In Loving Memory of William Bell
At the root of why many of us choose to practice interior design is an innate passion for creating. Creating beauty, creating businesses, creating relationships. When the opportunity to interview for a new project comes through, we try to get a sense of how our clients will roll with the twists and turns construction and design can bring. So we try to ask questions like, “how do you respond when things don’t go as planned?” We listen for clues to see if they will be kind when vendors overpromise or underdeliver on timelines, or when we make mistakes — because we are human, and that’s what humans sometimes do.
In the beginning of a project, it can be exciting to decide between schemes, and envision what’s to come through all the beautiful presentations and materials. We guide and coach, adjusting and evolving the designs until they match how the clients want to feel at the project’s completion. Behind the scenes, we hustle like crazy to manage the zillion data points: writing and placing orders, managing the budget, tweaking tile layouts and lighting plans, making templates, and visiting stone yards, showrooms and workrooms.
The bigger the project, the more we have to manage. Having a team that works harmoniously under pressure is vital to our success. But one of the most important things for me as the principal is to take projects with clients who I intuit are forgiving and adaptable, which most of us came to understand during the pandemic. We do our best to manage and execute, but in the end, we are the middlewomen between vendors and clients. It’s our job to nurture relationships and advocate for excellence so we can produce a fun, high-quality experience and project.
In the project we are sharing this month, all the stars aligned. Not only did we finish a beautiful project, but I found friends who blessed my heart in a real and meaningful way.
When I met William and Michael the first time, I knew right away we were going to be a great fit. I could tell by how much they loved their dog, how much they adored art, and how much they liked to have fun. They were excited about interior design and saw the value in hiring a professional. I learned later that William was once an interior designer prior to a career in real estate… He didn’t want me to know because he wanted me to feel empowered, without worrying he would overassert his opinion. He and Michael trusted me. Those projects with innate trust always turn out the best in the end.
William and Michael had just sold their home in Los Angeles and were moving back to the Bay to enjoy their golden years. They were bringing their art, their dog, and a few pieces of traditional family furniture to incorporate. The house needed upgrading, but the bones were as solid as they were. They were married for 45 years and had a large network of beloved friends — a good sign that they do relationships well. Plus, they were referred to me by one of my favorite realtors of all time, Julie Gardner, whom I have known for almost my entire career. (Julie used to take my classes when I was a Dailey Method instructor and new mom 15 years ago.) Long-term relationships are priceless. She also referred the project’s contractor, Frank Silver, who is a solid builder and delivered on quality craftsmanship and detail.
The house itself was in need of upgrades including, among many things, the fireplaces, the kitchen, and the bathrooms. But the vaulted high ceilings with redwood paneling and the west-facing Bay view were already heart-stopping. Michael and William vibed with my own aesthetic of choice: a warm approach to modern. Their love of art signaled to me their appreciation for soulful touches.
We used these artful touches we love so much in abundance for Michael and William. Local, bench-made furniture, masculine textured fabrics, and collected accessories were chosen to blend with their beloved pieces. One of my favorite paintings is one of William’s Hollywood glam mother, who hangs in the space like a diva, blessing the home with beauty and a queen-like presence. The masks at the entry were painted on palm fronds found after a storm by a Los Angeles artist. This gaggle of masculine gangsters, softened by a sense of humor that emanates through in each one, hangs over a tansu I like to imagine my mentor and design savant, John Wheatman, would have approved of.
I will always remember the final day when Jessica Mason, one of our designers and project managers at the time, and I styled the showcase bookshelves. Michael and William sat in their gorgeously crafted Matt O’Reilly Furniture swivel chairs, sipping wine and nodding in approval when we placed something just so, and William occasionally protested if something went into a spot he didn’t approve of. A custom painting I had commissioned as a gift of their beloved dog child, Bruno, sat right next to what became William’s favorite chair. It was painted by local artist Karen Stanton, who creates whimsical, collage-style impersonations of pets, people, and political icons like RGB. karenstantonart.com/portfolio
With the amount of wall space and the scale of their existing pieces, there wasn’t much room for more aside from one wall in the living room. I love that William and Michael got excited about having a custom piece made. I showed them several works from local artist Gordon Studer, and then they worked with him to create something they’d love. Gordon’s process is to paint three works at a time, as one inevitably rises to the top. William and Michael visited his studio at the ICB and worked closely with Gordon until they had a painting that felt just right.
The couple also brought in an old friend from LA to design their kitchen layout, so we worked collaboratively with Peter Grisdela of Hollywood Sierra Kitchens, selecting and managing the details and finishes. One of the design challenges we encountered was to address the tile liner trim, which was misaligned with the field tile. We had to pop it out and come up with a solution, and so I found the perfect long length of black metal to finish it off. In the end, it looked better than the tile ever would have. I love a happy ending.
Sadly, this story does not have the happiest of endings. Toward the end of our project, William’s health began to fail and his once exuberant spirit dwindled. It was a bittersweet day when they had friends over to celebrate Michael’s birthday, and to reunite after the pandemic and in their new home for the first time. It was the last time William had with many of them, and I think we all knew it. He gave a tearful speech of gratitude as we celebrated the love of his life and their home together. William passed away, but we are happy he got to spend his final months in this home in Oakland with his husband and their beloved Bruno. In deep gratitude, I dedicate this post to his memory. Thanks to Michael and Bruno for keeping me in the folds.
Written by Laura Martin Bovard.