Interior designer Barrie Benson was born in Clinton, N.C., and raised in Franklin, Va., but her décor can be seen from Hamburg to New Orleans. After graduating from the University of Georgia, she was hired by Hirsch Bedner Associates to work on interiors of American hotels in foreign lands. But Benson’s first designing experience was as a 12-year-old when her grandmother gave her a small budget to redesign their beach house at Topsail. “I painted the cabinets and I changed out the rug,” she says. “Grandparents let you do anything.” Benson, 45, started her own design firm in Charlotte in 2000. She lives with her husband, Matt, and their children, Billy, 14, and Kay, 11.
Q. How did your mom influence your style?
A. My mom was so laid back. She let me decorate my room, dress the way I wanted to, and design my own wedding. She had beautiful things because her mom was into fashion, but she let me do my own thing, and that was how my style developed.
Q. Who else influenced your style?
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A. Grandma. She lived a very interesting life. When her husband died she went to many different ports on the QE2. So our Christmas stockings were full of the most amazing pieces from around the world. She had beautiful linens and silver and china.
Q. What does style mean to you?
A. It’s a reflection of your personality. Mix that with a little comfort and a little function for your own life, and that says who you are.
Q. If a client walked into your house, what would surprise them?
A. You should not be surprised by someone’s style. When I design I do a lot of research. I want people to know exactly who that person is, or who that family is. I want someone who comes to their house not to be surprised, but inspired, intrigued and to know a little bit more about the person.
Q. What advice do you give your clients?
A. Everything can be cleaned. There’s always a steam cleaner and a refinisher around the corner.
Q. How has your style evolved?
A. I put a governor on myself with prints, I don’t want to end up looking like my draperies and my pillows, which is what I am attracted to when I see clothes. I’m a little bit smarter about things. In my 30s I would push the trends at the expense of what looks good on me.
Q. What’s a fashion mistake many make?
A. Too many accessories and too much makeup.
Q. What trend was a game-changer for you?
A. Right now it is the high waist, because it works on me.
Q. What do you wear every day?
A. I have a necklace that has one earring on it because I lost the other, and it also has a charm my husband bought me, with a little diamond each for my husband and two kids.
Q. I would trade closets with …
A. Marina Rust. She’s a socialite and also very smart writer for Vogue. She has a similar complexion to me; I’ve always loved her aesthetic.
Q. Tell me about your shoes.
A. I love shoes, but I remember about 10 years ago, older women would say, “How do you wear those shoes?” and now I get it. I love the chunky heel movement because it is very comfortable to wear.
Q. Do you favor certain colors?
A. I love them all. Red, black, white, emeralds, rubies, saturated colors. I love mustard, but I can’t wear it on my skin. I have a pair of Céline chunky sandals that are mustard.
Q. What jeans fit you best?
A. My new favorite are called 3 x 1, and they are high-waisted. They have an inside seam that makes your legs look thinner.
Q. Tell me about a favorite piece of clothing.
A. I bought a Céline pink coat at Capitol, and I would never have thought a pink wool coat was practical. But every time I go to New York, or where I need to wear a coat, it dresses up every outfit I have. It’s the new oversize boxy, which fits over everything.
Q. Are you loyal to any products?
A. I love the girls at Woo; they do a good job at picking things that work for your lifestyle. My makeup routine is less than five minutes, and they know that about me, so they don’t try to sell me more.
Q. Where do you shop in Charlotte?
A. I’ve supported Capitol and Poole Shop for years – Laura Vinroot Poole has changed the fashion of Charlotte – and ChezElle.
Q. Describe yourself in three words.
A. Funny, clumsy, determined.
Q. Do you favor a particular detail?
A. I’ve always been a statement necklace person, but I’m giving my big necklaces a rest and moving on to big earrings.
Q. Tell me about your purse.
A. I’ve learned they have to be bomb-proof because I’m very hard on them. I love that new pebbled leather. I would love a Mark Cross suitcase bag. I like things I don’t have to clasp and I can get into easily. I love Chloé bags and some of the Bottega Veneta new woven leathers.
Q. What are three out-of-the-ordinary things in your purse?
A. A pair of shoes, a set of architectural plans and a floral eye mask for when I travel.
Q. Do you have any particular fashion quirks?
A. I’m sort of a bag lady. As a working mother I have to be prepared to do any of my jobs at any time. I usually have a small purse, then my Mansur Gavriel tote that has drawing materials for clients, and then my Gucci bag from the ’80s that my mother-in-law gave me.
Q. You spent two summers in Italy. What did you learn about style?
A. Italians buy a few nice pieces and wear them over and over again. They don’t walk around in athletic clothes. Even if they don’t have the money they will buy very fine pieces. I learned to buy what you love, and what is very well-made.
Q. What’s the best gift you’ve received lately?
A. My husband surprised me with an anniversary trip to Nashville, and he arranged all the babysitters and all the dinners. We went to see Neil Young.
Q. What’s an upcoming trend in the design world?
A. A lot of people are asking for things that are made in America. The North Carolina furniture and textile market is our bread and butter. I’m very passionate about filling all these empty factories and having the jobs come back. I’m doing a furniture line right now, and it was very important to me that the case goods and wood pieces were made in North Carolina.
Q. What are you reading?
A. “Factory Man,” by Beth Macy. It’s a fabulous book about furniture, and it explains globalization and how it happened, and how we lost our jobs.
Q. What advice do you have for women?
A. Mom has Parkinson’s. She told me, “I spent my whole life wanting to be 10 pounds thinner, and now that I can’t use my body I wish I had loved it when it worked so well and was strong.” I think it is so important for our children to know that. I’ve stopped worrying about what my body looks like, because it is about being strong.