“Billy Baldwin was unquestionably the most influential interior designer of the twentieth century”
Margaret Kennedy, House Beautiful, 1999
By Peggi Godwin, June 2020
One of the most influential American tastemakers of the last century, William “Billy” Baldwin grew up in Baltimore, Md., in the suburb of Roland Park. He said, “If one is born a Baltimorean, one remains such for life, no matter where it takes you.” However, Billy did move on to New York City, encouraged by his friend and dramatic tango partner, Alice Garrett. In New York, he met key figures important to the evolution of his professional career, such as composer Cole Porter and designer Van Day Truex.
Billy’s mother, Julia Bartlett Baldwin, disdained the social whirl of her circle, instead putting her efforts into her house and her family. From the age of nine, Billy assisted his mother in assembling her seasonal wardrobe. She depended on her son’s approval when selecting upholstery fabrics, paint colors, and wallpapers. Billy was allowed to redecorate his own bedroom, creating a tomato-red and beige Colonial Revival scheme, with Windsor-style daybed, ladder-back chairs, and a collection of Staffordshire figurines found in an antique shop. Beginning in 1912, the Baldwin’s summers were spent on Nantucket in the village of ’Sconset.
Billy’s career began in 1924, when he went to work for Charles Benson’s decorating business. Starting in an entry-level role, he delivered bolts of fabric to workrooms and organized swatches of fabric in the showroom. He eventually became a full-fledged decorator and designed interiors for many homes in Baltimore.
In New York, Billy worked for Ruby Ross Wood. His first assignment was to visit all of the important antiques shops, art galleries, and design showrooms in Manhattan, making note of his favorite things. When he worked for Wood, he used velvet, satin, damask and brocade. When Billy opened his own firm in 1952, he was known for using vivid primary colors and natural fabrics such as linen, cotton, and wool.
Baldwin was interested in conservatism or sensibility which he translated into straightforward furniture forms and their practical, uncomplicated placement, as well as organized, usable, and uncluttered surfaces. He said, “Be proud of honesty, modesty and unpretentiousness.”
In 1971, Baldwin retired while still at the top of his profession. For the next four years, he continued to live in New York City and spend summers on Nantucket. During a magazine interview, Billy revealed, “I have no money. I have retired in absolute poverty…I live on a small pension and my Social Security. Because I don’t care about money, I never once gave a thought to making money. I suppose I should have behaved myself in New York—I loved books, clothes, and the theater—and I spent an awful lot of money.”
Baldwin’s decision to move to Nantucket was not without problems. For example, there were few year–round rentals. Two old friends came to his rescue: Michael Gardine and Way Bandy owned a house at 22 Hussey Street. Behind their house was a small outbuilding, which they converted into a two-room house for Baldwin. In spring 1980, Baldwin moved in. The walls were painted white, the support beams were natural wood, and each room was anchored by a fireplace. On the first floor was the living room; above was a small bedroom, bath and tiny closet. Billy described his new home: “It’s awfully attractive. I think this house is not only suitable, it is luxurious. Every comfort is here, and the two rooms are all that I could possibly take care of.”
As much as Baldwin loved Nantucket, when he moved there he was in his late seventies and suffered from advanced emphysema. He had difficulty breathing during the cold winters, so after Christmas he rented a hotel room in Palm Beach, Fla. As his emphysema advanced, he found it difficult to leave his house. On the Friday after Thanksgiving 1983, William Williar Baldwin Jr. died. At his request, there was no funeral or memorial service. His ashes were scattered on the beach on Nantucket.
This article is a compilation of information from Billy Baldwin, The Great American Decorator by Adam Lewis and Baltimore’s Billy Baldwin, Modernism at Evergreen Museum & Library, 2010.
Peggi Godwin is Visitor Operations Manager for the Nantucket Historical Association.