The mother-daughter duo behind Lola + Bess, downtown Charleston’s art, antiques and design destination, have a simple, hospitable goal for their customers: They want you to live surrounded by things that you love.
That, after all, was a mantra for Martha Lola Halstead and her husband, who raised their daughter, Bess Halstead Lee, in a home that was filled with beautiful things. “My parents were avid collectors of art and antiques,” Lee says. “I grew up living with things that had history, that had meaning to us.”
It’s easy to see that ideal at work in Lola + Bess’ new downtown space on State Street. Cozy yet uncluttered, Lola + Bess’ showroom and retail store showcases Lee and Halstead’s taste for classic pieces with traditional lines.
Take, for example, the 1940sera French mirrored cabinet that sits along one wall. With a striking floral motif on the front, the cabinet presents a lovely example of what Lee and Halstead look for when they visit Europe on their twice-yearly buying trips.
“It has a good size and scale,” Lee says of the piece. “That’s what we look for: good scale, a mix of textures. A lot of what we have would go well in—I’m hesitant to call it a transitional space, because that can mean so many things. But we base all we do after the Old World, and our aesthetic is a mix of traditional and modern.”
That appreciation for oldworld style paired with a modern sensibility is something Lee has cultivated throughout her education and career. The North Carolina native attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for college, after which she moved to New York to work for the famed interior designer Charlotte Moss. Moss is known throughout the design world as both a skilled artist and a thought leader; she speaks frequently on the concepts behind design, the importance of creativity and other topics.
Lee’s time with Moss gave her the chance to delve deep into the world of interior design, but it also did something more—it gave her the desire to continue her education. “I wanted to learn more,” Lee says. “So I went to the Sotheby’s Institute in London for my master’s degree in fine and decorative art.”
Lee finished the program in 2011, but stayed in London an additional three years during which she worked at Masterpiece London, the international art, antiques and design fair. “I was the vetting coordinator, so I was in charge of the vetting team for the fair,” she says. “We had a team of 150 experts that we worked with to evaluate all the pieces that came through.”
It was a busy, exciting time for Lee, who loved living in London. Being in the midst of the city’s vibrant cultural life was inspiring. In fact, it was while she was in London that she and her mother decided to start Lola + Bess.
At the beginning, they dealt in antiques only, focusing mainly on Continental pieces—“Italian, French, Scandinavian,” Lee says.
After Lee moved back to the States to be closer to family, however, they began expanding their offerings. Lee had chosen to move to Charleston for the same reasons many transplants move to the city: the beautiful architecture, the strong sense of history, the mix of old-world style with a thriving contemporary art and design scene.
After moving, Lee and Halstead began incorporating all periods of art, including contemporary, into their collection. Current pieces include a 1960s African print from the Ivory Coast, a signed lithograph by Henri Matisse (which has since sold) and a painting by the contemporary Brooklyn-based artist Wayne Pate.
Lee also started offering fullscale design services, including renovation consulting. That’s one of their particularly popular design services, especially in downtown’s historic district. In general, Lola + Bess’ design projects have been in downtown and Mount Pleasant, although Lee has also done a few projects in North Carolina.
While Lee is in Charleston and Halstead remains in North Carolina, Halstead is still involved in the conceptual aspect of Lola + Bess. The two go on buying trips together, and Halstead has a strong voice when it comes to selecting pieces to incorporate into Lola + Bess’ offerings. She works with Lee on the interior design side as well.
Lola + Bess’ initial setup was at 1600 Meeting, a “creative cluster” of three buildings that houses a variety of small, local creative businesses. Although each business had its own office— it wasn’t a shared space, in other words—the energy there was palpable.
“That was a great space— there was so much talent there,” she says. “Even though you didn’t see your neighbors every day, it still cultivated that creative atmosphere. I loved being part of it.”
Lee decided to move the business further down the peninsula for a simple reason. The Meeting Street location really didn’t get much foot traffic, and that’s what Lee was looking for as the business was expanding. This past September, she found a perfect spot on State Street in downtown’s French Quarter. Here, her neighbors include art galleries, stately antebellum homes and historic landmarks. And it goes without saying that the foot traffic has improved.
What’s helped make Lola + Bess’ new retail space such a success is that Lee has managed to combine her incomparable knowledge of art, antiques and design with a genuine warmth of spirit that customers can feel. In a sense, she’s translated the valuable knowledge and experience she gained at Sotheby’s and Masterpiece London into something softer and more accessible.
“Masterpiece was such a formal setting,” Lee says, “and this is so much more informal. We’re sourcing pieces for people, selling them out of the store. I do, of course, think it’s important that everything’s authentic. We get so much from Europe. That definitely enhances the quality of our store.”
Elizabeth Pandolfi is a writer living in Charleston.