Life & Culture

Meet the Jewish designer whose work is inspired by Italy

Susi Bellamy's love of colour was sparked by a spell living in Florence


Susi Bellamy’s London flat is not what I expected at all. For an interior designer whose signature style is a riot of vibrant Mediterranean hues, it’s all a bit low key.

The pied à terre occupies one of those creamy stucco-fronted Regency terraces that line the streets north of Kensington Gardens, and aside from a few scatter cushions it’s all surprisingly vanilla with a dominant palette of white and beige.

I’ve seen pictures of the glorious wing of the Northumberland manor house which is her family home, so I know something feels a bit off.

Then she flips opens her laptop and there is her work — an effervescence of vermillion red, verdigris shot with salmon pink, turquoise rippled with amber and rose, slashes of cobalt blue and swirls of burnt orange.

It is there in ruffles and plumes, layers and squares of pigment, swags and bolts and eruptions of dyed and printed fabrics that batter the retina and lift the heart. “Everything I do is joyful,” she says. “I find colour and pattern truly joyful. It’s not just pretending”.

In a few short years her eponymous label has been embraced by some of the biggest names in interior style — Liberty, Heals, Wolf & Badger, London Design Week. She’s collaborated with luxury lighting company Porta Romana and high end furniture producer George Smith.

It is, she says, an honour that this year her fabrics have been used by design guru Nicky Haslam for his ‘legend’ room in Chelsea’s WOW! House and when we meet she’s fresh from installing a pop-up at Fenwick in Newcastle.

Her work has been featured in some of the biggest home publications including Living etc, Architectural Digest Italy, The Observer and the Financial Times’s How to Spend It.

All this is actually her second career. Before becoming a mother, Bellamy was a high-flying journalist. As fashion and beauty editor for the Condé Nast glossy Brides magazine, she worked with fashion photography legends like David Bailey, Terence Donovan and Snowdon.

Then, after taking a break to have three children, her husband who is an executive in oil and gas industry got posted to Florence and her mind was well and truly blown by what she discovered there.

“I came back a changed person. I had seen Renaissance art, gilding, marbling, I mean, beautiful buildings. The inspiration was just endless. You go into this very dull looking church, and all of a sudden, there’s this blue and gold mosaic, which is just so alive and colourful and magical.”

She travelled to Mantua, Padua, and Rome, drank it all in, started painting and six years later returning home to the UK, enrolled on a master’s degree in fine art. It was only later that her mind turned to more practical applications.

“I did a lot of these abstract, scrapey sort of landscapes and when I graduated students get rid of all their stuff in skips and I found this big board and I took it back to my studio and started painting.

"Then downstairs there was a woodwork studio and I said could you just cut this huge board into equal squares?

"She placed all the pieces on shelves which harking back to her magazine days’.

“And it was like the September issue when I put all these boards up, it was like trying to mimic the idea of creating fashion pages, and I sat there with a coffee, and I looked at them and thought — hmmm that could be a cushion.”

She got the designs scanned, printed onto fabric and made up into samples which went on to be shortlisted for an award and along with it a subsidised place at a trade fair.

Since then she’s added the traditional Italian art of marbling, which she’d learned in Florence, and now her range stretches to wallpapers, lampshades, fabrics, scarves, storage boxes — and soon Tuscan inspired scented candles.

This wasn’t the first time we’d met. Though she is six years younger than me, we were both born in Cardiff to parents who were refugees from Eastern Europe and while not exactly related, our families were closely connected.

She draws inspiration from that tight-knit Jewish Continental milieu where artists were part of the family, modern design was appreciated and homes were adorned with iconic Ercol chairs and contemporary canvases.

“That’s what they had in their houses. And I looked at it and I took it in,” she says.

I remember her Czech father and Anglo-Welsh Jewish mother being much admired as a glamorous couple, and mum Judy, still cutting a dash in her 90s, was clearly a stylistic influence.

Our chat is all very business-like until my tape recorder is off, the wine and olives come out and then Bellamy’s curated professional exterior begins to soften.

Browsing her vast array of stills, she giggles that Madonna and child designs or a display of Christmas gifts may not quite work for the JC, and shares a cheeky story about her life in the fashion fast lane.

Back in the day, the Jewish owner of a well-known bridal store would summon her to the back of a Rolls Royce parked up near her office, to shower her with gifts of crystal cut glass as a thank you for successful shoots.

Daughter Sophie joins us, she is studying for a master’s degree in Jewish Studies and the next day they are setting off to explore family roots in Slovakia.

Bellamy calls her cushions “art for the sofa” and at £115 a pop they are firmly in the luxury bracket, partly because they are made entirely in the UK. Interiors PR Georgie Pridden thinks the price is justified, “It’s just top, top quality. Really luxurious.”

Pridden says Bellamy’s success is due to personality as much as artistic flair: “She’s like this kind of force. She’s amazing, she’s very open about her work, and always up for collaborating. It’s Susi as well, not just a product.”

Her husband’s job had taken her to the USA and Florence, and it has now steered Bellamy towards the North-East, with a base at Cobalt Studios in Newcastle. Being so remote from the capital has certainly made it harder to break into the mainstream — and worse than that.

A big Hollywood set designer who was desperate to see her work was stymied by a train strike and never made it.

But small hiccups aside, as Bellamy approaches her 60th birthday she exudes an air of somebody who has found their place in life.

And the vanilla London flat? It was an investment that had been let out for years — and is about to be reimagined in true Susi Bellamy style. I look forward to a return visit.

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