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Monday, November 29, 2010

Looking for Billy Baldwin

I always wanted to have an apartment like Billy Baldwin’s. Finally I got to live in a high-rise and have a little desk in my living room. Still don’t have the slipper chairs. I search the Internet for articles about him and for tips on where to purchase his best designs. (Shortcut: Ventry Limited, Bielecky Brothers.) His best work was his most contemporary. What I would have done for Si Newhouse’s white art-filled living room! As soon as Rizzoli published Billy Baldwin: The Great American Decorator, I ordered it. Many of the images are also in Baldwin’s earlier books, which took me to back to my late teens and early twenties, when I poured over those volumes fantasizing about living a bigger life in Manhattan.
Billy Baldwin's apartment with the famous slipper chair
Billy Baldwin's apartment
Kenneth Hair Salon
New York
In my first blog, I mentioned an early childhood memory of seeing Mrs. Gilbert Miller’s Mallorca house in the pages of House & Garden. The indoor/outdoor terrace confused my young mind, but I never forgot it. Several years later, as a teenager, I opened the heavy brass and glass door on Grant Avenue and walked down a few steps into Tiffany’s perfumed tranquility, designed by Billy Baldwin (with Tiffany’s design director, Van Day Truex.) I wanted to live there. Who would have thought that Tiffany’s San Francisco outpost occupied a windowless ground floor of a parking garage (that was once a great department store)? It was hushed and elegant, but not intimidating. The slip-covered sofas were small, complemented by black lacquer Parsons tables and Bielecky Brothers cane side chairs and just a little shiny brass. Even if all I could afford was a modest vase or drinking glass, I felt truly swell for those few minutes. I understood what Holly Golightly was up to.

Mr. and Mrs. Harding Lawrence Residence
Dallas, Texas
Cole Porter's apartment.  Rendering by Mark Hampton
Mr. and Mrs. William Paley's Apartment
St. Regis Hotel, New York
By high school, I knew all about Billy Baldwin and his slipper chair. His simple one-room apartment seemed like the epitome of an elegant New York life out of reach. One of the first design books I bought was Billy Baldwin Decorates, essentially reprints of articles he wrote for House & Garden. He wrote another book, Billy Baldwin Remembers. And then his heir, Michael Gardine, prepared an autobiography that was a bit more gossipy.…

Arango Apartment
Madrid Spain
Now there is Billy Baldwin: America’s Greatest Decorator, by Adam Lewis, who has written biographies of designers Van Day Truex and Albert Hadley. The good news is twofold. There are a few images that have not been seen in any of the previously published books. And the lectures Baldwin gave at the Cooper Hewitt in 1974 are published for the first time. The bad news is also twofold. Lewis’s text contains little new information, and the writing is as stilted as in his other two books. Perhaps worse, at least for a design book, is the uneven quality of the images. Some of the photographs are reproduced beautifully, as you expect from a Rizzoli book, while other images, many of them by the famous photographer Horst, appear to be scans from magazines. Jane Thompson’s recent book about Design Research (published by Chronicle) faced a similar challenge of uneven visuals, but the clever design by Pentagram fixed that. Not so here. The design does not mitigate the uneven reproduction quality. Some of the fuzzy pictures are full pages! When confronted with relatively few visuals, the designers of Lewis’s earlier volume on Van Day Truex resorted to a smaller format. That might have been a good choice here, although the subtitle wouldn’t have made sense. And small books don’t sell as well. I am not sure that Baldwin would want something that was not as tailored as his upholstered furniture.

Mrs. Clive Runnells Residence
Hobe Sound, Florida
Lewis interviewed several people, but many of the key folks are dead, including Michael Gardine and Way Bandy, who provided Baldwin with his final home on Nantucket. Baldwin retired in 1973 and died in 1983, apparently broke. The narrative isn’t compelling and doesn’t capture Baldwin in his time. Lewis writes about Baltimore’s upper middle class, which Baldwin grew up in, and then about the superwealthy that Baldwin catered to in New York and elsewhere. But Lewis provides little insight or analysis. And he adds little color or texture to the tale. (Odd, given Baldwin’s love for both.) Although Lewis says Baldwin lived as an out gay man, he rarely mentions Baldwin’s homosexuality, treating it as if it shouldn’t be discussed. While that might have been a hallmark of the time, I am not sure it was Baldwin’s way. Curiously, the author doesn’t connect Baldwin’s father’s disapproval to his initial false starts and his later ambition and incredible success. Unfortunately, Lewis doesn’t really place Baldwin in any larger context than the upper reaches of the Upper East Side.

For a glimpse into Baldwin’s actual life, I would suggest an interview Baldwin gave to Francesco Scavullo in the 1970s for the book Scavullo Men. (There are also a lot of great interviews with leading cultural figures of the time, like Leo Castelli, Henry Geldzahler, Leo Lerman, and Sam Wagstaff.) This interview is not listed in Lewis’s bibliography, and I think that is a serious omission. When asked if he was spoiled, Baldwin refers to his mentor Ruby Ross Wood: “I really pity most rich people, and I don’t want to see very many of them. I think they’re boring. My old boss, Ruby Wood, said to me ‘Now, Billy Baldwin, you’re coming here from that nice town and you’re going to have a hard time because New York is very tough. But don’t forget one thing: you’re going to see an awful lot of rich people. You get as much of their money as you can. That’s all they’re worth—money—and we’re lucky because we’re going to get some of it.’” Baldwin is quite open about being “1000 percent homosexual” and about how he looks on serving the superrich and what it meant to be gay. When asked, “As a man, what were your feelings about becoming a decorator?” he replies, “Since the day I was born I’ve never had the slightest idea of being gay. It just seemed perfectly normal.”

With both of Baldwin’s volumes out of print, Lewis’s book provides a survey, if not a critical look, at the great decorator, who by the way loved being called a decorator. In the Scavullo interview, Baldwin responds to the question about the difference between a designer and decorator by saying, “Michael Greer, if you please, was the first person to call himself a designer so people wouldn’t think that he was gay. Designer is supposed to make a man of you. It’s perfect crap.” Despite its shortcomings, the volume is important for the library of future decorators—and designers too.

All images (unless otherwise noted) courtesy Rizzoli USA.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Billy Baldwin was a clear-headed
and brilliant person who understood people and dealt with them realistically. He had a fine
intellect as well as a wonderful
sense of design and esthetics.