A Style for Today with Things from the Past

The Belling house is situated on Newport Bay, across from a sandy beach, in an old enclave that was once filled with small summer cottages. From the windows of the house, and from the crow’s nest at the very top, you can always see boats–yachts and sleek sailing vessels, the little sabots that the children race every afternoon, and Duffys, the slow electric boats with charming canopies that neighbors use for late afternoon rides around the Bay.The house is Colonial Revival, with gray-stained cedar shingles and an American crispness, which suits the seaside location. The front door is a Dutch one, and the top of it is often left open to allow sunlight and breezes to enter the front hall, which is all white-painted paneling and dark wood floors.

I had known Phil and Shelley Belling for some time, through mutual friends, and admired their taste, but creating this house was our first collaboration. We worked with the admirable Los Angeles architects Tichenor and Thorp, who were especially clever in getting light to reach the center of the house, which is sited on a small narrow lot, and who fulfilled the owners’ brief for simple yet meticulous detailing.

To one side of the hall is the living room, which receives light from three sides. In the front, toward the bay, are triple-hung windows, just like those at Monticello. They can be raised up to form doorways to walk onto the terrace. On the opposite side of the room, French doors open to the patio, so it is perfect for indoor–oudtoor Southern California living.

On the other side of the patio is the family room—the kitchen is on the third side—which also has French doors and a paneled fireplace. A wraparound banquette and the television make it the place for the young people of the house to bring their friends. At the family parties that the Bellings like to have, food can be arranged in the kitchen and guests flow all over the patio, the family room, and the living room, as well as through the entry hall and out into the front garden.

A beautiful neoclassical mantel that Shelley discovered was the starting point for the living room. To contrast with the formal mantel, and because we loved the look, we used braided–rush matting on the floor and pretty soft curtains in a taupe–and–white stripe that we hung on narrow poles. Comfortable upholstered and slipcovered pieces mix with antique chairs that can be pulled up to create different conversation groups. The walls and woodwork and overall feel of the room—and of the house—are all very fresh, and create a lovely foil to the mellow finishes of the antique furniture. Shelley likes a clean, spare room with not too many pieces of furniture or objects. We spent a good deal of time searching for decorations that had interesting properties but were not over–the–top. The mirror above the fireplace is a favorite find, a classic oval with a carved urn and restrained garlands in not–too–crusty eighteenth–century gilt. The sconces on either side were bought at auction and some of the crystals were removed to bring their flash down a bit.

The pictures on the walls were chosen with equal care. They include Chinese reverse–glass paintings with mirrored backgrounds, sophisticated eighteenth–century embroideries, and an absolutely marvelous coquillage picture of a hummingbird hovering near an urn overflowing with all kinds of flowers, which came from Tony Duquette’s remarkable estate.

Feeding Family and Friends

In contrast to most of the rooms on the ground floor, the cozy dining room, which also serves as the library, is paneled and snug as a ship. It is clad in waxed pine the color of pecans, and hung with “woolies,” portraits of ships embroidered in wool yarn by sailors in the nineteenth century. They, and the shelves filled with books, give the room a mellow atmosphere. The French table and Italian chairs are fruitwood, and two linen upholstered wing chairs are at the ready for serious reading. Family meals are enjoyed at the kitchen table, in a windowed bay. When meals are served in the dining room—or a buffet is arranged there—the flicker of candles is reflected in the wood. For all of the rooms of this house, we searched for distinctive old lighting fixtures to give depth to the new construction. The French country chandelier is rustic in a charming way, with its armature and leaves and flowers of painted metal, and its rough crystals strung upon it for sparkle. The antique Delft tiles on the fireplace slips also add to the sense of history.

The kitchen is airy and full of light, painted an off–white, with the same dark-stained wood floors as in the rest of the house. The architectural detailing is rigorous and simple, without an elaborate cornice molding, but with a more appropriate planked ceiling painted a pale blue. Traditional marble counters and backsplashes were chosen, with a rich stained mahogany top used on the island. Over the years, Shelley has collected vintage white pottery vessels to use as decoration and storage for the produce, utensils, sponges, and the like. They help make the everyday beautiful.

Between the kitchen and the dining room is a gem of a small pantry with shallow floor-to-ceiling cabinets for storing china, and opposite, a traditional butler’s pantry with a stained-wood counter and a beautiful oval window. This is where the vases and containers are kept and the flowers or foliage are arranged for the house. When there is a party it can also function as a serving bar.


The upper hall is filled with as much light as the lower one, thanks to the large window above the entry door, which looks out to the bay. Light continues down the hallway to the rear, which has been lined with shelves that hold hundreds of children’s books, creating a wonderful elongated children’s library, complete with a window seat with feather cushions for curling up and additional soft light from the window facing the patio.

The bedrooms of the Bellings’ daughters are off this library hall, fitted out with interesting beds and just a few pieces of furniture, simple and classic, that can be used for the rest of their lives. The art in the bedrooms reflects their individual interests. I have always felt that children’s bedrooms should not be decorated in a cartoonish way. Rather, they can be child friendly and still contain furniture and art that will stay with them as they grow. Our own daughter began collecting engravings and drawings at flea markets when she was nine, and she now has those youthful treasures on the walls of her own family’s apartment.

The master bedroom, in the front of the house and furnished with just a few, well–chosen pieces, is a serene retreat from the Bellings’ busy lives. The colors are the cool blues and grays of the coastal fog. The floor is bare and the curtains are embroidered in a restrained way. The room perfectly illustrates the idea of having fewer but better things. It was a delight to help Shelley find the special pieces for this room. There are painted wood fragments over the bed and some especially fine, early flower embroideries, one in silk chenille. A pair of dressed pictures was found in New York, the painted mirror came from a French flea market, and the Italian chest of drawers and painted table were found in local shops.