For many collectors, discovering and selecting art is a process that starts slowly. Maybe they buy work from artists they know or pick up a few pieces on their travels. Charlotte-based interior designer Barrie Benson’s first experience building a collection, on the other hand, was something altogether more intensive. Right out of interior design school, she became one of the first hires for a new design firm that had big clients, lots of projects and not enough people on staff to get everything done. That’s how she found herself in Cologne, Germany tasked with choosing the entire art package for a new hotel when she was just 23 years old. When the company sent her to a Cologne art fair with a crazy amount of money to spend and only two days to complete the collection, she improvised. “I sort of followed a few people around who looked like they really knew art and asked them what they were doing and where I could find some emerging artists,” recalls Benson. “Someone introduced me to a woman who basically took me to every artist studio in the city, and it was such an amazing experience. That’s when I realized how much I love being around artists and learning about their art.”
Being able to see first hand the positive impact buying work from emerging artists can have on their lives is something that made a big impression on Benson. Today, of all the art that fills the 1950s mid century modern ranch she shares with her husband Matt, an architect, and their two children — the pieces that mean the most to her are the ones that hold some kind of personal connection. “What stands out to me are the memories of meeting the artists, getting to know them and understanding the ideas or stories behind the work,” she explains. “Loving the way a piece looks is one thing, but adding a few more layers to why you like it can make it even more meaningful.”
“I’ve learned that if there’s a piece of art I’m considering buying and I find that I can’t stop thinking about it, that’s the one I should get. If I just can’t get it out of my head, that’s a sign.”
Growing up in a family of educators, Benson says pursuing a creative profession was never even mentioned as a viable option. But while studying history at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, she took a few art classes, got hooked and ended up doing a double major in history and studio art. It was a study abroad semester in Italy that inspired her to go on to get a BFA in Interior design at the University of Georgia. Today she has her own design firm and a reputation as a master at mixing the modern and traditional in her signature interiors. And her eye for art helps her find just the right piece to add a splash of color or a dash of the unexpected to a client’s space.
Benson’s latest venture, Peg Norriss, is a collaboration with gallerist Chandra Johnson. The two friends partner with select contemporary artists to translate their artwork into stunning wallpapers and fabrics, now available through Schumacher. Their next project is working with a ceramic artist, giving past sculptural works new life as lamps. Benson sees these collaborations as a new way to support artists financially by helping them expand into interiors and products. “[An artist] might not want to devote more time or energy to something she made in the past. She’s already on to the next thing,” says Barrie. “But if we make it into a product to sell, that’s money she can use to help fund her next project or piece.” ”
Are there any artists in particular that you're really inspired by lately?
“I’d have to say it’s the women I know through Peg Norriss, my wallpaper business — Jackie Gendel, Anne Lemanski and Liz Nielsen. It’s been such a honor and a pleasure to get to understand their processes, their stories and how they've come to be artists.”
What advice would you give to a new collector??
“Start in your community. Sign up for the email newsletters of galleries in your area. Go to gallery openings and talk to artists. Ask questions. Your next step might be art fairs. You could stay local or get a few friends together and make a weekend trip of it. And then you can expand from there.”
How has your taste in art evolved over the years?
“My husband and I didn’t even realize this, but a lot of the first pieces we bought were landscapes. There were lots of horizon lines around our house. One day I invited my friend Chandra come over to give me some direction and advice for my collection. She looked around and said: ‘Ok, you’re not allowed to have another landscape.’ She was right, and we have definitely branched out into other things.”
Is there a piece of art in your childhood home that you remember or that made an impression on you?
“We had a number of paintings by Claire Farrell, one of my mom’s college friends from Duke. Of all my mom’s friends, she was one of my favorites. And her art…I just loved her color choices and her work. My mom was also the director of the Sumter County Art Gallery when I was in high school — mostly regional art. So I’ve always enjoyed meeting and being around artists."