‘It’s the small things that do it for me,’ says Salah Barka, as he considers what makes a house a home. ‘The trinkets that have been picked up here and there – little details and objects that reflect who I am.’
Barka moved to the El Menzah district of northern Tunis eight months ago. The totems that freckle his new home, he says, have an ‘abracadabra’ effect on the space. ‘When people come to my house, I’ve often been told that they know and recognise that it’s mine,’ he says.
As a self-taught fashion designer, Barka’s style is instantly recognisable. ‘I’m known for being very colourful,’ he says, describing the reviews he has accrued on the runway. It is a reputation that applies to the character of his home, too.
‘I really hate white walls,’ Barka states, pointing to the hung tapestries and collage of photographs torn out of magazines and pasted onto the wall behind him, like an analogue Pinterest board.
After growing tired of the ‘converted office’ feel of his former apartment, Barka found a large villa in the calm, leafy suburb surrounding the Stade Olympique El Menzah. Built in 1954, during the final throes of the French protectorate of Tunisia, it wasn’t the villa’s elegant colonial features in which Barka found beauty, but its garage.
‘When I first saw the garage, I loved it. It has nice windows and arabesque-shaped doors. It really attracted and inspired me. It’s more like an open space than a garage,’ he says.
Though he shares the villa with two friends, Barka has commandeered the garage as his own, turning it into his studio apartment- within-a-home. Here, the ‘small things’ that Barka collects pepper the baskets of bobbins, ironing boards and the half-dressed mannequins that he works with: stacks of L’Officiel Hommes, couture-inspired Coca-Cola bottles and a collection of Barbie dolls.
‘The last thing I bought was a camel in a garage sale,’ he says of a red clay figurine that stands in front of a Marlene Dietrich portrait. ‘I can tell he comes from Mongolia. When I was leaving the garage sale, I just spotted him. Our eyes met and I couldn’t resist. Because I hadn’t found anything else, I bought him for two euros.’
Barka gets a lot of his odds and ends from Tunis’ many jumble sales. ‘I love going to the flea market and unearthing old items,’ he says, describing how he likes to seek beauty in the traces of former times. ‘I also love fixing up old furniture,’ he says. ‘It’s so “me”.’
He describes his home as having ‘a Maghreban feel’. ‘There is definitely a Tunisian touch,’ he says, showing a pile of folded fowat, traditional Tunisian hammam towels, as an example. ‘Just like in my fashion designs, there is a Tunisian feeling in my home too,’ he says.
‘I don’t really throw anything away, so I end up with a lot of things,’ Barka continues, looking around his studio at the old shoeboxes he has papered over with magazine clippings – Hugh Grant and Elizabeth Hurley covering
one, Naomi Campbell another – and used as storage. ‘I see if I can revive them, if they go with my style or if I have a soft spot for them. Or not. I just filter really,’ he says. ‘Sometimes you want to throw things away, sometimes you think twice because they remind you of this or that.’
Despite his preference for furniture that tells a story, his favourite piece in the house is an IKEA sofa. ‘I bought it at least 10 years ago. It’s one of those ones where you can remove the back and it turns into something else. It’s so flexible. I really love it.’
Barka doesn’t mind sharing the villa with friends. ‘It’s working out well,’ he says. ‘We all have the same interests, the same mood.’ As the youngest of nine children, Barka is well- versed in sharing a living space. ‘My brothers and sisters all had strong characters. Being the youngest, you take the brunt. You learn, you observe, you listen.’
His mother and sister still live nearby, in his childhood home. ‘My family has been living in that house for 52 years,’ he says. ‘We were among the first to live in the neighbourhood – at a time when there still wasn’t electricity in the streets.’
Family is very important to the designer, and he makes time each Sunday to visit his. ‘Sunday dinner is practically sacred for us,’ he says. ‘Especially when it comes to couscous, which is the main dish in the south of Tunisia, where we come from. Sunday is still our weekly meeting day, when the family catches up.’
Barka likes to play the host, too, and regularly invites friends and clients into his home every day. ‘The people who come to visit us tell us how lucky we are,’ he says of their reaction to his home. ‘It really is a massive space. I always have lots of friends over who are stylists. We have coffee, chat. Things have drastically slowed down,’ he says, describing the general mood in the Tunisian capital, ‘so we try really hard to create our own rhythm.’
When he’s not walking around the streets or rummaging through flea markets, looking for inspiration for his creations, Barka’s daily rhythm is built around his home: working in the garage studio, often until late, or else relaxing in the garden, which he describes as ‘really extraordinary – beautiful vegetation and really green.’
The designer says that he finds regularly redecorating the space to be cathartic. ‘I have a lot of stuff, like sewing machines and ironing boards, and I like to change them to give the best visibility and accessibility in the studio,’ he explains. ‘When I redecorate, it relaxes and inspires me.’