Baldwin’s own work was slick, in the positive sense: neat, trim and tidy—indeed, immaculate. It was also snappy: everything tailored, starched and polished—yet at the same time uncontrived-looking. Above all, it was American. “We can recognize and give credit where credit is due, to the debt of taste we owe Europe, but we have taste, too,” he declared. He would live to see his own name become a byword for exemplary American design.
For Baldwin, who was partial to plump deep-seated sofas and chairs, the ultimate luxury was comfort. “First and foremost, furniture must be comfortable,” he decreed. “That is the original purpose of it, after all.” He usually had it upholstered straight to the floor, believing that too many naked chair legs left a room looking “restless.”
Eclectic where furniture was concerned, he championed “a mixture of all nationalities, old and new,” but one of the canons he carried at the forefront of his mind was that there must be a connection between the various pieces. That connection, not surprisingly, was quality, in the name of which he favored pieces of contemporary design over reproductions of antiques. Unlike most decorators’, Baldwin’s first impulse was to use some of the furniture the client already possessed—“I do not necessarily believe in throwing out everything and starting from scratch.” The full atmosphere or mood of a room could never be achieved, he felt, without an “enormous personal manifestation” on the part of the client, which would serve in turn to enhance his own work. In fact, he confessed that he had “a natural interest” in women’s clothes “to the extent that they were going to be worn in the rooms that I was working on.”
The blue salon of La Fiorentina, on the French Riviera, attests to his gift for creating sophisticated simplicity and comfort. He designed the legendary villa in the early 1970s. Photo: Richard Champion
Baldwin based his mid-1960s decoration for what he called the “Tall Room” in Woodson Taulbee’s Manhattan apartment on a Matisse drawing; the custom fabric adapted the artwork’s design. His signature slipper chair and the sofa were low and wall-hugging, which helped to keep the room uncluttered. Photo: Billy Cunningham
“I must say that architecture comes first, then decoration,” noted Baldwin. “The elements of proportion and scale are necessary.” He used practical cottons in 1949 to establish an understated background for the art in the Edward Dubles’ living room. Photo: Haanel Cassidy/Vogue
“Any color at any time may be used, especially if it is a favorite of the person who has to live with it,” said Baldwin, who in the mid-1970s chose a deep blue for Bonnie McIlhenny Wintersteen’s bedroom in her Pennsylvania apartment. “Color should not be subject to the rules of fashion.” Photo: Conde Nast Archive
Baldwin was well-nigh infallible in matters of scale, proportion and juxtaposition, yet he persisted in thinking of himself primarily as a colorist. “I suppose one could say that I almost started the vogue for a clear, Matisse-like decorating palette,” he told Architectural Digest in 1977. (Matisse himself he revered for “emancipating us from Victorian color prejudices,” and as a boy he had even been introduced to the artist—and by no less than Gertrude Stein’s great collector friend Dr. Claribel Cone.) Fresh, frank and forceful as Baldwin preferred his hues (he once specified a very dark green for a Palm Beach apartment, handing the painter a gardenia leaf that he had just spat on and saying, “This is what I want the walls to look like, including the spit”), one of his favorite colors was “no color at all.”
Other Baldwin staples were cotton (he was, he claimed, one of its “most active promoters since World War II”); plain draperies; white plaster lamps; off-white and plaid rugs; pattern on pattern; geometrics; corner banquettes; his own curved version of the low, box-based armless slipper chair; dark walls (his legendary one-room Manhattan apartment was lacquered a style-setting high-gloss brown); Parsons tables wrapped with wicker (“I certainly made a lady out of wicker,” he once quipped); and straw, rattan and bamboo. His pet aversions were jumble and clutter, satin and dam-ask, ostentation of any kind, fake fireplaces and false books (real books he regarded as a capital decorative element).
Baldwin’s timeless triumph (he, too, considered it the coronet on his career) remains Cole Porter’s Waldorf Towers apartment, with its decisive library of Directoire-inspired tubular brass floor-to-ceiling bookcase-étagères arrayed against lacquered tortoiseshell-vinyl walls. Other cardinal clients included the Paul Mellons; Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (for whom he decorated houses in Middleburg, Virginia, and on the Greek island of Skorpios); Diana Vreeland (whose vermilion “garden-in-hell” Park Avenue living room was one of his most audacious creations); the William S. Paleys (whose high-ceilinged living room in the St. Regis Hotel he covered in shirred paisley); Kenneth’s hair salon (a riot of color and pattern inspired by Brighton’s Royal Pavilion); and Greenwich’s staid Round Hill Club.
William Williar Baldwin, Jr., was born in 1903 to an old Baltimore family and grew up in a house designed by the eminent New York architect Charles A. Platt, where “I was given by my parents the present of the wonderful experience of doing my room entirely over, including the furniture.” After briefly studying architecture at Princeton and then grudgingly selling insurance in his father’s agency, he made the ineluctable leap into hometown decorating. By 1935 his work had caught the famous eye of decorator Ruby Ross Wood, who implored him: “I feel I need a gentleman with taste and I have found him in you, wasting away in Baltimore. We must get you away from there as fast as we can. There is obviously no work for you there. The house [you did for] Edith Symington stood out like a beacon light in the boredom of the houses around it. Will you take thirty-five dollars a week?” Baldwin moved to New York straightaway. “I was in revolt against Baltimore,” he later recalled, “a town in which there could not have been more than three or four French chairs. In New York there were thousands of French chairs—and lots of Rolls Royces so the traffic looked better.” After Wood’s death, in 1950, he branched out on his own, going increasingly out on the limb of “simplicity in every way.” Near the end of his life 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.”
Billy Baldwin retired in 1973, and a few years later this remorselessly social creature removed himself to Nantucket, where he had been summering off and on since childhood, to finish out his time. There he was exultantly confirmed in his lifelong belief that the greatest luxuries were also the simplest: the island’s “prevailing peace and privacy” and “that true, clear Atlantic light.”
Source: Architectural Digest > Architecture + Design > Design Legends: Billy Baldwin, This article was published in the January 2000 issue
Days of Love: Celebrating LGBT History One Story at a Time by Elisa Rolle
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Days of Love chronicles more than 700 LGBT couples throughout history, spanning 2000 years from Alexander the Great to the most recent winner of a Lambda Literary Award. Many of the contemporary couples share their stories on how they met and fell in love, as well as photos from when they married or of their families. Included are professional portraits by Robert Giard and Stathis Orphanos, paintings by John Singer Sargent and Giovanni Boldini, and photographs by Frances Benjamin Johnson, Arnold Genthe, and Carl Van Vechten among others. “It's wonderful. Laying it out chronologically is inspired, offering a solid GLBT history. I kept learning things. I love the decision to include couples broken by death. It makes clear how important love is, as well as showing what people have been through. The layout and photos look terrific.” Christopher Bram “I couldn’t resist clicking through every page. I never realized the scope of the book would cover centuries! I know that it will be hugely validating to young, newly-emerging LGBT kids and be reassured that they really can have a secure, respected place in the world as their futures unfold.” Howard Cruse “This international history-and-photo book, featuring 100s of detailed bios of some of the most forward-moving gay persons in history, is sure to be one of those bestsellers that gay folk will enjoy for years to come as reference and research that is filled with facts and fun.” Jack Fritscher
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