Arabella Huddart, known to all as Bella, stands 6ft tall with the kind of chiselled profile and athletic physique that once provided the inspiration for the figurines on the front of classic motorcars. She wears many different hats, including those of 'tour guide', 'gardener', and 'interior designer', but what she excels at is styling other people's lives. These days this involves beetling about London in her vintage Volkswagen in search of the perfect textile for interior design projects, among other furnishings.
Bella's first love was fashion. In 1981, at the age of 17, she landed a job at Vogue House, pushing a tea trolley around the offices of the magazines that resided therein - including Vogue and House & Garden. On her rounds, she would tell everyone she encountered that her life's ambition was to work in the Vogue fashion department. 'As I pushed the trolley past the Vogue office, I would say it even louder,' she recalls. One day in 1982, as she zoomed in to work on her Vespa, she caught the attention of the then fashion editor Grace Coddington who, struck by her new androgynous haircut, took her on as a personal assistant straight away. 'Working for Grace was an awakening. Every story she arranged was wonderful, and a strong passion for visual beauty has informed everything in my life ever since,' says Bella.
Five years later, Bella married insurance consultant Harry Huddart. She was one of four children and was keen to have her own large family. Before long, Georgie was born. Their sixth child, Eddie, arrived in 2001. By then, the family was living in a rambling old rectory in Essex that Bella ran as a B&B. During term time, she commuted to a part-time job at Sotheby's, bidding on behalf of private clients. 'It was a great way to keep my brain from atrophying,' she recalls.
Things took a difficult turn in 2008, however, when the family finances and her marriage failed. 'Everything had to be sold,' she says sadly. 'Ducks, geese, dogs, cars, house. Even the gecko.' Bella retreated back to London, setting up home in the Trellick Tower in west London, where she still lives. 'It seemed to me to represent my new life: bold and unashamed of itself. I needed to make a real home for the children with my old furniture and my favourite paintings.'
The Grade II-listed, 31-storey Brutalist block of flats on the edge of Notting Hill is just a short distance from the Grenfell Tower. 'I was in Spain at the time of the fire, but my daughter could see it from our flat,' Bella says. 'The thought of those people being trapped is absolutely devastating and it really was a community tragedy. The essence of Notting Hill - and of the Trellick Tower - is in its cultural mix and that is what I really love about it. Trellick is listed, so it could never have had cladding added, and I still love the building. It is so beautiful to be so high up above the ground and it is such a shame that people's idea of living in high rises has been clouded.'
If it was scary starting again at the age of 45, it was also, according to Bella, fabulous. She was prepared to take on different jobs to make ends meet, becoming, for example, a life model at the Lavender Hill Studios. Apart from anything, the lack of activity required in that role provides a certain quietness in her whirlwind schedule. 'I had a thirst for travel and knowledge while I was at school.' So around the same time as starting modelling, Bella found a job with a music, art and culture tour company, taking tours to her favourite countries - Ethiopia, Iran and Sicily, among others. She is now planning tours of her own in Iran, Algeria and Ethiopia, some with Barnaby Rogerson, publisher of Eland Books, a specialist in travel literature.
She says Notting Hill still feels like a village. 'One day, I bumped into Patrick Kinmonth, with whom I worked during my days at Vogue. He was working on the interior design of a house for Evgeny Lebedev and said that he needed a Girl Friday.' She worked with him for the following two years. 'Patrick is a genius,' she says. 'He is an opera and film director, decorator, artist and curator. Working for him was a fantastic learning curve.' One of her roles in their creative partnership was sourcing the fabrics for the house. 'Now I think nothing of buying carpets from Iran and textiles from Uzbekistan.'
With the job completed in 2014, Bella moved to Barcelona with Eddie and another son Johnnie, 22, who has just finished his studies in international relations at the University of Barcelona. Half of every month is spent in Barcelona and the rest in London, Italy and Ireland. The rest of her brood is in London: Joe, 28, is finishing a PhD in ecology at Imperial College London and his twin Gussie is working in marketing and production; Flora, 26, is a fashion stylist working with Jacob K in London; and Georgie, now 30, has relaunched the swimwear company Hunza G as its creative director.
Over the past two years, Bella worked on another big project, which came through her old friend Lucinda Chambers, former fashion director of Vogue. She introduced Bella to Giovanni Testino (brother of the photographer Mario) and his wife Amber, who had recently expanded their fashion artist management agency into London. They needed help with an off-plan flat they had bought in Marylebone and Bella stepped in. 'We started with a blank canvas and could do anything,' she says. 'At first, I was just going to be the designer, but gradually I became almost the project manager.'
The flat is on the fifth floor - level with the trees - and the terrace is an important part of the living space. Bella works with landscape gardener Charlie Day, who also provided bamboo for the bedroom balconies to give seclusion. Wide-width Dinesen oak floorboards anchor the interconnecting rooms. 'I made it feel homey,' Bella says. 'Giovanni kept saying, "Bella, Bella, less is more." It was a great brief to work to, and I'm happy we've managed to create a mix of elegant, classic and modern.' The Testinos moved in last March and Bella still makes occasional site visits to discuss final tweaks with Amber. She says she prefers a drip-feed decorating process, finding it more natural.
Currently, she's indulging her passion for textiles by sourcing fabric for the interior designer David Bentheim. She is lucky that the shops of Golborne Road are close to home: Erno Deco is next to her favourite Bluebelles café and there is a tantalising range of ikats at Warris Vianni & Co. She calls on Christopher Howe at his Bourne Street shop for more vintage fabrics and naturally tanned leather before a browse in the larger Pimlico Road showroom for rugs or maybe an old armchair, which she will drop in at upholsterers Jorge & Silva in Battersea.
Two years ago, she met her partner Christopher Bielenberg and they spend time together at his houses in Italy and Ireland; she is helping to restyle the house and gardens at the latter. Being Bella, the story of how they first met is very funny; it sounds deliciously improbable, but is in fact entirely true. 'We were both on a car rally driving through Italy. I was driving my car ahead of him, when my gearbox fell out on a hairpin bend in the Apennines. I got into his car and we discovered that we had so much in common - a love for Europe, family and music. Plus, at 6ft 6in, he is a giant and the only person who makes me feel small and compact.'
Bella Huddart Design