The long-defunct Book magazine used to devote its back page to an image of a famous writer’s desk, with the author calling out various items and their significance. It was my favorite feature, and surely I wasn’t alone. A person’s workspace is regarded as an outward expression of her inner stirrings—the thoughts that in turn feed creativity—and the desk stands as a shrine to the muse. This is no doubt true of most designers, who immerse themselves in thickets of visual inspiration, tools, and materials. Some of these scenes are captured by the New York–based photographer Paul Barbera, who along with the writer Alexandra Onderwater, documents the offices of creatives around the world in their book Where They Create (Frame Publishers).
Barbera isn’t coy about the voyeuristic impulse that gave rise to the project. In an interview that serves as the book’s introduction, he states, “[T]here is a voyeur in all of us. Human beings are inquisitive creatures, intrinsically intrigued by what we normally cannot see, where we don’t have access to. The place where the magic happens.” But to peer into where the magic happens, you need credentials. “The photography is almost a by-product,” Barbera says. “You can’t just ask someone: ‘Can I come over to see what you do?’ They’re never going to let you in. It’s an instrument to be in a place and sneak around.”
He shoots only in natural light, which often makes for some haziness and much shadow play. Oddly enough, despite Barbera’s self-confessed curiosity in human nature (“I feel I behave like an anthropologist, looking for little stories that make up the species.”), the pictures are often devoid of the people who actually make the spaces worth looking at.
Barbera has worked his way into some of his favorite designers’ studios, including those of Matali Crasset and Makkink & Bey, as well as some of today’s hippest ad agencies and fashion houses. The accompanying interviews with the principals complement the visuals with added insight that delves into the daily office routine. What comes through in all the portraits is the inspiring fusion of personal passion and everyday work.
Buy the book for $36 here.