In a pedestal sits a male torso sculpted from gears and other mechanical parts. Beneath it is porcelain that looks like crocodile skin yet feels like cowhide. Stitched silk hangs from the walls. And in the lounge is an area rug fabricated from recycled Barbie doll hair.
"Isn’t that the most bizarre thing you’ve ever heard?" says Harold Pell, known as Mister Pell to those who adore him, and the mastermind behind the collection that seems like it belongs inside a Soho art gallery. "When I found the rug in a showroom, the staff offered me a hundred guesses at the material, and that still wasn’t enough. It’s neither silk nor shag, and it actually feels better than my house cat! I just knew we had to have it."
Luckily, his clients agreed. When Brett Schaffter and his partner Robert DeMars bought two adjoining south-side condominiums in the historic Electra building downtown, they wanted "a sophisticated, high-fashion" feel to their new home. After all, they had already scored some of the most amazing views in the city—the Pacific Ocean, Point Loma, Coronado, panoramic views of the sun setting over the bay, a glittering nighttime skyline. The interiors had to be both livable and bold.
"We had both lived downtown for many years and knew we likely would remain downtown for many more," Schaffter says. "So we wanted to create something special, something very custom. Frankly, we were tired of living in the usual square glass box."
Enter Harold Pell, former president of the American Society of Interior Designers’ San Diego chapter, an accomplished designer with a knack for the unexpected. The dark-tobacco tile embossed with a crocodile pattern, for instance, was one of the first design elements he selected for the space; the Barbie doll rug came soon after.
With faux-croc tile on the floor, the rest of the main living space—consisting of entry, living room, kitchen and lounge—had to be just as intriguing. To give the illusion of space in the hallway, Pell upholstered walls in slanted panels of chocolate silk shantung. Elsewhere, he decorated walls in a custom-patterned and colored, hand-torn wallcovering featuring shades of taupe, latte and chalk. In lieu of a formal dining room, he put a low game table in the corner of the living room. Designed with a copper finish and ebony glaze, the table serves up amazing views for the couple’s easy dinners, informal soirées and Saturday-morning coffee. Chairs are upholstered in a lime-colored woven fabric called Panama Posh.
"No doubt, there were moments when we were anxious about how the various color and texture combinations were going to look together once installed," Schaffter says. "We were being bold in our selections and trusting of Mister Pell’s experience and recommendations."
One of the designer’s goals was to ensure each room had its own conversation piece. The croc floor instantly sparks a conversation in the entry, as does a hand-hammered, silver-clad chest supporting a gymnast sculpture, The Flair by Richard MacDonald. And in place of a dining room, Pell created a lounge designed for conversation, with a chair and ottoman upholstered in mohair velvet and ostrich leather, artist Cory Fuhr’s torso sculpture, and amazing views of the city.
In the master bedroom, however, it’s all about the built-in "Temple of Diana" bed. Custom designed with premium-grade walnut and granite, the bed required 13 tradesmen to complete it. It is upholstered on the sides and foot with woven, multicolored raw silk. Surrounding walls are what Pell calls the "new neutral"—a color that is neither masculine nor feminine. He painted a delicate dream-like vine pattern on the walls and gave the room an unexpected twist: a two-person chromatherapy whirlpool and air-jet tub.
"Upon entering the room, you look straight into what looks like an altar but is actually a tub surrounded by glass tile," Pell says. "The columns and candles give it even more presence, while the TV makes you never want to get out of the water."
"Robert and I love down time together, just listening to music or watching TV," Schaffter says. "So we wanted a space that would lend itself to that sense of serenity."
In addition to the master suite, Pell also transformed another bedroom into what Schaffter and DeMars call the "snuggle room." It also serves as a home theater, with soundproof walls padded and upholstered in pleated silver silk dupioni. "Since we had two sets of each of the appliances, we installed one of the microwaves in a built-in for movie nights," Schaffter adds.
The other appliances were placed in a kitchen marked by cabinetry in dark-chocolate wood, subway tiles in warm marble, light granite with mica flecks, and varying shades of white and candlelight hues. Even the leather on the barstools was custom colored in an aged copper. Perhaps the simplest details in the 2,700-square-foot condo are the lights: three crystal cubes imported from Italy.
In all, it’s a design achievement worthy of a couture house—and testament to the magic that happens with the right partnership.
"Robert and I instantly made a connection with Mister Pell," Schaffter says. "His accomplishments were obvious in his presentation to us. His portfolio was extensive, but it was his larger-than-life personality and fun-loving spirit that sealed the deal for us. When you meet Harold, you just want to give him a big hug."