William M. Bigel, a longtime interior designer known for his unpretentious decor and keen sense of color, died Wednesday at his Lutherville home of complications from multiple sclerosis. He was 56.
The native of Waukegan, Ill., earned a bachelor of fine arts degree in art history from the University of Illinois in 1966 and a master's degree from George Washington University two years later.
After completing fellowships at the Smithsonian Institution and the Harvard School of Business, he worked at the National Gallery of Art before joining the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1969 as director of programming.
He left in 1975 to join the interior design firm Alexander Baer Associates. He later was head of residential design for H. Chambers Co.
Alexander Baer, owner of Baer Associates, said Mr. Bigel's work "has proven to be timeless."
"Rooms he created many years ago still endure and never date," Mr. Baer said. "He never did gimmicky and trendy things."
He said Mr. Bigel designed rooms to focus on works of art.
"He looked at rooms from an art eye as opposed to a decorator's eye. When you came into the room, you noticed the art first and noticed the interiors after that," Mr. Baer said.
Hope Quackenbush, former executive director of the Mechanic Theatre and a longtime friend, said Mr. Bigel "was like a brother." They worked on the first City Fair in 1970, and her home was one of the first he decorated.
Yesterday, she said his work was "extremely tasteful. You'd walk into any place Bill had worked and it was a very elegant atmosphere."
Besides decorating dozens of homes in the Baltimore area, Mr. Bigel designed the interior of one of Harborplace's first restaurants, Jean Claude's.
"He had tremendous style, tremendously refined aesthetic sense, and he was not a stuffed shirt," said Diana Jacquot, a longtime friend and former Jean Claude's owner who also worked with him at the BMA. "He was fun.
"He would drive you numerous miles to see a new bridge that had been constructed over [Interstate] 95. He would show you the lines of it and how it was a beautiful object. He was the kind of person who enhanced your life by making you aware of things."
At Jean Claude's, said Ms. Jacquot, Mr. Bigel "created this intimate setting for a French cafe" with French posters and a brass-topped bar that "was a great visual."
He also was known for his understated sense of design and space, and choice of colors in decorating.
"He had extremely good taste," said Cal Strawhand, Mr. Bigel's companion of 23 years. "He could remember the different tones of tan. He knew different colors of white."
Over the past several years, Mr. Bigel's illness prevented him from working with the many clients who had become his friends.
"He didn't ever want to retire," Mr. Strawhand said. "In the prime of his career, he couldn't do it anymore. Can you imagine having someone design your home and not being able to walk into it?
"What he missed the most with this disease was the contact with PTC clients, the adrenalin rush of planning and design. He was a born salesman."
A memorial service will be held at 10: 30 a.m. Wednesday at the Baltimore Museum of Art on Art Museum Drive.
Mr. Bigel also is survived by his mother, Emily Bigel of Waukegan; and three cousins, Terry Chesson of Newport, R.I., Margaret McEleroy of New Lenox, Ill., and Loretta Myers of Palos Hills, Ill.
Pub Date: 2/14/98