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Designer Crafts Warm, Modern Spaces


San Rafael, CA — One of the most fascinating aspects of the kitchen and bath industry is the diverse, winding paths many professionals took to get here. Bay Area-based designer Barbra Bright, CKD, is an excellent example of this. For years, she worked with a show band as a dancer and costume designer.

When she decided it was time to pursue a new career, an intriguing avenue was open to her: “The band’s agent’s best friend was Larry Lowenthal, who at the time owned four kitchen showrooms called Gilmans Kitchens and Baths,” Bright explains. Lowenthal, who knew Bright and her penchant for costume design well, offered her a position as a design assistant. Humorously, Bright notes, she has never been an avid cook.

In order to upgrade this client’s bath to a spa retreat, Bright removed the existing threshold to create a smooth transition from the vanity area to the dual showers and tub. The tub was recessed slightly into the floor, creating a more integrated space behind the glass.

Despite this, the position ended up being an excellent fit. “I loved [working as a design assistant] because I have what I’ve always described as a good eye,” Bright says. She also credits her various mentors throughout her life with helping her to hone her design instincts, starting with her mother, who was a gifted seamstress. During the time she worked as a design assistant with Gilmans, she also took design classes at Kenyatta College under well-known designer Mary Jo Camp, who became a strong influence in the early days of Bright’s career.

After spending four years working under Lowenthal and developing a unique design vision of her own, Bright found herself feeling restless during showroom down time and looking forward to her next challenge. She recalls, “I had a lot of repeat clients, and I just thought, well, I seem to be doing really well. Maybe it’s time to hang out my own shingle, which I did.” Well over a decade later, Barbra Bright Design is going strong, catering primarily to clients looking for a fresh and inviting aesthetic.

Modern and warm

Bright has developed a name for herself as a designer of California modern spaces. “[My typical client is] someone who wants a clean design, but [also] wants it to function first, and they want it to be warm,” Bright notes. “Because when you say ‘modern,’ oftentimes people think of – and I don’t think that it’s fair – a very sterile environment, and it really doesn’t have to be.”

Bright is very focused on taking what she calls “the fluff” out of design – that is, the unnecessarily elaborate details and fussy flourishes – choosing instead to focus on crafting spaces full of clean lines and high functionality. In order to warm up these no-fluff designs, Bright zeroes in on bringing pattern and texture to the space, with a heavy emphasis on utilizing natural materials wherever possible.

“[I love] natural wood, and I really love real stone. There’s nothing wrong with man-made stone – I use it when it’s called for, in the right projects…But in general, I tend to think: ‘What do I want to look at in 10 years? How is it going to age? Will it patina?’ And I just find that stone is very organic, and it changes, and you spill things on it and mostly it comes off, but it just tells a story…I want something that feels alive.”

For Bright’s upscale Bay Area clientele, this sleek yet organic California aesthetic is highly appealing. “Also, my clients travel a lot, which means that they’ve been exposed to nice hotels. They’ve gone around the world and they’ve seen all different kinds of materials. And a lot of them come back and they want to bring some of those [materials into their homes]. I find that it’s especially true in bathrooms.”

Bright remodeled this bathroom to add a tub for a client’s young children. Cement tiles create a fun yet sophisticated aesthetic, and the custom floating vanity features storage for bath toys.

Small screen style

Bright’s passion for kitchen design extends well beyond her workday. For the past couple of years, she has been an avid blogger, not just about her own designs and experiences, but specifically focusing on the kitchens she sees in her favorite television shows.

“Whenever I watch TV or a movie, I go, ‘Oh! They’re in the kitchen!’ I stop [the show] and try to look around…I always want to see what they’re doing in the kitchen and the bathroom,” Bright laughs. Over the past couple of years, Bright has channeled her fascination with on-air kitchens into her blog: TV Kitchens (tvkitchens.tumblr.com).

Bright’s blog entries give in-depth analyses of notable small-screen kitchens, from Wilma Flintstone’s Stone Age stove to the ultra-contemporary Shaker style featured on “The Good Wife.” She focuses on style and functionality, as well as period appropriateness and what the designs say about the world of the show.

“[The kitchen] says a lot about the characters in the show. One of the things that I’ve always noticed is that when it is a middle class or lower middle-class family, the kitchen seems to be more cluttered,” Bright remarks. “And then, you know, the richer they are, there’s never anything on the counters. And I just laugh at that.”

Understanding characters

Bright’s approach to analyzing TV kitchens is something of a reverse-engineered version of the methods she uses to understand her clients’ wants and needs.

“I start by asking the clients what they are trying to achieve with the remodel. People have different reasons. I always tell people that they have to decide what the reason is – what are you trying to achieve? Are you trying to achieve functionality? Does [your current space] function well for you? Or is it just plain ugly? Then I want to know who is going to be using this space. [If] I’m doing a kitchen, I want to know who cooks, I want to know how tall they are, I want to know who helps them, I want to know what kind of appliances they like to use,” she explains.

The same knack for grasping context that enables Bright to understand what a TV set is trying to say about the characters also serves her well when understanding clients. “You’re basically building a profile for them,” she summarizes. ▪





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