Designer, craftsman and bon viveur Russell Seeley Bayly (1919-2013)
Designer, craftsman and bon viveur Russell Seeley Bayly (1919-2013) lived in Jocotepec, at the western end of Lake Chapala, for close to forty years. He became a good personal friend, though I now regret not having recorded him as he reminisced about his life, loves and adventures.
Bayly was born in Los Angeles, Calfornia on 5 May 1919. He grew up in a privileged family, wealthy enough to have its own stables and horse trainer in addition to a butler, cook, housekeeper, maids, gardeners and a seamstress. Bayly’s father, Roy D. Bayly, was a successful financier and stock broker who had commissioned noted California architect Reginald Davis Johnson to build a Virginia-style home on nine acres of property in Flintridge, near Pasadena. Bayly Sr. was a co-founder of the Flintridge Riding Club and his children, including Russell, were all accomplished riders, winning ribbons and trophies for riding and jumping.
“Russ” Bayly was in the class of ’34 at Polytechnic School before attending Midland School. He graduated from this small boarding school near Los Olivos in 1938. Among his life-long friends was the artist-photographer John Frost, who also attended Midland. Not altogether coincidentally, Frost and his wife – the author Joan Van Every Frost – moved to Jocotepec shortly before Bayly did the same.
Bayly enlisted in the U.S. military on 7 January 1942, after two years of college at the University of Virginia, and giving his previous occupation as “fisherman, oysterman.” He served in the U.S. cavalry during the second world war but his wartime experiences left him with severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
After the war, Bayly attended the highly regarded Chouinard Art Institute (Chouinard School of Art and Design) in Los Angeles. He married Joan Virginia Young in 1947, and the couple had four children: Russell Warder (1948-2016), David Hostetter (1951) Brooks (1952), and daughter Neville (1954).
In the 1950s, while working as a painting contractor, Bayly found recognition as a designer, primarily of furniture. For example, his work was highlighted in a national exhibition of Californian design first held at the Pasadena Art Museum from 12 January to 23 February 1958. Over the years, Bayly filed for several patents relating to original furniture designs. These almost certainly included the “prototype chair in steel, teak and fabric”, shown in a photograph that appeared in California Design in 1965. A matching ottoman was also available.
In the mid-1960s, the well-known industrial designer Victor J. Papanek, who had been at design school with Bayly, offered him a position as associate professor of design at Purdue University. Bayly taught there for four years, ending in 1971.
Bayly and his wife, Bee, moved to Jocotepec in late 1971, and rented a house there while beginning construction of their own home. While the Guadalajara Reporter for 20 July 1974 reports that Russell and his wife Bee had just entertained friends to a farewell party, prior to Russell “returning to his college teaching position in California”, Russell was no longer teaching by that time, though he did return to Los Alamos, California, and subsequently Santa Barbara, to make a living. Bayly regularly returned to Jocotepec prior to becoming a full-time resident of the town in the 1980s.
During his years in Jocotepec, he designed and oversaw the construction of several homes in the town, including the modernist, open-plan, steel-beamed hexagonal building that was his home for the last thirty years of his life. Built on a small corner lot overlooking the town and lake, the design was based on a series of hexagons with full-height living areas, floor-to-ceiling glass windows onto an immaculate garden, and a mezzanine that afforded a panoramic view across the lake. It also had a fully-equipped workshop for working metal and wood. Bayly was a skilled craftsman and took particularly delight in crafting the most exquisite furniture and small boxes, often utilizing rare scraps of exotic woods that he had found abandoned in some lumber yard.
Bayly’s former home, at Hidalgo Nte. #150, was his crowning achievement in terms of architecture and design. He personally designed and built all the bespoke furniture and fittings throughout the home, achieving a simple elegance that would have been worthy of inclusion in Architectural Digest.
Bayly imported a vintage VW “Combi” van from California, converted it into a no-frills camper, and used it to travel all over Mexico. Every few years he would take a lengthy overseas trip: to Europe, Africa or Asia.
In later life, Bayly helped me run several lengthy ecotourist trips through western Mexico, trips that inevitably involved lots of dirt road driving (which he loved). He always kept a camping chair, bottle of white wine (suitably cooled) and a couple of glasses in his van. One of my abiding memories from the many trips we did together is of him carrying these items to the top of a little-known pyramid in Michoacán so that he could sit, relax and sip his wine while enjoying the scenery and brilliant sunset.
Bayly had worked in so many different jobs at some point in his lifetime (lumberjack, educator, tuna fisherman, steel mill) that he was able to entertain guests at dinner parties with a seamless, and seemingly endless, stream of stories, all told with good humor and great insight. Bayly was a conversationalist, raconteur and bon viveur second to none.
Even in his final years, as his daily siestas became longer, Bayly remained willing to ferry groups of paragliders into the hills near Jocotepec as they sought the best launch spots, secure in the knowledge that he would manage to find them again wherever they landed and drive them safely back to civilization.
Having done what he could to make the world a better place, Bayly died on 23 February 2013.
- My sincere thanks to Brooks Bayly for kindly sharing memories and details of his father’s life.
- California Design 9 (1965)
- Catalog of national exhibition first held at the Pasadena Art Museum, Pasadena, Calif., January 12-February 23, 1958. (Designers include: Russell S. Bayly Associates, Martin Borenstein, Robert E. Brown, Garry M. Carthew, Danny Ho Fong, William A. Kalpe, and Roger Kennedy.)
- Guadalajara Reporter, 20 July 1974.
- OakTree Times (magazine of the Polytechnic School Community), Spring/Summer 2014.
Sombrero Books welcomes comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.
Tony Burton’s books include “Lake Chapala: A Postcard History” (2022), “Foreign Footprints in Ajijic” (2022), “If Walls Could Talk: Chapala’s historic buildings and their former occupants” (2020), (available in translation as “Si Las Paredes Hablaran”), “Mexican Kaleidoscope” (2016), and “Lake Chapala Through the Ages” (2008).