Audio/Photo Essay

A tribute to Herbert Wells, the society designer who defined Houston style

From Jesse Jones and William Marsh Rice to George Mitchell and Peter C. Marzio, Houston has a mystique as a magnet for self-made men. Hailing from Hartford, Conn., Herbert Wells follows this pattern of entrepreneurial Houstonians. But rather than going by way of big business, he invented himself as the decades-long preferred interior designer to the city's upper echelon.

Following an extended illness, Wells passed away on Dec. 23, 2010 at the age of 86. CultureMap spoke with his longtime business associate, Jerry Jeanmard, and sifted through the firm's files to get a better idea of what make his work so special.

Shown at right, a home interior on River Oaks' Piping Rock Lane, conceived by Wells.

The Wells' family atelier on Mt. Vernon Street came to represent the nexus of a budding design community. The home still stands, a few blocks from Montrose's Bering Memorial United Methodist Church.

"Aside from his design aesthetic, he was charming," explains Jeanmard. "People loved him; he had a humor about him and didn't take things too seriously.

"Clients would say, 'I want this, not that, and definitely not that.' And then we'd pull things together, and it would be not at all what they had a preference for. He was somehow able to charm them into loving that."

After working in the illustration business, Jeanmard joined Wells Design almost 26 years ago. Like Wells, Jenmard arrived with no professional training in interior design. But the associates shared a passion for quality style and genuine interest in their clientele's desires.

"It was the best thing that ever happened to me," Jeanmard says of meeting Wells. "He had a clientele like no one else in town. It was invaluable to me to get to meet these great people. They had this great taste — or at least the taste to hire him — and great art."

At right, a home interior on Piping Rock Lane.

Moderating modernism with tradition, Wells achieved a look that was at once eclectic and elegant. Resting on the built-in bookshelves of this River Oaks home are two plates by Pablo Picasso.

Not content to rely on catalogues and local retailers, Wells scoured design resources in New York and across the nation. He found this painted screen for a River Oaks home in New York.

Wells' roster of wealthy clients quickly took him skyward. This living room was part of the model high rise apartment for Four Leaf Towers.

A chartreuse-drenched dining environment is activated with animal print, an octagonal mirror and coordinating snail sculptures in this River Oaks home.

The designer developed a reputation as a brilliant colorist. Though at times understated, his use of color imbued formerly stuffy environments with a visual interest that encouraged relaxed socializing.

"I always thought of his palette as being Houston-influenced," says Jeanmard. "It was cool, not in the sense of Palm Beach cool, but cool. He was very aware of the environment. If we did a job in Colorado, he might use different textures or even different colors than a job in Houston."

At right, a room at the River Oaks Country Club that Wells designed.

The River Oaks Country Club commission was a marker of Wells' ascension through Houston's toniest neighborhood.

Wells devotees brought their favorite designer to their second homes across the country. One of his most famous commissions was a ranch house for Lady Bird Johnson. Here, Jeanmard describes a client's second home in Santa Fe.

A second perspective of the Santa Fe home.

A pair of floor-to-ceiling windows echoes this room's former use as a garage.

Larry Speck, former associate dean of the School of Architecture at the University of Texas, designed this Austin home. With judiciously chosen furniture and fabrics, Wells lent a distinct warmth to the contemporary loft.

This image offers a view of the Austin loft's bathroom corridor. Wells' ability to mediate architecture with appropriate furnishings allowed a potentially awkwardly-shaped area to feel intimate.

"His real genius, I think, was architectural," says Jeanmard. "Very few people knew that — they thought of him as a colorist. But he was a genius at looking at plans and knowing how to make them better. So many architects are disdainful of interior designers, but good designers, like Wells, could make a house a lot better."

Here, Jeanmard elaborates on the chair pictured at right in the living room of the Austin loft.

"He was not a trend follower," says Jeanmard, "and he wasn't consciously a trend setter. It's just that when you've had a career that lasted as long as his, everything that is considered modern and hip now has been around."

Wells' personal living room's plush, pink and khaki striped chair is ingeniously upholstered in tablecloth. A duo of centerpiece tables reflects his preference for pairs and symmetry.

The gentle curve of a stone pediment is reiterated in the back of a sofa in a client's River Oaks living room. "One of the things we can give Herbert credit for is he was the first one in Houston to use architectural fragments as decoration," says Jeanmard.

This photograph provides a view on the foyer of a Houston Pine Hill Street home designed by Dallas-architect Frank Welch.

For his ability to effortlessly juxtapose fine pieces of design, Herbert Wells will be celebrated for generations to come. Jeanmard and his staff continue to honor Wells' legacy as they receive commissions by many of the original clients' grandchildren.