If you run around with “designer” types as I sometimes do, a conversation often sparks up about celebrity designers and decorators. As a professional designer for three decades, I have very little respect for those self-styled, celeb-styled decorettes whose only claim to fame is their ability to smile on cue for moan-and-bicker reality TV.
The class of professional I am referring to are the ones that have made an impact in design and had influence over the trend du jour, penciling and sketching whole new ways of designing spaces that would become uniquely their own.
Certainly Elsie De Wolfe comes first to my mind. She challenged the decorating conventions of her day, reinvented how spaces were to be used and made up rules as she saw fit. Many know her as the “Mother” of decorating.
And then there was Dorothy Draper who helped inspire a generation of home improvement devotees with her 1939 book, Decorating is Fun!, subtitled "How to Be Your Own Decorator." The book was a popular diversion for house-bound wives looking for ways to "feather" their nests.
But for me, one "decorating" legend that is not remembered as much is William Baldwin, Jr., the “Father” of interior design, and the first “male” designer to achieve such fame.
Baldwin, or Billy B. as he was known to clients and friends, was a classicist, a modernist and a man of strong likes and dislikes. Not one to hold back, he was known to verbalize his disdain for the baroque and rococo, in fact,... just about anything that was stuck in the 18th Century. His pet aversions were jumble, clutter and ostentation of any kind.
In an interview he once said, “The word that almost makes me throw up is satin; damask makes me throw up.''
He was born in 1903 and studied architecture at Princeton but that only lasted two years. He then worked, unhappily he said, in his father's insurance agency, while reading everything he could find about interior decorating. By the late 1920's he had built up a decorating clientele in Baltimore and was growing quite popular among the elite.
Early on in his career, he defined a smart, dapper personal style that favored a clean-cut, hard-edged form combined with a nearly immaculate and pared-down aesthetic. He often mixed the ordinary with the exotic.
When the top decorator of the time, Ruby Ross Wood, asked Baldwin to work for her in 1935, she said she had never thought of hiring a man. In those days, all the leading decorators were women. But it was thru his successes as the leading designer during the early and mid-century that did much to open the art of decorating and the profession of design to men.
His unique style attracted celeb-clients including Cole Porter, Greta Garbo, Mike Nichols and Diana Vreeland. Probably his most notable clients were John and Jacqueline Kennedy. He had the honor to serve the President and First Lady in guiding some of the restoration of the White House during the early 1960s.
I first came to know of Baldwin when I purchased a copy of his first book, Billy Baldwin Decorates. In that book published in 1972 (I still covet my first edition copy), toward the front is a photograph of a grand entrance hall. That image of a high-styled space with a black and white checkerboard marble floor and a gleaming white painted sweeping staircase has, for me, remained the epitome of timelessness.
Increasingly he played an important role in the development of the design profession in the forties and fifties. He reflected about those times in a newspaper article, “We were the upstarts and between our younger ideas and the fabulous and growing array of fabrics, papers and colors everywhere, decorating in America was just about as emotional an art as it had ever been.”
From his first book (and a second one I also dearly covet, Billy Baldwin Remembers,) I discovered how much he liked pure cotton and fake leather, but loathed faux fireplaces and fake books, believing that books were the greatest decorative element that any room could have. Built-in bookcases, Parson-style tables, comfy chairs and sofas and a certain basic practicality were essential Baldwin staples.
One favorite quote of mine seems to sum up a lot about this dean of design and his timeless approach.
“Lately I have been thinking how comfort is
perhaps the ultimate luxury.”
I would add....comfort is also a necessity.
--Michael A Thomas, FASID, CAPS
Michael is an award winning interior designer based in Palm Springs, CA. He is a Professional Member of the American Society of Interior Designers and a member of the ASID College of Fellows.
As a Certified Aging In Place Specialist, he creates smart looking spaces that are safe and secure and create homes for a lifetime.
And with thirty plus years in the profession, he has honed his humor, elevated his passion for design and sharpened his wit to not take anything too seriously except his design work.