Annie Brookestone interviewed me about The Garden Room for House & Leisure recently.
Bielle Bellingham’s latest venture The Garden Room trades the retail experience for lived experience.
It’s a strange sort of quandary. The more you know about what Bielle Bellingham does, the harder it becomes to explain what Bielle Bellingham does. Asking Bielle herself is almost impossible. “I still haven’t figured it out,” she laughs. “I don’t actually know what I’m good at yet.”
Bielle describes herself as having “the ultimate ‘slash career’”: stylist, shopkeeper, bootstrapper, scout, researcher, producer, creative director, brand builder, interior designer, the editor-in-chief of ELLE DECORATION SA at one point… The list could go on and that’s because it’s exactly this that Bielle is good at, approaching these slashes not like hurdles to leap but instead dancing elegantly between them, transitioning from role to role and, where the role doesn’t yet exist, carving out new niches in creative spaces.
It’s unsurprising then that Bielle’s latest venture, the Garden Room, defies the neatness of a label. Located on the slopes of Table Mountain in the verdant tranquillity of Cape Town’s Newlands suburb, the Garden Room is a ‘slash space’. Functioning most of the time as guesthouse and Airbnb, it’s also a carefully curated retail experience “where nature, locally designed furniture, art, lifestyle products, accessories and textiles collide”. It’s a space to engage with, sit on, touch and sip from a selection of Bielle’s own creations as well as personally selected pieces that represent a cross-section of some of South Africa’s most innovative artistic minds. And it’s always shoppable.
It’s a concept, says Bielle, that ticked a lot of boxes. “I recently held an art sale focused on making collecting art more accessible, where local artists opened up their sketchbooks at incredibly low prices. For five days, I sat in a pop-up store and I loved it but also thought about how soul-destroying sitting in a shop can be. And because it was only five days, people flooded in – if it was permanent, I don’t think the response would’ve been the same. It got me thinking about the future of retail and it became apparent that none of us really go to shops anymore. We’re making discoveries digitally and shopping online. My interior design experience meant that I was also aware that people often make extraordinary purchases like a couch for R40 000 having only really bounced on it twice. And what about the thickness of your coffee cup? You can’t lick it in the store or through your phone: you should be able to feel it and drink your tea out of it before you decide that’s the kind of cup you want. For me, the Garden Room represented a space where you can have that visceral experience of a product.”
One or two days in the month, the Garden Room is open to the public “to come touch and feel”. “You can then buy anything that particularly resonates with you through an online platform, and have it shipped back home,” says Bielle.
And there’s plenty to resonate. “All the items I’m making are named after pets that have been special to me, my friends or family. For example, the Bonny couch is named after my mum’s beloved Ridgeback. And then there’s a series of three artworks that Peet Pienaar kindly created for me to sell on his behalf. He won’t tell me what they’re about, which freaks me out because I can’t quite figure them out, but I’ll die trying. The artworks are screen-printed on linen, and framed with no glass. In spite of how precious these pieces are, you can’t help but want to touch the artwork surface, which is totally allowed, and even encouraged.”
For Bielle, it’s about integrating the online and offline shopping journey as well as innovating around product discovery and interaction. “My intended customer base doesn’t want to be spoon-fed, duped, or bullied into decisions,” she says. “They are smart, time-starved, and bombarded with info, so they want someone to help sift through the nonsense, bounce ideas with and possibly offer them something they didn’t even know they would love. They simultaneously want to unplug and be super-plugged-in.”
“Beauty is a very powerful catalyst, healer, and ultimately, a tool for living,” says Bielle, and it’s this focus on living that transcends the slashes and allows a space like the Garden Room to work so hard yet inspire so elegantly: it doesn’t demand that you buy, it simply asks you to be and to see if anything grows on you in the process.
Words: Annie Brookstone
First published in House & Leisure