Touched by Fairy Tales

An eclectic house and garden have classic echoes
The roofline angles that lured Diane Blell, and the turret she added, overlook the all-green garden. Below, from left: An ormolu-framed mirror adds sparkle to a niche, and Planet the cat guards the entrance to the living room. Photos by Durell Godfrey

“I want visitors to go further and further down the rabbit hole.” So said the artist Dianne Blell as she introduced a visitor to the evocative mixture of objects, colors, passions, and practicality in both the garden and interior of her house in Bridgehampton. Her second-home world reflects the aesthetic of her art — meticulous photographs that comment on grown-up fairy tales ranging from classic myths to haute couture.

Once upon a time (24 years ago), she spotted the house from a real estate agent’s car. Even though it was a fairly conventional two-story structure just a few lots away from the Bridgehampton monument, with a poured-cement backyard used for storing heavy equipment, it had an unusual roof line — a sharp center peak and widely-spreading eaves. Ms. Blell immediately saw it as “a sweet, poetic version of a fairy tale child’s house.”

For the first year after buying the house Ms. Blell said she “haunted it to find out what I needed and wanted.” She lived behind plastic construction drapery and kept her feet warm in fisherman’s boots. She soon swept away the walls that divided the first floor into small rooms, leaving only a central core for stairs and a kitchen pantry. The rest of the downstairs became a series of continuous spaces, with the kitchen and a work area on one side and a living room on the other. Both have triple-width doorways leading to a wide room Ms. Blell added to the back of the house. Known as the “summer living room,” it, in turn, has large French doors giving a view of the garden.

One corner of the back room is octagonal, holding a round table and forming the base of a turret. Its second story, accessed from Ms. Blell’s bedroom, is sometimes used as a sleeping porch. She once told a New York Times journalist that she occasionally fantasizes “letting my hair down, like Rapunzel.”

The living room ceiling and walls that came with the house were dark blue. Ms. Blell lightened them by applying layers of white transparent glaze “like Michelangelo painting the Sistine ceiling on his back.” Soon came chartreuse ceiling moldings and pilasters with simple capitals made from flat pieces of wood.

Further “verticality” arrived when an artist friend noticed Ms. Blell’s Turkish dinner plates decorated with cone-shaped cypresses, and painted floor-to-ceiling versions on the living room walls. In the back room, he evoked the art history that Ms. Blell clearly loves by painting walls with large pastel diamonds in the colors of Picasso’s harlequin paintings, a pattern she had used in a series of her photographs. Elsewhere the walls are hung with a neon sculpture by Keith Sonnier and works by contemporary painters, some with South Fork studios, including  Mr. Sonnier, Billy Sullivan, and Mary Heilmann.

“I love furniture that looks like it’s going to run around while you sleep,” Ms. Blell said. Whimsical hints appear in slipcovers with appliqued Egyptian eyes of Horus, and in a set of Venetian chairs with arms and feet that she finds “anthropomorphic.” In the kitchen floor, Ms. Ms. Blell filled holes once used for pipes with bits of translucent glass that are lit from below. 

Throughout the house are examples of what Ms. Blell called her “weakness for ormolu” — ornate, gilded ornament. The furniture from various cultures which she visited in her early days as a Pan Am stewardess or on art fellowships — an Algerian coffee table, an Indian chair — all bespeak, she said, a “slightly used patina.” In addition, she said, “I love all that glit“slightly used patina.” In addition, she said, “I love all that glitters.” Lo, the fabric on one couch has woven-in sparkles and the living room fireplace is framed in antiqued mirrors. On the day of the visit, her sandals were trimmed with, yes, small silver mirrors.

Ms. Blell’s eye for objects (she is the daughter of a department-store executive) also includes things that are “money saving, for a girl on a budget.” She kept knotty-pine walls upstairs, using subtle paint to bring out the knots. The stairway balusters turned up in an antiques store, but the railing is from Home Depot; one set of curtains is made from simple cotton “Krishna” fabric used for women’s clothes which she got at an Indian bazaar and another is made from Indian bedspreads she bought in Sag Harbor. She makes her own lighting sconces, combining brackets she finds in antiques shops with saucers she gets from contemporary lighting suppliers.

The land behind Ms. Blell’s magic cottage is sprinkled with classic elements of formal gardens. In front of a hedge that serves as a sort of back curtain are other hedges trimmed into domes, cylinders, spheres, and a pyramid. She does not grow flowers. Other greenery is in beds shaped by the French curves of a drafting tool. Carefully gathered rocks define paths; statues of animals peek out. Fond of evocative titles, Ms. Blell calls one small garden room with a sculpted woman’s head the “Intellectual Women’s Garden”; she has dubbed another the “Melancholy Garden” because the plants all “weep.”

Ms. Blell comes from San Diego and trained at the San Francisco Art Institute, the Parsons School of Design, and Pratt Institute. She has had shows at the Leo Castelli gallery and has work in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and in the collection of the fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld. Her earlier photographs, sort of Dali meets Bronzino, show slightly-surreal models re-enacting love myths in painted theatrical sets that she derived from Indian miniatures and Renaissance paintings. Currently, she is shooting and manipulating images of decorative items she has collected over the years like chandeliers, an embossed lion face, and colored masks. One goal, she said, is to bring out the “pathos” of their “faded glory.” “I’m trying to investigate what I’ve done over the years — to paraphrase ee cummings, my halves of now.”

The overall effect of Ms. Blell’s house and garden is conglomerated but not cluttered. At one point she called them “a mélange, concoction, and collection,” at another, “a succession of still lifes,” and still later, a succession of “little stages and sets.” She added, “I have attention deficit disorder, and I get bored. I have to have things change every few feet.” She is still waving her kinetic wand over details. Of the whole, she said, “I think of it as one work of art.” 

Dianne Blell shows a visitor a Horus-eyed chair and painted diamonds on the walls that evoke Picasso.
The culture of some of the countries she’s been to is evident.
Above, from left: A Keith Sonnier neon sculpture commands attention. The stairs, right, are original to the house; the railing came from Home Depot.
Chairs and decorative items await a photo shoot, with one of Ms. Blell’s artworks propped against the wall.
The studio is at the foot of the garden.
Left, one of her tableau photographs is hung over a Venetian desk. Center, the second floor of the turret is sometimes used as a sleeping porch. Right,the fireplace surround is antiqued mirror; the seat in front of it is from India.Photos by Durell Godfrey