Curiosity Stop

Curiosity Stop:

The Inner City Sanctum of Chatham Hellmers and Walt Creel

By Brett Levine

“When I saw this loft I literally laid down on the floor and said I would die if we didn’t get it,” Chatham Hellmers laughs as she recalls how she and husband Walt Creel came to live in their new home.

The space, just over 2100 square feet in downtown’s loft district, was basically original.  The previous owner, an architect, had chosen leave the fundamental bones of the space intact, only altering the bedroom and kitchen,

Now, Hellmers and Creel use a constantly changing approach to furnishings, objects, color, and arrangement to create intimate experiences in their open plan world.

“Apart from the stage,” an elevated space at the south end of the loft, “and the library, which we situated as far away from the light as we could, almost every other piece of furniture has been moved as the space has been rearranged and explored,” Creel remarks.

The entry turns into the library, a rich space filled with dark bookcases. “We try to be very aware of our works on paper,” Hellmers explains, “so we chose to use darker colors and materials here.” To the right, stairs lead up to a bedroom, while a closet underneath is filled with vintage dresses, purses, sunglasses, and other passions.

The wide expanse of the loft becomes evident in the consecutive seating areas, each unique, that unfold.  In the first, a Platner– style table with a glass top and upholstered chairs provides seating for four. Nearby, a Mies Barcelona chair and sectional sofa make entertaining and conversations near the kitchen happen with ease. Vintage chandeliers hang low over tables, creating a sense of scale against the soaring twenty-foot ceilings. Objects are everywhere — covered in glass like terrariums, stacked in glass cases like previous objects.

Hellmers and Creel mischievously describe their design style as “zookeeper chic,” a description reinforced by an enormous taxidermy peacock that, despite its size, is almost intimate in the soaring space. “I’ve always been passionate about the beauty of nature,” Hellmers observes, “so I have an extensive collection of the usual and the unusual. One of my first collections was shells, and although I don’t collect as many now, I’ve also been fascinated by skulls and bones.” These collections are thoughtfully arranged in glass cabinets and on a recently added centerpiece — a pair of tables, stacked one on top of the other, each holding a variety of individual tableaux.

One of the unique decisions the couple has made is to make the process of altering the furnishings as simple as possible.  “Almost everything is on casters,” Creel remarks, and this is evident in everything from chairs and tables to a hospital gurney being used as a bar and the railroad cart coffee table in the elevated area.

“This space finally allowed us to be unafraid of some of the objects we have had that can simply be too overwhelming for somewhere smaller.”

Apart from their many collections, Hellmers and Creel also use the loft as a gallery for their own works. Creel, a visual artist who creates large-scale imagery and portraits with bullet holes, finds that what is almost overwhelming in a traditional domestic home seems perfect for this larger space.  “I never imagined I would be able to have so many on display,” he smiles, “but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t considering working on an even larger scale.”  In fact, Creel and Hellmers are in the design phase for an enormous mural that will cover one of their home’s largest walls.  “It will be about 35 feet,” they say with a combination of excitement, motivation, and surprise.

Regardless of the challenges, which they seem to thrive on, the couple shares a fundamental design approach that brings order to what a casual observer might think of as chaos. “Use multiples,” Creel remarks, as he gestures to a series of Indian metal trunks they have recently acquired. “Don’t be afraid to mix periods, styles and media,” Hellmers continues, “because it is possible to mix the formal and the found in unexpected ways.”

Sitting on a 14–foot leather sofa on the stage, under a Mexican tin chandelier that they thought might never arrive, the apartment unfolds in a series of intimate moments, each framed by seating, lighting and an unexpected element of charm.

“In the end,” Hellmers muses, “we think of our house as a combination of the Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, Miss Havisham, and an apartment Yves Saint Laurent might have had. Whether it is Asian or African art, the slickness of the ’70s, the natural beauty of a shell or a work that Walt and I can never bear to part with, what makes a space special isn’t just the architecture. It is really about that personal creativity that Walt and I have here to explore, to acquire, to arrange and for us personally, to inspire ourselves.” Creel adds, “It doesn’t really matter if it’s special or it’s salvaged, it’s simply about having a space where we can be comfortable, be bold if we want, and where we can call home.” And home it is, and it is perhaps unlike any other home Birmingham has seen.

3 Responses to “Curiosity Stop”

  1. Cindy Brown says:

    This story, I would not want to miss. I was fortunate in having a guided tour, early on, soon after the loft was purchased and moved into. I was amazed, impressed, jealous, inspired, and delighted! It was food for thought for umpteen days. I still think about this living space. Whose closet is a tribute to collections? I’ve never seen a library with the book wave of color complete with lovely art all tucked in. To stumble upon this article is thrilling. My oh my has this space evolved. It is taking my breath. Loving this loft and its inhabitants!

  2. These two amazing artists have married their passions and styles to create a magical space that begs exploration! Well done!

  3. Melissa Springer says:

    Birmingham is soooooooo lucky to have Walter and Chatham gracing us with their presence. Two incredible artists and two incredible people. Being in their space is like a never ending wonderland. They should sell tickets!

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