Eight years ago, long before you and everyone you know inhaled the smash-hit Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit, the multihyphenate creative force Susan Barrett was making chess cool in her hometown of St. Louis. Barrett, an architect and painter by training, was at the time the founding executive director of the World Chess Hall of Fame; a non–chess player herself, she dreamed up an exhibition, “A Queen Within: Adorned Archetypes,” that melded fashion and chess.
Barrett has always been a rule breaker with a sixth sense for trends. “A Queen Within” was so successful that it nudged her to venture out on her own, founding Barrett Barrera Projects, a gallery that has blossomed into a hybrid of arts activity in the Central West End neighborhood of St. Louis. Barrett Barrera now comprises four distinct but holistic spaces: projects+gallery, where she invites artists to show their work; projects+exhibitions, where she debuts multidisciplinary shows; Barrett Barrera Projects, the headquarters for her staff and programming; and, since the fall of 2019, Guest House, an 8,000-square-foot arts club where visiting artists can stay and Barrett Barrera can host events.
With its more-is-more extravagance, Guest House is both a testament to Barrett’s outsize approach to fashion and interiors and a template for how to enjoy art in your home without resorting to the cliché of a blank white cube. “We challenged ourselves to do the opposite of what you would think contemporary art would look like to live with,” Barrett explains. Guest House occupies three and a half stories in a turn-of-the-20th-century building that was previously the home of Shelton Davis Antiques, whose owners lived on the top two floors.
Working with interior designer James Jamieson, Barrett has transformed it into a fantasia of resonant art (from both her personal collection and Barrett Barrera’s), vintage and antique furniture, and bold prints. The ground-level great hall features a Kehinde Wiley dual portrait, a commission from the St. Louis Art Museum; a Lynette Yiadom-Boakye painting; purple custom de Gournay wallpaper; and hot pink ceilings. One floor up are the public spaces, a bar, a parlor, and a dining room, where a tangerine ceiling, lime green walls, and works by Mickalene Thomas, Ayana V. Jackson, and Kwame Brathwaite coexist comfortably. The top two floors are devoted to the private areas, including guest suites, a solarium, a living room, and a dining room.
“The backgrounds had to be as bold as the other elements to stand up to one another,” Jamieson says. For Barrett, Guest House isn’t just a product of fearlessness—it’s about self-assertion.
“You are the one who lives in your space,” she says. “So it should make you happy. It’s not about impressing people. It’s about making you feel the most comfortable.”