pollen allergies because you’re essentially building up immunity to it. 

And where is the place that you’re happiest?

The place I’m happiest is at home. I’ve become a real homebody. I love being home. Especially now where we live, I mean, I’m looking out over these rolling hills. And I found a new spot, which is under our big copper beech tree in the garden. I roll up my yoga mat, and I go and sit there and do my morning Pilates or yoga. Home is my happy place. 

When I’m doing meditation or practicing mindfulness, I have to make sure I’m in a room that I feel calm in. I try and catch 15 minutes. I probably only get to do it three times a week. 

How do you design a space for mindfulness?

It’s clearing clear of clutter, removing everything that busies the mind. Try to find order. I believe in ‘tidy workspace, tidy mind.’ When the area around me feels tidy, it helps me feel calm. So even if I’m crazy busy, I’ll walk into the office, and I have to just start cleaning and clearing. The one thing you can control is the objects and things around you. It helps my mind feel decluttered. 

What are you doing coming into the summer?

Lots of barbecues. Lots of fresh food from our farm shop. We believe a lot in buying organic and we eat a lot of grilled fish, salads, lots of nuts and grilled vegetables. I’m trying to eat less meat, but I’ll just make sure it’s very organic and healthy if I do eat it.

You get used to being busy and not eating breakfast. But I can’t do that now because I exercise most mornings, so I feel like I need the food.

Where are you hoping to travel to?

We want to go to Spain, go away for two weeks with the kids, somewhere with a pool, close to the sea. I like rustic, like fishing villages. I’m not like a sort of city person. I just want to go somewhere really chill.

But we’re just going to make the most of what we’ve got here, to be honest. On the long-term bucket list, we’d love to go to Asia and would love to drive the Southern states of America. Kentucky, Mississippi, and all those.

And here in England, is there anywhere that you’re really enjoying?

We go to the Cotswolds a lot. Gloucestershire. We love it there, it’s just beautiful. 

In London, what do you find inspiring?

I think everywhere you go and every street you turn down, you find something new, somewhere you’ve never been before. I’m from London, born and bred, so I feel like I’m always still inspired by it. When I’m away from it, I miss London. But I’d actually say the place that I go to regularly, again and again, continues to inspire me is probably Petersham Nurseries. I think I realise I’m quite into gardening, which I never thought I would be. I love gardens, and I love rustic. 

Five tips you would give to create the perfect home environment?

Declutter, blend the colours, bring the outside in, think about the light. Think about how the light comes into the space because specific colours work well in dark rooms. Certain colours work well in light rooms. And texture is a massive one for me, actually. I think comfort is absolutely key.

What’s on your playlist? What book are you reading this summer? 

I wish I had time to read books. I flick through pictures, but I’ve got so many subscriptions to magazines, and they just go on a big pile. I probably spend more of my time on Pinterest and Instagram, so I’m very much a visual picture person. 

For music, I love quite chill vibes, really. I love sort of quite relaxing, chilled, classic. I even love classical, actually, and I also love a bit of the ’90s and ’80s.

What do you do for fun out in the country?

We do lots of walks. Just outside our house, there’s a footpath that runs all the way through these beautiful fields. We’re fortunate here with walks all around us. We’re in an area of outstanding natural beauty, and this area is just stunning. So we’re spoiled for choice a bit with walks.

Written by:
Stevie Deale

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