Billy Baldwin: Lecture Me One More Time

Billy Baldwin was THE decorator because his style forged a vision of crisp, uncontrived glamour which defined the modern American aesthetic, for this we all owe him a debt of design gratitude. He  designed from the very humanist principle: “No matter how taste may change, the basics of good decorating remain the same: We’re talking about someplace that people live in, surrounded by things they like and that make them comfortable. It’s as simple as that” – And for his lucky clients it really was, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Diana Vreeland, Greta Garbo, Paul & Bunny Mellon, Nan Kempner, Brooke Astor and Cole Porter all got Billy Baldwin to give them fabulous homes.

Baldwin in his famous ‘one room’ apartment in New York, painted Coromandel Brown lacquer.

He arrived in New York where the traffic  looked better – lots of Rolls Royces in 1935. Invited by decorator Ruby Ross Wood, clearly  fabulous, her charming office notepaper was pink engraved in scarlet. The showroom was arranged entirely by colour, not by texture or purpose or period. There were bouquets of chairs and fabrics and objects, one bouquet all shades of red, another of yellow, of lilac.

He describes her apartment, which I yearn to see a picture of:

The curtains, upholstered furniture,  were all covered in blue-and-white striped  bed ticking – the first time this underestimated fabric had ever been used in decorating. The floor was lacquered white, with several brown-and-white moroccan rugs.  At one end – a 12ft white painted table  with scalloped apron, totally covered in magazines.

His first solo commissions was for a fashion designer Mollie Parnis in 1955, published in Vogue it launched his career on a stellar path, over 20 years later (after Baldwin had retired) Mollie rang Albert Hadley to discuss possible re-decoration, he advised her to retain perfection.

He was hugely charming, supremely quotable and in our era would no doubt be a major celebrity, in his own he was extremely well known and his 2 books: Billy Baldwin Decorates and Billy BaldwinRemembers are still highly sought after. Recently Adam Lewis wrote, Billy Baldwin the Great American Decorator.  At the back, published for the first time are his design lectures given in 1974 at the Smithsonian Institute in New York. It’s worth noting Baldwin taught at Parsons School of Design, when Hadley was his pupil and the legendary  Van day Truex at the helm.  These final public lectures are the ultimate distillation of his experience: informative, erudite and thought provoking.

Lecture 1: The Beginning of the Project

Lecture 2: The Bones of a Room

Lecture 3: The Elements of Decoration

Lecture 4: The Personal Touch

Below are some of the highlights as they struck me:

Lecture 1:  The Beginning of the Project

He cuts straight to chase: BUDGET, it’s in paragraph 1.

He advises:  make sure your architect / designer is sympathetic to your ideas and budget with similiar taste, and that you all like each other and that you TRUST them. 

He is very wise on the hiring process and If your considering hiring, or getting yourself hired he was a great salesman: Interior design is not an end in itself, but the means to a way of life.

Regarding the designer -client relationship he notes: Admit they know more about accomplishing your wishes than you do. They can  materialise your taste through experience and knowledge. (great line right?) State at once the amount of money you can spend and don’t be ashamed of it. Where you live should be consistent with your way of living…Do not be ashamed of simple food, simple architecture, simple decoration.

He counsels: Visit the site together. This togetherness establishes that you, the architect, and the decorator are a team.

He weighs in on the old dispute:

Many architects dislike decorators and with good reason. They do not want their design ruined.

Many architects build from the outside in, what good is a beautiful fenestration if it creates unworkable wall spaces?

He gives definitive advice on creating a harmonious feel to your home:

The interior must be appropriate to the architecture.   There must be a continuity, a point of view, from the front door straight through to kitchen.

On which note, I’d love to see a Baldwin kitchen, its symptomatic of his era that they were un-photographed ‘service areas’ rather than the ‘heart of of the home’ of today.  I wonder what would Baldwin  do?  One thing is clear he would know how many cook books you had, gadget-fetish-level, Sunday lunch style, where the dog needs their bed and the children space to gather. He would have you nailed.

He isolates the key client attribute required for success: DECISIVENESS.

For a vital, fresh result…decisiveness is your best friend. Indecision is the enemy of a good decorating job, it stifles the creative spirit, kills enthusiasm and interest.  He warns: Indecision cuts all the arteries, the heart will not beat.  A room will be dead before it is born.

This also means husband and wife teams, need to sing form the same page.  Argue it all out before – otherwise you will kill the job.

Interested in how to set up business? from initial design fees, job structure, purchase commissions,  decorator’s golden rules: signed estimates, transparency. It’s all in there, clearly laid out.

He concludes with a very funny description of the perfect decorator and asks how many of these qualifications does your decorator have? this list includes  brain of an IBM computer to quickly answer the first Question: how much will it cost to furnish this apartment.

So he ends as he began BUDGET.

Let us end with his favourite Louis XV chair, upholstered in 20th C chic, against his korean lacquer screen, in his apartment featured at the beginning of this post.

Lecture me again Baldwin… one more time. Lecture 2: The Bones of a Room … to follow.

All images from Billy Baldwin, The Great American Decorator. Adam Lewis

3 thoughts on “Billy Baldwin: Lecture Me One More Time

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