BEHIND THE DESIGN with Diana Lu Barabe

Behind every I/D sofa design there’s an intriguing story of process, patience and lots of creativity—and there’s no one better to tell it than Diana Lu Barabe, a 35-year-old professional furniture designer based in Chicago. Lu Barabe has been responsible for bringing many Interior Define products to life, including the new Miles collection. The slope of an arm, the height of a seat, the curve of a back; those subtle but impactful nuances of each sofa, chair and bed are all the result of months of hard work. The talented mother of 2 young children tells us a little about her background, the biggest challenges she faces and the best part of her job.

When did you first know you wanted to be a designer?
My love for drawing started at a young age. I was a shy kid with a big imagination. Drawing was how I expressed myself, and this still holds true today! I actually discovered product design serendipitously, as a freshman in college at the University of Illinois. At the time, graphic design was a popular program with a selective enrollment process. When I was rejected, I felt disheartened about my future. The director of the industrial design program noticed my defeat and encouraged me to apply for his program. I was accepted, and it opened my eyes to 3D design. I found it to be challenging, compelling and helped put me where I am today.

After graduation, I interned at a handful of design companies, specializing in everything from product to printing. I began to find myself as a designer, and I am so grateful I had the opportunity to explore my talents at the beginning. Ironically, my first full-time job was as a graphic designer at a marketing firm! I was also freelancing on the side for a small furniture design company, Slate Design, that turned into a full-time offer. I stayed there for almost 8 years. While there, I worked with major retailers like Crate & Barrel, CB2 and Land of Nod and communicated with their factories overseas. I gained a ton of first-hand experience and brought my creativity to a new level.

What is your personal interior design style?
As a designer, people ask me all the time what style I prefer, but it’s not one set aesthetic. I’m connected to well-balanced and harmonious design, and in my own home, I like to blend different styles. In terms of what I like to design, I prefer to make things that are comfortable and user-friendly.

Can you shed some light on your design process?

Every project varies a little, but it almost always starts with a design brief. This is basically an initial conversation with the client and designer to discuss upcoming trends, inspiration or how to elevate the brand. Taking in all the feedback, I begin brainstorming with hand sketches. I’m a visual person and this process helps me quickly get a better sense of the proportions. Sometimes I will share the sketches with the client to make sure I’m heading in the right direction. Next, I create a 3D rendering of the design where I fine-tune the details—seams, cushions, arm height and thickness, legs, materials and colors. I think this step is exciting for everyone because we begin to see the design come to life. Once the rendering is approved, it’s time for the specifications. I provide the factory with dimensions and my notes to help translate the design efficiently. After the first specs are sent off, I will build on the collection with additional pieces. After a few tweaks on the prototype, it’s time to release the design to the market and officially merchandise it. High five!

Tell us about a recent sofa collection you’ve worked on for Interior Define.
Miles This collection is named after my son Miles, who is 5. It’s a reinterpretation of a slipcovered sofa. Slipcovered sofas are generally very traditional in terms of aesthetics, but we wanted to update it. I love when we take classic shapes and introduce them to a younger, more modern audience.

Describe your design philosophy.
I find that some aspects of this quote are very true to ways I look for inspiration and how I approach design—and life for that matter:

Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things… that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work will be authentic.
-Movie director Jim Jarmusch

What is your favorite stage in the process?
Most designers would probably agree that the conceptual part is their favorite; brainstorming and collaborating with clients to create a rapport through the design. I like to put myself in my clients’ shoes; to translate their style, with my own interpretation, into an end product.

What is the most challenging part?
My favorite part is also the most challenging part—the conceptual stage. It’s crucial in developing a good design. There’s a lot of pressure on my end to bring the design to life. But it’s exciting. In simple terms, we’re just trying to make a product that people love and want to own.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Doing what I love, hands down. I get a mini adrenaline rush when I start a new design process, and I find it’s meditative to watch it unfold from a concept to a finished product on the floor. I also get a lot of satisfaction from working with a team and seeing the teamwork it takes to see it all come to fruition.