There are some people for whom the aesthetic runs deep in their blood. And then there are others so steeped in aestheticism that it is hard to imagine that they would ever have done anything else. Cressida Bell, textile designer, cake decorator and illustrator, is one such.

The daughter of critic, author and artist Quentin Bell; granddaughter of painter, interior designer and chatelaine of Charleston Farmhouse, Vanessa Bell; and the great niece of Virginia Woolf, one of the most important writers of the 20th-century, Cressida’s Bloomsbury heritage made the path to her artistic vocation somehow inexorable.

Having studied fashion at St Martin’s School of Art and later textile design at the Royal College of Art, Cressida launched her eponymous brand upon graduating in 1984. Today, from her Hackney studio, which she describes as a ‘bucolic enclave’, she produces an achingly beautiful array of decorative accessories for men, women and the home, as well as bespoke work, applying her painterly eye to everything from stationery and illustration to murals (a happy throwback to her Bloomsbury forebears), carpets and furnishing fabrics. To demonstrate how far her artistic talents should be seen in the round, in 2013 she even published Cressida Bell’s Cake Design, although anyone who would rather devour one of her efforts than make it themselves can also commission a cake through her website.

Compilation Of 12 Lit Shades by Cressida Bell

The abiding refrain throughout her work is her pure delight in the decorative, undoubtedly influenced by, but also distinct from, her Bloomsbury heritage. Here, she tells us about being a ‘Radio 4 bore’; how a Photoshop hack changed her life – and why, thanks to her assistant, she’ll never meet the same fate as Roseanne Barr.

My favourite website...

One of my favourites is I love how every part of it is bespoke – the font, the background, even the social media links. The background is an ever-extending white linen tablecloth, so elegant and evocative of the style of Romilly Savage, the jeweller. Unfortunately it doesn’t really work on a phone – but it’s worth looking at on a big screen.

My favourite app...

I guess it must be Instagram, as that’s the one I look at most. It’s such a friendly social space. At least the part that I frequent is!

My favourite blog...

I don’t really read many blogs, but I did follow the exploits of my friend Sophie Sarin when she built a mud hotel on the banks of the Niger in Mali. Her blog was called and ran from 2006 to 2017, when she closed the hotel. It is a fascinating and extraordinary read – still available. She has continued since then on another blog called commutingtotimbuktu.blogspot which I read less often, as these days I see more of her in the flesh.

My Internet hero...

My heroes are the people who give advice and answer questions. I’m always looking up how to do things and there are so many generous people out there telling you how to fix your printer or make a picture frame, etc. (I never post an answer anywhere I’m ashamed to say.)

My favourite podcast...

I don’t listen to podcasts much as I have BBC Radio 4 on pretty much all the time. I’m what’s known as a radiofourbore. Of course, most of their programmes are also podcasts so I guess my favourites are Desert Island Discs (still hoping to get on there one day!), Last Word, The Corrupted (drama series), Gloomsbury (comedy series), More Or Less and The News Quiz.

My favourite YouTuber...

To repeat myself – my favourite YouTubers are those people who put up ‘How To’ videos. So useful and helpful.

My most recent buy online...

My most recent was a swimsuit, but my most exciting lockdown purchase was a set of French café chairs from Maison Drucker (who I follow on Instagram). They were expensive but they are both beautiful and comfortable, and I reckoned that not going out was saving me so much they were affordable.

Last book you downloaded or read...

I always read real books rather than using a kindle or similar. The last book I read was
10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak. It was an absorbing read, beautifully written and fascinating. I have just started Noble Savages by Sarah Watling. It is about my grandmother Brynhild Olivier and her three sisters. They were the daughters of Sydney (later Lord) Olivier, a prominent Fabian and free thinker. They had an extraordinary upbringing for girls at the turn of the 20th-century as they were both educated and liberated. I fear that their promise in general came to nought – but need to read more to find out.

Favourite tweeter...

I have a Twitter account which I am not allowed to use (by my assistant Drucilla). She fears I will make some gaff which will lead to disaster (a la Roseanne Barr), so she tweets for me using my Instagram posts. I also don’t think I could keep up and fear the troll-y atmosphere we all hear so much about.

