New York designer decorates with a theatrical flair

"Decorating is theater, and a good designer uses theatricality to advantage," states David Eugene Bell, a New Yorker who bases this assertion on his own Broadway stage experience, as well as the years he was designing "celebrity" rooms for Bloomingdale's.

As a partner now in Design Multiples, his own firm, he is more convinced of this argument than ever: "To me, everything is a bit of drama, though I have to be careful where I say that because some people miss the point by thinking I mean something superficial, artificial, or bizarre.

"What I really mean are all the little effects that give a decor a change of pace, such as the bright yellow and blue and white Dhurri area rug in my living room. Or the little visual surprises that involve small treasures used in unexpected ways or places. Or a cluster of paintings on a wall. Or a decorative tree lighted from beneath by a cannister lamp, silhouetting its leaves on the ceiling. Or an antique patchwork quilt folded casually over the end of a daybed. Or a weaving loom or a 19th-century chaise given center stage in a sunny alcove. Theater in the home is really just learning to present ourselves and our environment in a more engaging manner."

Mr. Bell goes on to explain that his stint on stage (he was a juvenile actor who played one of the red-headed sons in "Life With Father") had always served as useful background to his later career in interior design. "I learned at an early age that the word 'projection' meant that the role I was playing had to come over the footlights. Later I saw that the home I made for myself, and helped others make for themselves, had to project an image "over the footlights" as well. That image, which reflected real life and not make-believe, had to project comfort, hospitality, hobbies, and interests, and the bright vitality of color and pattern. I saw that this projection could stir imagination, or arrest the attention in some specific manner, or illuminate some personal aspect of a rich life. It could convey a mood, or define a life style."

It is Mr. Bell's belief that "the success of both an interior and a theatrical production depends on an intangible sense of the magic created. I see interior design as a means of putting furniture, accessories, colors, and fabrics together in a way that infuses this indefinable quality. The details of this dramatic interplay keep changing, of course, as people continue to grow and branch out, add on, or subtract."

To dramatize his own living quarters, a handsome East 60s apartment that doubles as a place of business, Mr. Bell added beams to his living room ceiling. They give him, he says, "more a feeling of house and home." He put sleek modern wicker and chrome chairs around a rustic old oak farm table that serves for dining-conference-writing purposes. Even with city dirt to flight, he dared to cover French chairs in a bright yellow upsholstery and has never been sorry. He likes the contrast of pillows covered in a cotton batik print to toss against the plain fabric of chairs and armless modern sofas.

He features a "dramatic little mixture" of books, and framed small pictures, photographs, drawings, and etchings interspersed with pieces of "flow blue" European porcelain, American Indian pots, and carved angles from old Mexico on the open shelves of his large and dark Welsh dresser.

Mr. Bell had a series of cube pedestals in many sizes painted pale gray. These are props that lend themselves to assorted and ever-changing effects. They can be bunched together or placed separately. A high one displays a stunning life-size head in the art deco style. A low one in front of a sofa holds a quaint antique Japanese sewing basket.

"Certainly your own hobby can always serve as a dramatic focal point," Mr. Bell observes, spreading out his own needlepoint tapestries and skeins of bright wool, and explaining that he is preparing a show of his work for a New York art gallery.

This designer obviously mixes many styles and periods, but he urges, "Don't let the word 'eclectic' fool you. It's tricky business and it doesn't just happen. You really have to know what goes with what. It took me two full years to develop one wall of pictures to my own satisfaction. The right arrangement took time and trial and error to evolve and come together. Now the wall gives me great pleasure and every picture speaks to me. One painting even determined my total color scheme of gray, white, and blue, with red and blue."

All walls are white, "to show off the art work to advantage," except the walls of his bedroom-study, which are finished with a dark brown glaze because this room is his "escape hatch" and its cool serenity gives him repose.

Mr. Bell uses no window treatments except Levolor blinds because, he says, "the views of the city are so wonderful. Why cover them up?" He thinks that even wastebaskets can make their modest impact and cites, as an example, the handwoven tribal basket in a corner of his living room. He found it for $2 in a dark corner of an antique shop.

He again proves his point that there are plenty of dramatic effects that are vastly inexpensive or that cost nothing at all by displaying a small pile of smooth pebbles he has collected in his travels. "These pebbles say something about my love of nature. And I love looking at them and handling them. To me, they evoke a whole little theater of hiking and beach experiences."

Mr. Bell is currently the president of the Metropolitan New York Chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers. He and his partner, Donald Cotter, are at present involved not only with the design of residences, but of offices, showrooms, and total graphics packages, including company logos.

As a parting shot, Mr. Bell advises, "Tell people not to be afraid to give vent to their imagination. It is far better to do something than to do nothing at all. Of course, part of the reward of being an interior designer is to help people do it better and to expose them to a lot of new ideas, and to teach them how to look, look, look.When you learn to look, you see bits of drama everywhere , and a lot of it you can express in your home."

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