The last time I saw Nicholas Barratt, before sitting down with him for this interview, was at newly opened Supermaxi. The restaurant had been open a week and Barratt wanted to gather some friends for dinner. I guessed that the dinner date for him was also about showing his friends the work he had done there on the interior, fitting the place out with black Rombus chairs and black polished-aluminium Maxdesign Plato table bases.
Within seconds of being seated, Barratt was head down under the table trying to fix a loose screw on a chair leg. "It's a bit wobbly," he called from under the table. Several bottles of wine and many pizzas later, we had all forgotten about the wobble but as we left the restaurant, Barratt turned to yell back through the door, "I'll be in on Sunday to fix it; you have a bottle of pinot waiting for me, Giovanni."
Originally trained in interior design, Barratt has a very definite idea of the way a room should look and feel. As well as a trained chair maker, he is also the head of sales and marketing in Australia for European chair makers Thonet. For Thonet, Barratt has it covered. He is at once a designer, client liaison, a consultant, and is also across all of the company's sales and marketing, right down to the photographs, of which he has shot four of the last five ad campaigns.
"Can you just say consultant though? I don't want to sound like I do everything, cos I don't," he requests modestly. Barratt, however, likes to be across all projects, entirely if he could. "The fact is, I'm not so keen on being a salesperson, but I love chairs so I find it easy to sell them." Barratt, you see, is a self-confessed 'chair junkie'.
In Italy a couple of years ago, Barratt stumbled into a restaurant after a long day traipsing the streets of Florence. Resting back into the comfort of his chair he noticed its familiar design – a classic and original Thonet. It was a simple No.18 bentwood chair made of beech wood and ply, and is considered the ‘signature’ Thonet chair. Seen in cafes and restaurants around the world, this timeless classic is one of the most successful chair designs ever made.
Pronounced "Ton-net", the operation began in Vienna in the 1800s as a family owned furniture brand. The original company has since disbanded but the Thonet brand is still true to its heritage for fine furniture, specialising in tables and chairs: Barratt's true love.
“The Thonet process of bending wood in the factory is an archaic one and cannot be replicated simply. Using three men to bend the timber around the forms, the actual movement is ballet-like,” he says.
Barratt started collecting chairs around 15 years ago, and today has an eclectic range with his main focus being on mid-century designs from local and international designers such as Arne Jacobsen, Harry Bertoia, Charles & Ray Eames, Grant Featherston, Douglas Snelling and Clement Meadmore.
Barratt has been in the furniture industry for some years. As a young chap trying to make a penny, he was regularly found at Sydney markets peddling handmade goods constructed from recycled timber. "I was a bit of a hippy back then, and didn't have much money,” he says. “I like nice things now."
Influenced by the Shakers religious sect – whose main mottos included 'to build' – Barratt is nevertheless "not religious at all, but these people were highly dedicated to the construction of things, and pursing perfection. They also made great furniture that was simple in design, but durable and functional." Shaker chairs in particular were well regarded for the quality of their craftsmanship, and it is from such historical references that Barratt draws upon in his own chairs.
Today, sitting comfortably back in a long banquette at a favourite local eatery, Barratt is less consumed by his seating arrangement. We talk about the first time he took me on a chair tour through his house, explaining the history of each piece like a well-rehearsed museum guide. One room at the front of the house is effectively a chair gallery; it’s set up like an art space with chairs carefully placed around the room. In it are one-off chairs designed by local architects, jewellery designers, fashion and graphic designers. There’s this great chair called the jail-break chair, which is a traditional bentwood chair painted black and white, with a ball and chain attached to one leg; it’s like a sculpture.
I can’t help but speak with affection of the oddities of Barratt’s curious and unique character, and his utterly obsessive nature. He is one of those people who has always known what he wanted to do. Without a doubt in his mind he has always been about interiors, but chairs in particular.
Recently Barratt has been involved in the interior fit-out of several Melbourne restaurants, including Supermaxi and Barbagello's, and has also French polished the stools for new extensions at I Carusi in St Kilda. Barbagello's, however, was more of a personal project.
"I sold and then French polished around 60 bentwood chairs and stools. I worked on them after work and on weekends. It was a self-servicing pastime that provided me with the funds to buy more chairs."
Despite having a collection of over 100 chairs, Barratt's wishlist still includes many more; at the top is an Arne Jacobsen design named the Lily Chair from the early 70s. "This was one of the designer's last commissions for the Danish National Bank prior to his death. It's one of his best; it has a curved shell back and arms," he notes as he draws the shape in the air with his hands.
Barratt's collection spans decades of innovation in furniture design. His newest edition is a 1950s Danish laminated plywood and steel chair by lb-Kofod-Larsen. "I had admired it for years and finally found one at the Smith Street Bazaar" he exclaims with a grin.
His collection hangs from the ceiling, sits out in the cactus garden and is displayed as art pieces around Barratt's home in Northcote, where he lives with his retired greyhound, Tahini. And while he spends most of his time on the sofa, it is his Danish rocker that is his favourite chair to sit in – a rocking chair that he created from an existing chair, made for a limited-edition run in bright colours. "My motto in general is ‘chairs are for viewing not sitting’. I really do consider them as sculptural pieces.”
For Barratt, working with chairs is a pleasure and every aspect of his work is somehow stitched into the lining of his life. This "chair-crazed man" is so consumed by his work, and it is such a massive part of his life, that once you get him started on the subject of seating it's not easy to stop him; he's like an encyclopedia on chairs. That's a good thing for an interview though, and I'm pretty comfy.