Safari in the City – Designer Robin Bell

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Since 1983, the designer Robin Bell has been a member of the International Design community. In 2003 she was asked to join the New York interior design firm McMillen Inc. and establish an independent division of the firm devoted to interior design and decoration.

Moving back to New York after 14 years in Florida, she was eager to transform her new rented apartment into a cozy and inviting home. With a working fireplace and a pretty garden, it had great promise, but it was also small with very little natural light.

Robin Bell made the space look bigger and brighter. She began by selecting a vibrant blue-and-white zebra-striped wallpaper, designed by Rose Cumming and originally used in the fabled New York nightclub El Morocco. “My parents loved the place,” she says. “For me, the wallpaper represents that high style and golden age. It has so much pizzazz. And like wall-to-wall carpeting and mirrors, bold patterns and colors create the illusion of spaciousness.”

Bell discovered a water soluble wallpaper paste, called Clear Hang, that makes wallpaper removal easy. She had the floor in the entire apartment carpeted with inexpensive but rich brown bamboo matting. “The matting doesn’t damage the floors,” she says. “Plus, it’s soft underfoot and easy to keep clean.”

Instead of calling upon her usual top-of-the-line decorating sources, Bell–always game for a challenge–decided to play novice. “Anybody can call the best people,” she says, explaining why she largely turned to Manhattan’s Yellow Pages. “I wanted to see what happens when you don’t have that access.”

Bell found a closet designer who was also willing to build splendid inset living room bookshelves to accommodate her glass collection. Another company installed the mantel-to-ceiling mirror above the fireplace, and then she ingeniously opened up more space by hanging another, framed, mirror over it: “It’s an easy and very effective technique,” she comments.

For her bedroom, Bell chose a handsome 19th-century West Indian mahogany canopy bed for its heft; oversize furniture, she says, makes rooms look bigger, and the space beneath the bed can be utilized to store belongings in plastic boxes. The charming bedside table is from her childhood home. “The best thing about redoing this apartment was bringing together objects from all periods of my life,” she says. “It gives me great comfort.”

Making Space
Furniture and Accessories
Buy overscale rather than small furniture. It tends to anchor the space and give a greater sense of harmony and spatial integrity. Look for old window frames at junk sales and transform them into interesting one-of-a-kind mirrors.

Vivid wallpaper and paint pick up reflected light and make a small space appear lighter and larger. High contrast can also convey a sense of expansiveness. Use white on the ceiling. Unifying the rooms with wall-to-wall carpeting will make them look larger. Cut-to-fit floor-to-ceiling mirrors are not very costly and will always effectively expand a room.

Edit yourself. Only select objects that are right for the space and that ideally have more than one use. Attractive coat hooks, for example, can be decorative as well as practical. Hang hats, coats, and kitchen equipment rather than storing them in drawers and closets. Flat-screen televisions are great space savers, Whereas traditional sets have to be stored in 25-inch cabinets, flat screens only need 9 inches.

The Rose Cumming Zebrine wallpaper in Bell’s living room serves as a perfect backdrop for her 17th-century prints and treasured gilded girandole mirror. Opposite: Antique andirons and a Chippendale chair provide old-world contrast.

The hat rack displays Bell’s assorted headgear, testifying to a passion for both fly-fishing and gardening. The leopard pillow subtly echoes the wallpaper’s jungle theme.

The kitchen is simplicity itself, with white cabinets and an inexpensive laminate counter. Above: Bell plays chess on a vintage tramp art set. Floor-to-ceiling shelves house books, photos, and a flat-screen television.

The sturdy bed is made up with luxurious Porthault linens. The blue plaid on bed skirt, chair, and curtains contrasts delightfully with the undulating wallpaper.
Robin Bell Interiors
by Valerie Gladstone
Photograph by Eric Piasecki

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