illustration by julia rothman
I don’t have much of a fashion memory, but when I was looking at Billy Baldwin interiors all week, I kept thinking about Gwyneth Paltrow’s Oscar dress in 1996. I’ve always loved that dress – it was all white, and she just looked clean, casual and effortless. (She also had Brad Pitt on her arm so that helped). (This is the only good picture I can find of that dress.) Baldwin’s style was crisp, elegant and a little slick, but it was above all simple and practical. (He always said that the best way to update a room was to simplify.) Baldwin’s style became defined as the American style, and he decorated homes for Cole Porter, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Diana Vreeland, and Greta Garbo as well as homes for your average millionaire. He was called the “dean of decorators” and was endlessly quotable.
(See Billy Baldwin Part II for a Billy Baldwin shopping roundup!)
billy in his mid-1970s new york city apartment via billy baldwin decorates
Nothing is interesting unless it is personal – Billy Baldwin
Baldwin believed that you should surround yourself with things that you love and he detested what he called, “the sterility of perfection” saying that if you think you can spot a Billy Baldwin room, then it wasn’t his.
on the bookshelves of this Baldwin-decorated dining room are little mushroom paintings – good reminder of the trend life cycle! via billy baldwin decorates
Stick to the things you really love. An honest room is always up to date.
– Billy Baldwin
He preferred a more casual personal look. He believed in breaking the rules of decoration and loved to see pattern against pattern. When decorating, he always believed in using some furniture that the client already possessed as a way to make sure the home retained their personality.
cole porter’s library with the famous bookcases via billy baldwin decorates
Nothing is in good taste unless it suits the way you live. – Billy Baldwin
Born in Baltimore in 1903, Baldwin briefly studied architecture at Princeton then worked with his father selling insurance before finally settling on interior decoration as a profession. He designed the homes of some Baltimore families before catching the eye of Ruby Ross Wood – a big name New York City decorator – who offered Baldwin a job in Manhattan in 1935. Once in New York, his career took off!
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Billy Baldwin’s studio apartment via billy baldwin decorates
Be faithful to your own taste because nothing you really like is ever out of style. – Billy Baldwin
Billy designed homes for millionaires, but his own New York apartment was a small studio. He called it “a library I sleep in” and went for a jewel box effect painting the space a brown lacquer and using the same brass bookshelves he designed for Cole Porter’s Waldorf Towers apartment. The sofa is actually a standard twin bed. A firm believer in the power of slipcovers – perfectly tailored to the sofa – Baldwin had three for his own apartment – denim, dark paisley and ivory cotton. He was so well-known for his love of slipcovers that Cole Porter joked that he didn’t want to come back to find his piano slip covered!
1973 dining room via billy baldwin remembers
Hallways were meant for mirrors.
The best decoration in the world is a roomful of books.
Billy Baldwin’s ‘Likes’
a french riviera villa for an american couple. the living room illustrates billy’s love for pattern via billy baldwin decorates
The word that almost makes me throw up is satin. Damask makes me throw up – Billy Baldwin
Billy Baldwin’s ‘Dislikes’
I like sexy rooms, and I don’t think all-beige is very sexy. -Billy Baldwin
Even with such a list of firm likes and dislikes, Baldwin still believed in the importance individuality and personal comfort. After he had retired from decorating to Nantucket, he wrote, “No matter how taste may change, the basics of good decorating remain the same: We’re talking about someplace people live in, surrounded by things they like and that make them comfortable. It’s as simple as that.”
Facts to Know
- Billy Baldwin was one of the guests at Truman Capote’s famous Black and White Ball held at the Plaza in 1966. Among the 540 attendees were Frank Sianatra and his then-wife Mia Farrow, Claudette Colbert, and Lynda Bird Johnson.
- Billy was an impeccable dresser – something he must have inherited from his father. Baldwin’s father’s particularly loved London-made clothes – his hats, canes, umbrellas and monogrammed linen handkerchiefs all came from a London tailor and his shoes were custom-made by Peel of London. When Baldwin’s father died in the 1920s, there were nearly two dozen new suits in the closet and nothing in the bank, because, according to Baldwin, “‘it was all spent on his own peacock joy.”
Books to Read
If you’re intrigued by Billy Badwin, there are really two must-have books (both within two years of each other in the ’70s).
- Billy Baldwin Decorates – I think of the two, this is my favorite. Decorates delves into various Baldwin projects – and gives a sense of the breadth of his book. Another fav – book is filled with his famous quotations.
- Billy Baldwin Remembers – More of a musing about early decorating influences and individuals. Fun photos of inspirational interiors and homes. I love the juicy stories about various clients – including Jackie O.!