How 'The Robin Hood of Interior Design' Changes Lives, One Makeover at a Time
"I think I'm getting the hang of driving this thing," she says without irony as she plows over a grassy median and lands with a jarring thud. Oblivious to the chorus of horns around her, she throws the van into park, grabs her cavernous bag and crumpled to-do list, and gleefully asks, "What next?"
Barnett, who has run a high-end Atlanta-area interior design business, Barnett & Co., for 32 years, brings to mind the daffy side players in a '30s screwball comedy. Tiny, blonde, and birdlike, she has a habit of juxtaposing perfectly reasonable statements ("I'll meet you at 7 o'clock") with absurdist non sequiturs ("I'm still waiting for my breasts to come in"). But despite the disarming exterior, she has a velvet-hammer approach to getting things done. "For someone so small, I can be very persuasive," she says with a knowing smile.
Today's schedule has only amplified her slapstick energy. It's already 11 A.M., and Barnett and the van still have several stops to make—T.J. Maxx, a client's condo, a warehouse, and now Adore Furniture, whose owner has set aside several dressers and sofas for her to peruse. Barnett zeroes in on a brightly striped three-seat couch. "I can't wait for Natasha to see this! She loves color!"
Natasha Sessom, 37, is a 17-year army veteran and the reason for Barnett's white-hot rush. The women met through Hope Atlanta, a nonprofit that helps homeless veterans find housing. Sessom, who enlisted after her first year of college, started preparing soldiers for combat in 2001. In 2011, when her back and knees finally gave out after years of leading drills while wearing some 50 pounds of Kevlar and gear, she was forced to go off active duty and apply for disability. The ensuing pay cut left her unable to cover her bills, so she and her three children moved in to her mother's two-bedroom apartment. While serving at Fort Knox, she missed two payments on the storage space where she was keeping her family's belongings. When she returned and called to discuss settling the charge, the manager told her she was two days late: Her unit had just been emptied and its contents sold.
"I met her several months after that happened," Barnett says, rubbing a blanket between her fingers to test for softness. "Everything was lost. The kids' trophies. The Mother's Day cards with their handprints." A single mother herself, to daughters Sarah, 24, and Hannah, 16, Barnett felt a kinship with Sessom. "I couldn't turn my back on her."
Instead, Barnett made Sessom her client—the latest in a series of some 20 veterans. It's not work she's getting rich on; in fact, she doesn't charge a cent. She takes the fully functional castoffs of her wealthier customers and uses them to furnish homes for veterans who have nothing. You might call her the Robin Hood of interior design.
Barnett has always been a saver. Of old sweaters, vintage china, paper clips. "Basically everything I might be able to reuse," she confides. "I can't throw anything away!" A trip to her house confirms this, but if the place gives off a hoarder-lite vibe (what with the accretion of photographs, arty ephemera, old holiday cards, ten-year-old copies of Food & Wine), she doesn't care. "I could never simply throw stuff in the trash," she says with a shrug. "I always knew I was saving things for some purpose. I just didn't know what."
The answer began to reveal itself in 2007, after Barnett's 86-year-old father, Edgar F. Klarp, an insurance salesman and former marine, passed away. His funeral was attended by the dry cleaning clerk, the butcher, the postman, his neighbors, his friends, his colleagues from the office—seemingly everyone whose path had ever intersected with his in the living world. As Barnett took in the crowd, she felt unexpected comfort. Her father had been genuinely connected with his community. His life had mattered to others. "And I realized in that moment," she recalls, "that I wanted my life to matter, too. It was the start of an awakening."
At that point, professionally, Barnett had done one thing, and done it well, for her entire adult existence. But while she still loved her work, examining it through the prism of her father's passing made it suddenly seem if not trivial, then not enough.
A serious funk began to cloud Barnett's normally buoyant outlook. "After my father's death, I would wake up feeling really bummed out, wondering, What am I doing with the years I have left?" She took long walks, thinking. She sat by the fire, ruminating. Who was she? What mattered in the long run? Eventually she landed on the question that unlocked all the answers: Why am I here on earth? She knew it wasn't just to pick out fabric swatches and tile colors.
"Once I finally asked myself the right question, the why of it, the answer was so simple, really," she says. "It was what I believe my father was trying to show me in life and death: that we are here to be kind to others."
Immediately post-epiphany, Barnett was so fired up to help her fellow human beings that she started randomly handing out cash to homeless people. "It was stupid," she says with a laugh. "But I wanted to do something, and I didn't know what else to do."
She began donating her skills to terminally ill children, turning their bedrooms into jungles, racetracks, oceans. "If I made a lot off a professional job, I'd set aside a few thousand to do a child's room," she explains. "Those parents often have no resources for anything beyond getting by day to day. I'd create any fantasy the child had—it made them so happy. And just like that, I discovered this new element to what my job could be." In 2010, to formalize her commitment to giving, she founded her own nonprofit, the What a Life Foundation. She began asking her well-to-do clients if they'd mind being billed a few hundred less for a job and donating the discount to What a Life. Since the clients could write off the gift on their tax returns, they usually agreed. When they didn't, Barnett dipped into her own profits. "I realized I didn't ever need another pair of designer jeans," she says wryly.
Then one night, while sitting at a neighborhood bar drinking a beer, Barnett struck up a conversation with the handsome man next to her. He asked what she did for a living; she told him interior design. But maybe there was something in her face or in her voice, because he pressed her: What did she want to be doing? And to her great surprise, Barnett, taken aback by his directness, suddenly found herself revealing her true dream, something she'd never told anybody before, something she'd hardly articulated to herself—she wanted to find a way to help homeless veterans.
"To honor my father, and to permanently lift up people like the ones I'd been giving money to. And the guy said, 'I work with veterans! You should do that!'" Barnett recalls. "In that moment, everything clicked. By the time I got home, I had my plan."