I think it’s important as we fill this blog with cool pictures and bad dick jokes, to built up an aesthetic vocabulary and sense of historical progression. Last week we talked about Art Deco (article here) and one of it’s premier architects. Today, we’re going to talk about a guy who bridged the gap between architecture and interior design. A guy who hated being called an “interior designer” and demanded to be called a “decorator”.
Billy Baldwin (no not that one) is known as “the dean of interior decorators” and in 1974 was added to the International Best Dressed Hall of Fame. No small honor. When you see his style, you will be instantly reminded of every Grandma’s house. While Mid-Century Modern is timeless and cool, Billy Baldwin’s designs were functional and vastly more popular.
Rattan chairs, cotton prints, the slipper chair, and fabric all over walls are a hallmark of Billy B’s design language. While dated and stuffy today, these spaces still inspire. There is an accessible comfort to his designs. They really scream suburban middle America.
Which is interesting given Billy’s background. He primarily worked in New York City and considered himself to be, and I quote, “1000% homosexual”. His mentor was a woman named Ruby Ross Wood (no not that one), and she taught him “Rich people are boring. They’re only good for money. Get as much of their money as you can.” So, I find it strange that his designs evoke the image of repressed WASPyness to me.
Billy B likely felt the term “interior designer” was too pretentious and considered the architecture of the room to be more important than what was in it. He said that the “decorating” he did was just icing on a cake. But I think he was being far too humble.
At a time when interior designers would throw out the belongings of the residents and give them a space to live in, Billy Baldwin took inventory of their existing decor and incorporated it into the space. I think his most genius move was demanding to see the wardrobes of the women who would live in these spaces, and designed the rooms to compliment their dresses.
One of his signature designs was the “Slipper Chair”. I see these everywhere and find them to be kind of cheap, but given their place in history, I get how they were trendy and modern. Covered in a cotton fabric, usually matching other fabrics in the room (or of the owners dress), the slipper chair was comfortable, functional and highly customizable. A veritable interior design swiss-army knife. I’ll keep an eye out for one on my next thrift store excursion, especially now knowing it’s place in interior design history.
Given that Billy Baldwin’s designs were catered to his clients so supremely, I think it’s a wonder that his design choices really stand out. From all accounts he was witty, humble, fashionable and exuberant. His own apartment was dark and masculine and really showed the hallmark of a true Bachelor Uncle. He died when I was 2 years old, so I’ll never get to meet the man.
I find it so interesting that an openly gay man in New York City in the mid 1930’s became the interior design darling for the New York Upper East Side. Just a small corner of one single city, in one single part of the world, and yet his 1972 book “Billy Baldwin Decorates!” is still considered a must-read. I guarantee it says nothing about hexagon shelves, sea urchin wall art, or tiny little 5’x7′ area rugs.
It’s nice to know where some of these design trends came from. I think it’s clear, Billy Baldwin’s designs are iconic and evergreen. The guy created an aesthetic style for the rich that was accessible to anyone on any budget. Researching some of this stuff really opens up my appreciation for things I wouldn’t otherwise like.
Billy Baldwin apparently died broke which means he either lived too large or didn’t steal enough rich peoples money. I’ll leave you with a quote of his that made me laugh.
‘Baldwin responds to the question about the difference between a designer and decorator by saying, “Michael Greer, if you please, was the first person to call himself a designer so people wouldn’t think that he was gay. Designer is supposed to make a man of you. It’s perfect crap.” ‘
You do you Billy B. You were a cool ass dude. Welcome to the ranks of Bachelor Uncles of the week!