He was a sought-after designer living in Midtown who wanted a weekend retreat. Having grown up on Lake Michigan, Bob Bedford was drawn to the Lake Windermere area of Raleigh, where the twink- ling water could be glimpsed through the woods, and the surrounding land was still country — a perfect escape from Bedford's city digs.
That was in 1
951, and the house built for him and his partner, the late Kenneth Kimbrough, sits aging serenely on two-and-a-half acres. The simple lines of its mid-twentieth-century-modern style blend into the landscape of gently rolling hills and soaring trees. The interior, however, reflects Bedford's travels far beyond this peaceful abode — trips he took with Kimbrough as they shopped for their clients and themselves.
The two interior designers both worked for the prestigious Denaux & Co. — located for decades at 1400 Union and considered a premier design firm in Memphis. In 1950, Kimbrough opened his own business farther east on Union in what was known as the Hill Mansion until its ownership changed, and the palatial building fell to the wrecking ball. But for 30 years Kimbrough and Bedford catered to upscale clients, visiting far-flung locales — China, Taiwan, Japan, England, Italy, France, and beyond — to discover just the right antiques, fabrics, and objets d'art.
Many treasures they found for themselves still adorn the 60-year-old residence which in 1952 the partners made their permanent home. In the hallway, displayed in a glass case, is a Greek vase "that was unearthed in Sicily in the fourth or fifth century B.C.," says Bedford. Also on the shelves are figures from the Chinese T'ang dynasty, along with ivory ducks, a Chinese hand mirror, a jade clasp used to fasten a kimono, and a carving of an ibis, the sacred bird of Egypt. Scattered on the floors are rugs from Kashmir, Senegal, and Iran.
In the spacious living room, with its upholstery-covered walls and long windows overlooking woods and lake, is a coffee table fashioned by a friend using marble chips collected from Rome's ancient ruins. Against one wall is a Chinese lacquered cabinet bought in England. On a piano are photographs of friends, some current — such as Memphis-based opera star Kallen Esperian, whom Bedford describes as "one of our best swimming pool volleyball players at parties" — and some past friends, including a countess whose firm manufactured the sumptuous Fortuny fabrics that are featured in drapes and various furnishings throughout Bedford's house.
In the dining room is Hong Kong wallpaper, Thai silk draperies, a Japanese chest, and an antique mirror made in part from the headboard of a Chinese bed. Across from the dining room is a screened-porch-turned-sunroom, its walls showcasing many paintings collected through the years; some serve as summer fireplace screens. Only a couple of paintings in this home art collection are by local artists, including an early Sophie Coors; the others — colorful, whimsical, and rich with detail — were acquired on travels.
"When we built the house," Bedford recalls, "we started out thinking we'd come here on weekends. But soon we had moved out here completely, and naturally we kept adding on," he says of the 3,500-square-foot dwelling. "And we definitely wanted to bring the outside in." Although architect Sam Stephenson (who also designed the Memphis Hunt and Polo Club) suggested bay windows in the dining room, Bedford chose instead "the storefront window style so we could take in the whole view," he explains. The home is ideal- ly situated — facing south so that the rooms are flooded with natural light in winter, but shaded in summer. "It's lovely to watch the sun as it fills every corner." says Bedford.
Off a bedroom, in place of a linen closet, is a narrow spiral staircase leading down to the laundry area. "I had the closet removed and built the staircase myself. The builder said I wasn't even an eighth of an inch off," smiles the man who at 91 years old says he's still "up and down these steps all the time."
Outside, a fountain circulates around a lead statue of two small children holding a fish, and a Japanese lantern rises above azaleas and other spring-flowering shrubs. Gravel paths wind through landscaped beds and under old-growth trees, down to a Japanese teahouse.
Looking back on his long life, Bedford says he planned to become a history professor after graduating from the University of Michigan, but World War II redirected his future. While serving in the Navy he studied spherical navigation and trained boat crewmen, leading them on the amphibious assault on Sicily. "You don't hear much about that," he says, "but it was a test of later invasions, including Normandy." Later during the war, he met Kenneth Kimbrough, who had graduated from the Parsons School of Design and, at the war's end, persuaded Bedford to study there too.
Meeting Kimbrough brought Bedford to Memphis in 1948, where for years he and his partner decorated the homes of the rich and famous here and beyond. "We also entertained a lot," Bedford recalls, "and had some some wonderful parties."
Today he finds companionship in his spirited Jack Russell terrier, Lord Bertram Russell II — or Bert, as Bedford calls him — and takes pleasure in the beauty of his home and surroundings: "I've got dust and I've got spiderwebs, but I've also got the lake. You can't beat a view like this."