I hope everyone has someone in their personal or professional life who has inspired them in some way. Billy Baldwin (1903-1984) is that person for me. Credited with the title ‘dean of American decorating’ by his former employer and mentor Ruby Ross Wood (1881-1950), he earned the title honestly. Baldwin would, in return, credit Wood for his mantra: The final judgment in decorating is not the logic of the mind, but the logic of the eye.
As you can see from the accompanying photos, some of his designs would not make sense on paper or verbally described, but when they are complete, they work. Not only did his designs work, they have stood the test of time.
In his 1973 decorative autobiography, Billy Baldwin Remembers, he showcases a room he did for New York fashionista and philanthropist Nan Kempner. That room is as fresh today as it was when he created it in the early ‘70s. In fact, he muses: “Outside, the city is changing, changing. But it is comforting to know that no matter how far or how long you have been away, Nan Kempner’s library will be there, timeless, waiting to welcome you home.” Isn’t that what good design is all about, standing the test of time?
Of course, Baldwin also believed, “The first rule of decoration is that you can break almost all the other rules.” The radically red example is Diana Vreeland’s living room, where her only request was: “I want this room to be a garden, but a garden in hell.” She certainly got what she asked for, frightening! Oh well, sometimes the client can’t be swayed!
Baldwin was born in Roland Park, Md., and began his serious interior design career in New York City, joining the firm owned by Ruby Ross Wood in 1935 and taking over operations in 1952. Baldwin created interiors for some of the world’s wealthiest and most celebrated people of his time: the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Greta Garbo, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Babe Paley, just to name a few.
The project that intrigues me most is his Arabian Nights-themed room, created for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 100th anniversary gala in 1970. He transformed the Fountain Restaurant or ‘Dorotheum,’ as it was affectionately dubbed in honor of Dorothy Draper, into an Arabian den for disco dancing and dining. He did it in less than 24 hours by draping the room in thousands of yards of specially printed fabric and covering the cage-like chandeliers with fabric to create a ‘harem pant’ effect. I don’t think the Met has seen anything since that equals it!
Baldwin also designed much of the furniture he used in clients’ homes. He truly embraced all aspects of a project and took great joy in creating environments that reflected his clients’ lifestyles and tastes. As Billy would say: “Decorating is the art of arranging beautiful things comfortably.”