Natural History

Black Ball Line’s unlikely partnership redefines Northwest Modern.

By Laura Cassidy November 15, 2010 Published in the December 2010 issue of Seattle Met

Family ties 
Harper Welch and Tessa Clements make themselves at home at Black Ball Line.

TESSA CLEMENTS didn’t grow up in a typical household. A taxidermic lion—up on its hind legs, arms outstretched, and not in a cuddly way—greeted guests at her family’s Greenwood home. Fashion buyers and boutique owners came over for lavish, Liberace-themed parties. And, in the era of Kurt and Courtney and Sleepless in Seattle, Clements had two fathers; her biological one was HIV-positive.

When Marc Clements passed away in 2003, Harper Welch, his partner in life and in Smash, the now-defunct but once-ubiquitous design-and-build retail and residential interiors firm, was working out the aesthetic of an ambitious vintage home furnishings store that just this month became Black Ball Line (1400 Alaskan Way, Downtown, 206-849-7953). Welch didn’t know it would be more than seven years in the making, but grief is difficult to hurry along. So is acquiring a 6,400-square-foot waterfront showroom and warehouse and filling it with highly collectible studio pottery, Northwest modernist fine art, and low-slung stretch sofas.

No, the younger Clements didn’t collaborate on any sumptuous Smash projects: the gorgeous women’s boutique Alhambra in the ’90s, Pacific Science Center’s Explore More gift shop (which beat out Niketown for the title International Store of the Year in ’98), or the “modern rustic” vacation home in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for Seattle arts insiders Stan and Ingrid Savage. But Tessa grew up totally immersed in her fathers’ passions for transformative retail, and she’s spent the last six years selling luxury goods to collectors at Barneys New York downtown. As Welch amassed burl-wood coffee tables and World’s Fair–era lighting fixtures, the new partnership suggested itself.

As maybe the only person in the world who can smile as patiently as her late father would have when Welch decides to rivet giant white steel panels to the space’s 21-foot interior walls to mimic the fleet of vessels in the store’s namesake Northwest shipping line, Clements is well-poised to carry on in the family business.

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