Favourite Instagrammer...

There are so many, so this is just a small selection. I love @historicaltimemachine for the bizarre and unusual. The posts range from the simply weird to the beautiful. I also enjoy the online art gallery curated by @mifidellis for so many inspirational works. During lockdown @mollyfreja created a wonderful series of photos using her parents to recreate famous works of art from American Gothic by Grant Wood to Amorous Couple by Vermeer. Simply brilliant!

Cressida Bells Kalamata Dressed Table

Favourite tech gadget...

I have a love/hate relationship with my iPad. I love it for its ease of use, light weight, and long battery life but I hate the way it deals with emails and photos and the whole prescriptive Apple system. I use it all the time though, and of course I can’t change to an Android version as transferring my files and data would be a nightmare.

The most useful gadget/item on your desk...

My graphic tablet. Although all my design work begins its life in my sketchbook it then gets scanned into my pc and worked on in Photoshop. Using a tablet revolutionised this process and I don’t know what I would do without it.

Most useful digital resource during lockdown?

There was no particular change for me in lockdown. I can’t work from home so I continued to go to my studio every day and had distanced drinks with friends in my studio garden. I find Citymapper to be one of the most useful apps I have. So much better than the rubbish TFL app that seems not to know anything about bus routes etc. I love the way that Citymapper will even tell you when to get off the bus. It does slightly overestimate journey time – but that’s probably just as well as I generally underestimate.

First thing/app you look at on your mobile when you wake up/in the morning?

I check Instagram, emails and weather – but not in bed.

Last thing you binge-watched?

Harlots. Great OTT fun – sex and violence in period costume. What’s not to like? I am also watching Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown which is interesting in that it is only very slightly about food. It’s more of an extreme adventure to places I where I would probably not venture. He seems fearless – of both real danger and scary food. So sad that he didn’t live longer.

Favourite brands have you discovered online...

I discovered MaxHosa Africa from another account on Instagram. Such joyous, riotously coloured clothes. Of course, I had to have a dress – which was quite a scary process as it was expensive and took an age to arrive. It is fabulous though – beautiful knitted silk in an array of geometric patterns.

Cressida Bell Textiles

Social media allowed me to meet...

I have re-met quite a lot of people on Instagram that I have lost touch with – but in a good way (not like Friends Reunited ). People have a habit of cropping up and it’s great to connect again. I like the way you can connect, but it doesn’t need to be too intense.

I also have a ‘new best friend’ in the USA who started as a customer and is now a frequent correspondent via DM. I expect we will meet one day. There are many similar instances – for example I am Instagram friends with Cressida Connolly. We have been aware of each other all our lives as our parents were friends and we share a name. We have yet to meet, but it’s only a matter of time.

The best digital advice I've been given...

In Photoshop – hold down the shift button and your line will be straight and your rectangle will be equilateral! It revolutionised my life. (This is the sort of hot tip given me by my assistant Jaap who, being much younger, knows much more about these things. Obviously.)

My screensaver is...

On iPad: a boiling sulphurous pool in Yellowstone National Park, full of extraordinary patterns and shapes. On phone: a glorious view of the Mediterranean. On desktop PC: nothing (too distracting!!!).

My standout online memory...

This has to be getting my very first website. So exciting and nerve-wracking to go live for the first time. I designed it by hand, painting the home page as I wanted it to look, which entertained the web-designer as I think it was a first for him. It has been through many incarnations since but now I am back to the ‘hand painted’ look I started off with (though I doubt that look would have been possible back then).

My pet online hate is...

People who write essays on Instagram. They may be interesting and all that – but it’s not really the point of Instagram is it? Also, those really annoying pop-up adverts for things I have just bought. Grrr.

Do you have any online rules or resolutions?

No phone by the bed!

The Internet. On balance, a force for good or ill?

For good – for so many reasons. Of course, there are down sides but I love the fact that so much of what we do online works on trust. We pay unknown people to deliver goods without a second thought – and in general it works. Amazing.

By Nancy Alsop
October 2020


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