Billy Baldwin: Lecture 3

The Elements of Decoration – Baldwin takes us through each element of the decor itself from furniture, to colour and lighting.

He starts out, as he always does by making the obvious necessary: you do need that room plan and  to a useful scale.  It gives you a clear vision, it helps establish the character of the room and  enables placing wall sockets next to sofas. When working those floor plans don’t get distracted by colour and fabric: that’s icing, you need to make the cake.

Planning: Think of  the activities and whose in it – children? pets? guests?  When planning remember to keep some budget to furnish the room, don’t spend it all on architectural and sculptural changes and details –  how often have you seen in that in Grand Designs?

When you arrange the living room furniture, think less of symmetry more of comfort.

When you ignore the logic of the eye, a room may be disastrously uncomfortable even though undeniably beautiful.

This room is cited by Baldwin as one that appeared lopsided on plan  (as all the furniture  is placed on one side) but worked in practise.

Furniture: Baldwin had clear favourites here which became his trademark.

Upholstered furniture with skirts – it needs to be grounded, staying put as he puts it furniture with legs wants to walk around.

Slipper chairs without arms, he makes a great case for them: children love them – to move about, big men with long legs love them, small women with short legs love them.  They are everywhere in his interiors: for conversation, for throwing dresses over, for putting on shoes – even in bathrooms in towelling.

Prime Baldwin: Slipper’s galore, riot of pattern and straw covered furniture.

He doesn’t mention the ottoman,  or the wicker  and straw covered furniture – but he should have, they are Baldwin classics too.

He does advise that your sofa has 2 sets of slip covers for:  re-decorating with the seasons, one cover for summer and the second for the long winter.  

Tables: This is where we can achieve infinite variety by not having any two in the same room the same height. Sounds good?

Now we are ready to approach the exciting and limitless topic of colour.  (I bet the audience sat up straighter, this is what we came for)

Colour is completely affected by light and colours next to it. Always choose a colour on the walls of the room where it will be used and be sure that fabrics are available for consideration.

The most important thing when selecting colours, is that they are colours you love.

When deciding the scheme: Forget about EXACT matches, think about harmony, an exact match can be too tight. Try using a colour on the walls that is in a print or a blend of colours from a print, or a colour outside your scheme – this can give subtle relaxation.  Don’t get your colours too tightly together this will make the room over-schemed.

Below is the Miller’s drawing rooms, a subtle symphony in ‘no colour at all’.

Check out that ‘pow’ of red below the dado rail.

HE is SO good isn’t he? He is often quoted on this subject:

When you want to transform a room into an entirely different animal, change the colour.

There is magic…in the deep-jewel-coloured room, warm and mysterious, where you discover its many beauties as you sit, seduced slowly.

Here he transformed the Miller’s drawing room by painting the  cream walls a stippled sherbet.

Finally the love factor: you have got to love your colour, your favourite is your trademark own, never go for colours that are fashionable, you arranging a place to live.

Baldwin could do any spectrum, but his use of ‘fresh, clean colour’ is legendary.  When he was young often visited a house that was chock-a-block with Matisse and even rehearsed in a Leon Bakst painted theatre.  Baldwin say: I owe all my colour sense to Henri Matisse. Give me colours that are bright, newborn.

When you select colours: A few basics hold true

If you select that brilliant lettuce green to paint a room  you have set the colour scale for the entire room, it’s brilliant.

The walls are covered in red velvet below in a strong masculine room.

The Baley’s suite at st Regis, The a host of colours accross the same tone: moss, mole, coral, grey, slate blue, gilt and tiny flash of red. Homey in that suite.

Dark colours look best in shiny gloss paint, matte brown is not a good look. Baldwin famously handed a painter a gardenia leaf on to which he had spat and said, that’s the colour I want  – including the spit. He also used this gloss gardenia in his own apartment and made ‘coromandel lacquer brown’ his signature colour.

Baldwin’s gardenia sitting room, the gloss finish was achieved with clear butcher’s polish (if that helps?)

Pale colours need to be  matt, even chalky  (hence our Farrow and Ball preference, their estate emulsion is 2% sheen)

Colourless rooms need a lot of texture and personal items: books and pictures.

The colour wheel can be learnt but true colourists have a genius, like green fingers, which can’t be taught.

Fabrics: Stay in budget, look at what you can afford. Baldwin famously covered Diane Vreeland’s sitting room in a brilliant red chintz he found in John Fowler,  pre-approval aware of their super-tight budget, knowing he could never better it. Aesthete Charles Bestegui called the result, “the most complete dwelling in New York”. See here.

Cotton is Baldwin’s fabric, I get it, it’s super American and as he says: it goes with everything, it’s fresh, vital, unpretentious. 

Which brings us to Pattern. If you are going to use alot of pattern then really do it -think Diane Vreeland. Don’t be timid.  Vita Sackville West said gardens should not have one inch of uncovered soil –  that’s the kind of approach you need. Pattern-on-pattern works much better in smaller rooms, creating an intimate quality, small rooms should be crowded. Large rooms should have more space and appear emptier. Once your room is complete if one pattern jumps out – you need to remove, they all need to sing in harmony.

I love this patterned room, even the white wicker feels like  pattern.

Decorating with patterns can’t be taught it’s instinctive, the rule is that patterns must all be related in some way: texture or period say, and you need to train your eye with books on Asian art, India, fashion and visits to art galleries.

Windows: I like his idea for 2 pairs of shutters in a bathroom, then you can open the top half for shaving and make up and retain privacy with bottom half.  Curtains control light, frame views and can correct bad window proportions. Pelmets and valances can anchor curtains which are fully open. If you are using pattern be sure to bunch it up, some patterns get very dense when they are gathered.

Light:  Ruby Ross Wood said,”where there is no light, there is no beauty”. The well lit room is subtly lit.

Baldwin finishes with his Granny’s maxim: You must be useful as well as ornamental and as ornamental as you are useful, this creed applies to all elements of design that we have discussed.


I’d like to finish with a Baldwin anecdote, he’s sent to Jaimaca in 1938, met by a native, Oxford-educated Mr Bond and driven 8 hours. En route the tropics seduce him utterly: cascades of rainbow bougaenvillia and hibiscus, shimmering sea and sky, liquid sunsets and It seemed that every leaf of every tree and bush was part of some great chinoiserie – unreal and almost too luxuriant.

 The house can only be furnished in local mahogany (termite resistant) or metal with baked enamel finishes.  He sleeps on site in a tent with his floor plans and dreams up schemes. It was obvious what colours we would be using: the fabulous flowers that filled the countryside.

My favourite is the guest dormitory, inspired  by Christian Berard’s fashion drawing. 6 single, iron four poster beds each have a different coloured canopy – magenta, pink, yellow, lilac – with white ball fringe and bedspreads to match. It looked like a carnival.

There are no pictures of this particular room, however below are some shots of this Jaimacan idyll, created in 1938 as Hitler and Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement, which seem so long ago –  and yet these schemes feel tangibly close and vibrant.

One thought on “Billy Baldwin: Lecture 3

  1. Pingback: Autumn Mood | adecorativeaffair

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s