amy azzaritopast & present

past & present: billy baldwin (part 1)

by Amy Azzarito

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

Billy Baldwin’s ‘Likes’
chinese wallpaper
brass candlesticks
slipper chair
plaster lamps

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’
fake fireplaces
fake books
fake flowers
leggy furniture

baldwin was instructed by diana vreeland to create a garden in hell

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

  1. 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.
  2. 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).

  1. 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.
  2. 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.!

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  • Thank you for this wonderful post. My mom was an assistant to Mr. Baldwin in the 1950s. I’m happy to report he was a kind and generous man in addition to being a phenomenal talent. She simply adored him!

    • Oh Katie! That is so amazing! He seems like he would have been a really nice individual. Wow! I’m sure your mom must have some amazing stories!
      – Amy A

  • She does have amazing stories – including working for Harper’s Bazaar during Vreeland’s tenure and having to pick up shoe illustrations from Andy Warhol’s apt. NYC in the 1950s must have been a magical time.

  • A little known Billy Baldwin fact is that he worked for the famous, old line Baltimore firm, H. Chambers. I worked w/ Chambers for 7 years and never knew until recently that is where he got his start. http://www.chambersusa.com where they cite him on their timeline.

    • Wow, Lauren! You’re right – that is a little known fact! I don’t think I came across it anywhere! Thanks!
      -Amy A

  • i loved this article, we studied Baldwin at Uni when i was studying interior design, ive since become a graphic designer so it was a great reminder of his talent.

  • there is something so comforting about a room lined with books… the slight hush in the air, the faint musty smell, the sense of surprise and curiosity as you scan the titles, the smile of satisfaction you feel when you spot a personal favorite. there was a time, not too long ago, when a quick scan of a bookshelf at a party could tell you everything about the inner mind of your host. it was not only the major works on prime display, but also the cheap paperback novels tucked in at the edges. in that way, we were all “open books” to our visitors. i would love to have a closeup of that bookcase in Baldwin’s studio apartment and see what he had stored there! of course, designing/placing bookcases was only one small facet of Baldwin’s talents. but here in los angeles, where you might visit dozens of homes and spot nary a bookcase at a single one, the pictures you referenced made me remember something that has only recently been lost… — Duff F

  • Katie- how neat to have a mother with such a history- that is a treasure in itself!
    “Nothing is in good taste unless it suits the way you live.” – Billy Baldwin
    I love that he had such a great philosophy about design and to be that talented ! What a gift.
    Incidentally, I currently have a first edition BILLY BALDWIN decorates book in my etsy shop!
    Thanks for the great post!

  • “Be faithful to your own taste because nothing you really like is ever out of style.” – Billy Baldwin
    over the years this thinking has dictated my own homes design. I have always felt a little sorry for people when they didn’t trust themselves enough to gather up all they love and know that it would work.
    I have a few bookcases but not as many as I would like, I am always purging books. Almost my favorite part of any book is in Stepenwolf when he describes his room. It is all about books, and is wonderful!

  • Hey Katie, my Mom was a NY Interior Designer who thought Billy Baldwin walked on water and he was a major inspiration in her career. What a great time your Mom must have had working for him – what fun!! SO glad to read this article on him.

  • Hey Katie, my Mom was a NY Interior Designer who thought Billy Baldwin walked on water and he was a major inspiration in her career. What a great time your Mom must have had working for him – what fun!! SO glad to read this article on him.


  • so few designers after baldwin and parrish et al design rooms around actual books. some of us still have them. what a faux pas!

  • Since I have made slipcovers for a living for nearly 40 years, Billy Baldwin has always been a hero of mine. He loved slipcovers, especially white. Thanks for the great article.


  • Found your post, and enjoyed reading it today. I had a small studio apartment in the 90’s, and having seen some of Billy Baldwin’s published work, took the plunge to paint the walls a deep real blue. Very dark, but balanced it with an off white carpet and kept the ceiling in white, and cream color blanket on the bed. It definitely was a direct inspiration from one of his photos, and I loved living in the space. An old murphy bed closet was used for my desk / storage / “ugly” clutter – so the place looked clean and tidy whenever you walked in. His work is still beautiful to look at, and I’ve been enjoying finding some of it online today.

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