For over 50 years, Mike Bell, Inc has been known for their collection of extensive French and Continental antiques as well as their reproduction and contemporary line (produced under the Westwater Patterson label). We spoke with Joann Westwater, president of the company, about trends in antiques, custom work, and the most memorable pieces she’s shopped for in her career.
Q: What are some design trends you see becoming big over the next few years?
A: One of the trends in particular is something that we’ve been working with for a number of years now. It is the rustic blend of art and furniture, often beginning with existing “found” objects. We have also seen traditional forms and refined details making a clear comeback. It’s refreshing. We’ve really embraced our love of the classics and always feature an exquisite assortment of beautiful old pieces.
Q: What words would you use to describe the brand's aesthetic? You range from antiques to much more modern pieces—it's very eclectic. How would you describe it to someone who didn't know Mike Bell?
A: We believe that there have been beautiful pieces made in all periods, styles, and countries, and our showroom shows this in spades! Just as the French have been placing contemporary pieces in chateaux or traditional pieces in contemporary structures for years, we believe that a thoughtful mix of styles is timeless. It also contributes to an “educated interior” that shows taste. Why should your Parisian hotel be more beautiful than your home? We choose to offer an edited selection of furnishings to create just this variety.
Q: How did you get started making reproductions, and how do you decide which types of pieces to manufacture?
A: I began with Mike Bell, Inc. as an artist. I always loved production and we began our reproduction line almost 30 years ago. I also used my art background to produce custom pieces for many, many clients over the years. When the antiques market softened, we began introducing our more contemporary line, and then (mostly to satisfy my short attention span) started my more “arty” pieces.
These designs often creep up at 3:00 in the morning and can be influenced by a piece of wood, a surface, finish sample, etc. We produce all of our furniture at our workshop here in Chicago and I am there every morning to see how pieces are flowing through. Every piece has a personality, and designers have come to trust my eye and knowledge to guarantee a happy client. How many presidents of companies will pick up a grinder, weld a table base, or personally develop a surface and finish?
Q: How do you select the pieces to make for your contemporary line? Many designers riff on pieces that are their most successful—what's your process for deciding what kinds of new pieces to produce?
A: We have certainly made variations on the line, but I usually choose to create new pieces and surfaces. I like to be new and creative and that novel exploration of our work, as shown with all the styles on our site, is what I find satisfying. I think the site also shows that there isn’t a lot of carryover between ideas.
Q: What's the collaboration process like with the designer when working on custom pieces? Have you ever had any particularly extreme or "out there" requests?
A: The collaboration can be as desired by the designer. On occasion, pretty much completed drawings are supplied and we’ll work out details and custom surfaces. More often, it’s about a 50/50 collaboration where I’m given the basics and supply a lot of input and design drawings with the look needed. On occasion, a designer presents me with a blank canvas, a little instruction and I run with it. As for the “out there” requests, I think I’m my own worst enemy in that respect!
Q: Antiques usually have an interesting story to go with them—is there any one particular antique over the years that's been the most memorable?
A: Good question, and if only they could talk. I once bought a tall case clock with a bullet hole and a Vichy French coin on the weight cords—that was certainly memorable, and a piece I also chose to keep. We have some pieces currently in stock that are pretty exquisite as well. I have a Carl Malmsten desk that was featured in a book on the designer/manufacturer. I recently saw it at the end of a buying trip, when all my money was gone, and called to see if it was still available when I was planning my next trip. It was, and was the first piece I bought!
As far as antiques being memorable, I think the best stories are ones I hear from clients showing how treasured a good piece can be. Many people say that they purchased a piece 20 or 30 years ago and have moved many times and the piece was always one that moved with them… and is also on the wish list for the kids. Beauty can never go out of style.