WORDS Tracy Lynn Chemaly PRODUCTION Annemarie Meintjes IMAGES Dook
An importer of architectural artefacts finds solace in a home that bridges global decorative movements and historical styles.
Since his first trip to Buenos Aires 20 years ago, David Bell has returned to the Latin American city 65 times – mainly to source products (architectural artefacts, furniture and decorative items) that he sells in his Cape Town store Onsite Gallery, for which he imports unique pieces from around the world. Buenos Aires has, therefore, become a major inspiration for the retailer, influencing his personal take on style.
David’s home on the water’s edge of Marina Da Gama – designed in the 1970s by architect Revel Fox – is furnished and decorated with some of the international treasures that he became too attached to and just could not sell, mostly picked up in San Telmo, the oldest barrio in Buenos Aires, which is known for its antique stores and weekly street markets. Salvaged wooden doors, extra-large mirrors, an iron balcony repurposed as a server and lighting conductors used as decorative objets combine effortlessly with Asian pottery, African footstool, Aubusson rugs, Roman busts and Tretchikoff prints.
“I prefer not to classify my style, but eclectic is closest,” says David. He has added varied items to his home throughout the 14 years of residing here. “I can relate to the best of design from most genres of history, and combine them quite easily.” He gravitates towards iconic, often traditional, “larger-than-life” pieces that he feels are lacking in South Africa despite its many spacious homes, and finds ways to make them work in his compact double-storey.
Where most people would be wary of resting a Georgian armchair under a Modernist light fitting, David envisions the harmony that is possible between such disparate pieces. His interest in Xhosa cultural artefacts and Karoo heritage adds an extra layer of local context to his aesthetic.
“To be honest, I’ve only ever stuck to my own taste. It has never worked when I’ve tried to copy other people’s style,” he admits. Trained as a textile designer, David holds an affinity for sophisticated patterns and, although his taste veers more towards the masculine, floral fabrics find their place in the bedrooms and on the upholstery of a refurbished antique sofa in the sunken lounge.
“I’ve been visiting antique stores since I was a child,” he says, recalling his very first purchase of a chair at the age of 11. Such collector habits have seen him accumulate Linware, historical books, religious figurines and even aged mirrors, which he has had cut into squares to form a collaged feature wall. “I’m not that interested in making it all coherent,” he says of his approach to decorating. “For me, it’s more about the amazing story behind every piece.” And so, a narrative is inherent in everything accrued in this home. A ginger jar from David’s first trip to the Far East accompanies another pot found in China 25 years later; a mirror that he eventually managed to buy from an Argentinian sculptor after dozens of visits to his studio; the top end of a gate post from a Mauritian farm that was turned into a decorative vessel; windows produced in Pretoria by Leo Theron, with stained glass from his time spent in France; a painting dating back to the 1780s; and Byzantine portraits discovered by chance.
There is no formulaic structure to the way in which these all come together in one environment. David prefers his home to be adaptable rather than a space in which everything has its meticulous place. “I do enough faffing at the shop,” he says, “so at home I’m not as finicky about where everything must go. If it’s more or less right, then that’s okay for me.”