At least a hundred brooms and mops hang from the ceiling of what would, under other circumstances, be the living room of Byron and Susan Bell’s 1,500-square-foot 1876 Chelsea townhouse. That room isn’t far from five others full of thousands of baskets, pots, mousetraps, locks, toys, tools and hats—all, by the way, very tidy and in perfect aesthetic order. What to make of it all?
Collecting isn’t what it used to be, and in cramped Manhattan, maybe it never was. These days everyone, including 8-year-olds, are madly collecting downloads of video and sound, even though there is no need to hoard because the video and sound will always be there—and because a larger entity, the Internet, is already doing the collecting. But the human impulse to gather is strong.
A young New York man claims to have a terabyte and a half (a trillion and a half bytes) of movies, music and television shows in his several hard drives. His father collects coins. The young man says he collects because he fears that one day someone will put a kibosh on the downloads. There is always a degree of anxiety and the accompanying urge to rescue for the hunters and the gatherers.
A New York mineral collector—who said that “of course people still collect” and, in fact, “there are more mineral collectors than ever”—got so annoyed at a further discussion of the Internet pushing out the three-dimensional world that the conversation became insulting and had to be terminated. (Though there is a financial component to mineral collecting, and eBay is the enabler.)
On a calmer note, Upper East Side architect and designer Stephen Miller Siegel, who has a vast collection of dog paintings, dog sculptures, dog photographs and even a dog letter holder—“It just all happened; they come to me”—said that, over 20 years, he has had only one client who collected anything, and that was paintings. “Either people collect or they don’t,” Mr. Miller said.
Mr. and Mrs. Bell’s collection is a celebration of the three-dimensional world in the oldest and truest sense. “They are all ordinary, utilitarian crafts, relatively contemporary, from the developing world,” said Mr. Bell. “Each one was personally collected by us, mostly sub-Saharan, Asian, Near East”—a total of 70 to 80 countries, he estimated. Mr. Bell, 71, an architect, is responsible for a number of the city’s nonprofit buildings: the Grolier Club meeting hall, the Columbia Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Studio in a School, the new addition to the Council on Foreign Relations. Mrs. Bell, 67, conducts vertebrate paleontology research at the American Museum of Natural History (which didn’t influence the couple’s collection, she said).
Walking the other day through their six rooms (or “staging areas,” one might say), all a blur of brown, red, rust, blood, earth and orange, the couple discussed how the collection began, the day after Mr. Bell’s divorce from his first wife in the early 1970’s, when he got a call from Susan’s roommate at Vassar saying they should meet. The conversation turned to foreign lands. “Susan always wanted to go to Mali to see the Dogon,” Mr. Bell said. “I always wanted—well, I had heard about Ouagadougou. We went collecting some sub-Saharan art. We noticed simpler things—pottery. We liked the crafts as much as the art.”
Ms. Bell chimed in, “We liked the miniature things that reminded us of the architecture.” Her husband proudly held up a mousetrap from Northern India that looked like a little house but is really a miniature prison. “Now an ideal craft,” he said, “is one which has almost finished its useful life and therefore shows all the usage. Often might find a repair or two,” he said, indicating a small scar on an urn. “That means you might get another craft in the same item.” The baskets, of which the couple has about 2,000, have in particular had their ups and downs. “We’re a little out of control when it comes to the baskets,” Mrs. Bell said.
“We didn’t start out to be collectors,” Mr. Bell said, “but—” People always say that, as well as deny that they are collecting to replicate and thus ensure eternal life, to soothe childhood trauma (who doesn’t have one?), to replace sex and so on.
It is said that people everywhere collect: the potter in Turkey who cannot read, the industrialist in Germany who can, the homeless person making sense out of his grocery cart. But collecting in recent centuries took on more formality as more travel opportunities opened up—and as more countries were taken over. White colonialists started bringing back elephant feet. Then collecting became a middle-class-encouraged pastime, starting with the Industrial Revolution, when work and leisure time were being separated. Inevitably, some panicked at the notion that an excess of leisure would turn people into morphine addicts, that traveling salesmen would turn to drink—they were the first spoon collectors, according to Steven M. Gelber in the book Hobbies. So collections were seen as constructive, as educational—the casual autumn-leaf collection, oak on one page, maple on the next.
Mr. Bell is, all in all, the classic humanist, who jumped up in the middle of an interview to play the piano. (“Lately, he has a crush on Hummel,” Mrs. Bell said. “He plays the piano to relax after coming home from painting scenery.”) The Bells’ two dogs, Wembley and Annie, were running in and out of doggie doors that led to a garden filled with Mr. Bell’s sculptures. He also makes sketches and watercolors while traveling—very Louis Kahn—and volunteers for the Blue Hill Troupe, an amateur theatrical group founded in 1924 that puts on two shows a year for charity, always a Gilbert and Sullivan in the spring and, this April, The Yeoman of the Guard.
The couple takes one or two trips a year. Last year they went to Mongolia, from which they sent back fully furnished yurts with red-and-blue-painted furniture inside for themselves and their friends to put on the grounds of their country houses. The Bells also have in their bedroom the largest collection of Lonely Planet guidebooks, except for the one in the publisher’s office. “It’s a wonderful way to travel,” Mrs. Bell said. “People are excited about what we’re doing. They say, ‘Come in, have tea.’ Instead of staring at the natives, you have some kind of connection with the people.”
They are the opposite of 1920’s explorers Osa and Martin Johnson, who took all those films of small tribes and jungle foliage and women with plates in their mouths (later used as footage in Tarzan films), and who were seen, looking back, as being earnest and enthused but rather politically incorrect. With the Bells, it’s all on the up and up: fastidious photographs of the objects in context—a man potting, a woman weaving, barefoot children watching—attached to four-by-six index cards, now some 8,000 in 18 categories, special numbers, with notes on the moment and process of discovery: “Large rectangular fish basket bought from young girl’s (father, friend?) near Mahasthangarh used often in a row across rice paddy or stream. 100 taka. 14Dec95.” Mr. Bell started to look for the dollar equivalent of 100 taka, but decided it wouldn’t be necessary.
During a tour of a wall’s worth of spoons and ladles, it was striking to see that every one of the Bells’ objects reflects the most fundamental human concerns, subsistence and survival—trapping animals, gathering seeds, spiky dog collars to fend off wolves. Would a collection of minutely jeweled Fabergé eggs, like the enameled one that opened up to reveal a golden chicken encased in a golden yolk, be at the opposite of the spectrum of use? On second thought, wooing the czarina with miniature fancies so she won’t kill you is just as much a survival activity as filling a pitcher with water. Perhaps everything that humans make—even jewelry to beautify and thus reproduce, or objects to delight or spiritually strengthen—is absolutely necessary and about survival.
Though as an acerbic friend in a bad mood said as he was being dragged through the DIFFA Dining by Design exhibit the other night (another story of congestion, though spirited): “One could say, useful objects or not, all collections are useless.”