Neutral furnishings and a dove-gray floor make a gracious backdrop for a significant large-scale painting by Richard Mayhew, hanging above the fireplace
James and Mary Bell (STANDING) with Jumaane N’Namdis in the living room
An Artistic Encounter
James and Mary Bell know what they like when they see it. When they met artist William Tolliver in Los Angeles 25 years ago, they were immediately drawn to his work—but didn’t buy an original piece until several years later.
At the time, James was an executive with Rockwell International Corporation and Mary was a business analyst with TRW. Her best friend, Carmen N’Namdi, had opened a gallery in Detroit with her husband, George, who urged the Bells to buy works by African American masters. “[George] meant the masters, like Romare Bearden, Artis Lane or Jacob Lawrence.
We loved the work, but we didn’t have that kind of budget,” says Mary. The Tolliver they did eventually buy inspired them to purchase more of what they liked. “We didn’t start out as collectors,” explains James, who is now Boeing’s corporate president, executive vice president and CFO.
The couple’s mind-set changed in 2001, when Boeing’s headquarters moved to Chicago and they followed. They settled in a newly constructed Lincoln Park home and, with the help of the N’Namdis’ son Jumaane, director of the couple’s second gallery in Chicago, began filling it with art.
Jumaane sold them a Jacob Lawrence, but more importantly, “he educated us. We’d always been most drawn to figurative art, but Jumaane introduced us to abstract works, which we found enigmatic at the time,” explains Mary. “It’s like jazz. The more you’re exposed to it, the more you comprehend and appreciate its substance and methodology and what a piece communicates,” Jumaane says.
Under his tutelage, the Bells’ admiration for abstract art grew, and they became committed collectors. “That’s when we began to feel that it’s important for our children to see art by people of color,” says James.
The Next Level
Flash forward five years, and the couple was “ready for more wall space and an attached garage,” sighs Mary. After a two-year search encompassing seemingly every high-rise in the city, they found the perfect place—an Environs Development home still under construction—a few blocks from where they’d started looking.
It had more wall space and storage, higher ceilings and that coveted attached garage. Mary took the lead on the project, “which is why it came out so well,” quips James. Features include a home office with a stunning city view, a plush “man cave” on the lower level and an enormous walk-in closet. Longtime friend and interior designer Vicki Carter, owner of Comprehensive Designs of Georgia in Atlanta, helped refine the floor plan and finishes to suit the couple’s lifestyle and art collection.
FROM LEFT: Piece by Howardena Pindell brings spirited exuberance to the tawny notes of the great room; in the dining area, a mixed-media piece by Angelbert Metoyer holds court with a Richard Hunt sculpture
Mary Bell lowered the built-in banquette in the kitchen to make wall space for a Jacob Lawrence print (AT LEFT) and an Elizabeth Catlett artist’s proof (AT RIGHT)
Adapting Home to Art
Most of the walls on the first floor were eliminated to make the public living spaces feel lofty and sleek. Mary maximized what she had—in the kitchen, she lowered a builtin banquette to make space for large-scale artworks, and in the bathrooms, custom fixtures such as a blown-glass sink by artisan Peter Greenwood speak to the couple’s interest in arts and crafts.
But Mary’s shrewdest move was to stain the home’s hardwood floors dove gray. The subtle hue gives the rooms an ethereal feel and makes the ceilings seem sky-high. “It took months to get the stain right. We eventually had to change the wood from white oak to bleached maple to get it perfect,” she confides.
The age-old issue of matching the furniture to the art, or vice versa, was moot. “Comfort and utility come first, so you buy what you’ll really use. And if you have art you love, you work it in,” Mary contends. “We culled the pieces we loved most to make room for what we wanted to buy, and gave the rest to friends and family,” she says, noting they were still left with more than 40 works.
Interior designer Megon Hill-Washington of Makk Studio helped install the new furnishings, while Jumaane took care of the art. “He’s an artist himself when it comes to that,” says Mary. Today, she admits, “We have only one regret: We should have listened to Carmen and George [N’Namdi] and started buying what we liked 25 years ago. It would have been a stretch, but the prices were so much lower then and we’d be so much further ahead.”