Lee Bierly; designer blended function, style

By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / March 6, 2011

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Each time he stepped through a doorway, Lee Bierly saw more than just furniture and floors, walls and fixtures. He sensed the room’s role in the lives of those who called it home.

“Lee had a unique talent,’’ said Christopher Drake, who was married to Mr. Bierly and was his partner in the Boston interior design firm Bierly-Drake. “He could walk into a house or an office and immediately see how it should be. He just had a perception of how people use space and how to make space seem logical and sensible. It’s more important than the decorating, because it has to do with how people function in space. If the space doesn’t function, it’s already a lost cause.’’

A living room might belong on the other side of the house, Mr. Bierly would tell a client, or it might not be necessary at all. Space should be spent practically, he believed, and it also should give pleasure.

“Humor has to have a role in every house,’’ Mr. Bierly told the Globe in 1993. “A house has to be enjoyable. Like when you go to a restaurant, you want to sit down and be delighted by the meal. Your house has to delight you.’’

Mr. Bierly, who created designs that delighted clients across the country and around the world, died in his Beacon Hill home Feb. 22 of pancreatic cancer. He was 64 and also kept homes in Palm Beach, Fla., and on Nantucket.

“His artistry was extraordinary,’’ said Jack Connors, a founder of the Boston advertising firm Hill Holliday. “He was a true artist. Some people work in metal or on a canvas. His work was bringing together craftsmen and artisans and making something very whole out of the individual parts.’’

Connors hired Bierly-Drake for several commissions “and each one of them was better than the one before.’’

Mr. Bierly’s work was much honored in his profession and featured in magazines such as Architectural Digest. With Drake, he was inducted into the New England Design Hall of Fame in 2007, the same year the Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach honored them with the Ballinger Award for their restoration of a Southern Colonial home in that city.

A couple since 1977, Mr. Bierly and Drake previously received the New England design excellence award from the New England chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers. Other recognition included the society honoring them for a model home they decorated in Mashpee for the Willowbend Country Club, and House Beautiful magazine naming a master bedroom they created for the Junior League of Boston Show House 1995 as one of the 10 best US showhouse rooms.

When possible, Mr. Bierly preferred to work with clients before architectural plans were drawn and walls began to rise. Design plans conceived as part of the architecture, he insisted, were more likely to succeed.

“Lee always used to say, ‘First you build a body, and then you put clothes on it,’ ’’ Drake said. “Our philosophy was, get the architecture right and the decorating will fall right into place very naturally. He always used to say, ‘The goal of the project is to make it look like that’s the way it has always been.’ When he finished, it looked natural, not forced.’’

The oldest of three sons, Mr. Bierly was born and grew up in Los Angeles. His parents split up when he was young, and Mr. Bierly helped his mother run their household in the shadow of more affluent neighbors in the city’s Hollywood district.

While working as a ride operator at Disneyland, Mr. Bierly studied architecture and interior design at the University of California, Los Angeles. He received a bachelor’s and master’s during a college career that stretched over several years as he worked to pay his way.

After college, he moved to San Francisco for a couple of years and passed the qualifying examination for the American Society of Interior Designers.

“Then he decided it was time to come East,’’ Drake said. “At that time, New York was the center of interior design.’’

Mr. Bierly stayed in New York until he was recruited in the late 1970s by Ben Cook, a highly regarded interior designer in Boston.

Drake and Mr. Bierly, who founded Bierly-Drake in 1980, married in a ceremony on the Commonwealth Avenue Mall in 2004.

Along with his interior design duties, Mr. Bierly formerly taught at Harvard University. He helped organize fund-raisers for various causes and served on boards for organizations including the Citi Performing Arts Center. Among his fund-raising work, Mr. Bierly was design chairman for a gala opening of the Boston Design Center that raised $135,000 for the American Cancer Society and the American Society of Interior Designers.

“He was extremely devoted to his career in design, and he loved it, but he also felt it was his responsibility to become involved in the community as well,’’ Drake said. “It was always a balance between the two.’’

In his volunteer work, Mr. Bierly “was so energetic, so full of life,’’ said Josiah A. Spaulding, president and chief executive of the Citi Performing Arts Center. “He walked in and said, ‘Look, I really want to make a difference.’ ’’

In addition to Drake, Mr. Bierly leaves his mother, Shirley Brown Bierly of Ventura, Calif., and two brothers, David of Ventura and Dennis of Phoenix.

A memorial service will be held at 4 p.m. Saturday in Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Boston. Burial will be private on Nantucket.

“I think one word that really encapsulates his personality is ‘terrific,’ which was his favorite word,’’ Drake said. “Everything he did in life he always approached with this high level of enthusiasm and energy.’’

Connors said Mr. Bierly’s “enthusiasm was real, and it was infectious. He was one of these rare people who was passionate about everything he did. I’ve never known anyone who enjoyed life, I mean truly enjoyed life, more than Lee Bierly.’’

Bryan Marquard can be reached at