Billy Baldwin's life and work remembered at museum

Billy Baldwin, the noted Baltimore-born interior designer whose clients included Cole Porter, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Mike Nichols, Harvey Ladew, William S. Paley and Diana Vreeland, among many others of the jeweled glitterati, is reported to have once said that "good taste is the dullest thing in the world."

"Modernism at Evergreen: Baltimore's Billy Baldwin," a recently opened exhibition at the Evergreen Museum & Library, recalls the career of the man that The New York Times described on his death in 1983 as the "dean of American interior decorators, whose taste and sense of elegance enabled him to become the greatest influence on a generation of post- World War II designers."

While the vest-pocket show is rich in Baldwin-related material and graphics that take in the breadth of his career from the 1940s until his death, the focus remains on his Baltimore roots and the enduring influences that the city and its artistic heritage had on his life's work.

"Baltimore always continued to inspire him throughout his career. He was never comfortable in Paris or London and always wanted to head home," said James Archer Abbott, director and curator of the Evergreen Museum & Library, the former home of John Work Garrett, and his wife, Alice, who were patrons of the arts. Evergreen has been administered and owned by the Johns Hopkins University since 1942.

William Williar Baldwin was born in 1903 and spent his early years in a shingled Woodlawn Road home before moving in 1906 to fashionable Goodwood Gardens in Roland Park.

A formative influence on the young Baldwin, according to Abbott's thoroughly researched and colorfully written guide, "Baltimore's Billy Baldwin," which accompanies the show, was Charles J. Benson, a Woodlawn Road neighbor who owned C.J. Benson & Co., a fashionable North Charles Street decorating firm.

As a child, he spent afternoons exploring the rooms of the Walters Art Museum, "where I learned so much of the history of art," he told the old Sunday Sun Magazine in a 1974 interview.

The wonderfully vivid, light colors and patterns of the paintings of Henri Matisse, which he had first seen on a visit with his mother in 1913 to the Cone sisters' apartment at the Marlborough in Bolton Hill, proved to be a seminal and lasting influence on his professional life.

Baldwin graduated from Gilman in 1922 and then enrolled at Princeton University, where he hoped to study architecture.

"He failed math and physics, and then turned to journalism," Abbott said the other day as he showed a visitor around the exhibit.

Abbott writes that Baldwin explained that his truncated college career was due to "always spending time in New York at museums and galleries and things."

He worked briefly in his father's insurance business before taking a job with C.J. Benson's and later joined competitor H. Chambers Co. as a decorator.

He was greatly influenced by the friendship of Alice Garrett and her eclectic method of interior decorating and mixing elements and colors.

"Evergreen had opened up a whole new world to me," he said years later. "There I met many internationally celebrated people [including Francophile Linda Lee Porter, the wife of future client Cole Porter]: there I was surrounded by the best art and music, as well as conversation. I knew I could never return to the life I had led before."

He eventually established a substantial decorating clientele in Baltimore, and his big break came in 1935 when famed New York decorator Ruby Ross Wood hired him.

Baldwin had absorbed his mentor Wood's decorating principles of "the importance of the personal, of the comfortable, and of the new."

He ran Wood's firm for two years after her death before opening Baldwin & Martin Inc. in 1952 with Edward Martin, who had been his assistant at his former firm.

"The relationship between a client must be 'we,' " he told The New York Times in a 1965 profile. "The worst thing any decorator can do is give a client the feeling that he's walking around somebody else's house; the rooms must belong to the owner, not to the decorator; and no rooms can have atmosphere unless they are used and lived in."

When it came to decorating concepts, he had strong likes and dislikes.

"The word that almost makes me throw up is satin; damask makes me throw up," he once told the Times.

"He preferred pure cotton and fake leather, but he loathed fake fireplaces and fake books, believing that books were the greatest decorative element that any room could have. Built-in bookcases were a Baldwin staple," the Times reported at his death.

"Cotton is my life," he once said.

Signature elements of any Baldwin-decorated room included shutters, Parsons tables wrapped with wicker and chintz slipcovers.

"Cole Porter once warned him, 'Don't you dare slipcover these pianos,' " observed the Times.

Baldwin could be trenchant when discussing others' tastes. While he liked her personally, he dismissed the Duchess of Windsor's decorating preferences as "tacky Southern taste."

He also was not swayed by the deep pockets or social status of potential clients.

"He was and always remained a socially secure blueblood from Baltimore," Abbott said.

"An enemy of decor," Baldwin explained in a 1965 Times article, "is too much money. I try not to decorate for people I don't like."

The exhibit features one of the great and enduring contributions that Baldwin designed and popularized, the slipper chair, which looks as inviting and modern as when it was introduced more than 60 years ago.

"They were portable, movable and could be used to easily reconfigure a room. They exuded a sense of sculpture," Abbott pointed out to a visitor. "They had tapered slipcovers with no welts and no skirt."

An observer of the Baldwin slipper chair once opined that "every woman has the most beautiful legs when she sits in one."

Baldwin enjoyed nothing more than mixing furnishings.

"I don't like rooms that look decorated," he told The Sunday Sun Magazine in 1966. "I hate — despise — going into a room and having it look expensive. I can't bear rooms color-schemed by a painting. The things people call conversation pieces — amusing. That's a bad way to spend money."

He wrote two decorating books, "Billy Baldwin Decorates" and "Billy Baldwin Remembers."

Baldwin retired in 1978 and spent his last five years living in 'Sconset, properly but rarely called Siasconset,

on his beloved Nantucket, which he had first visited in 1912.

Those wishing to see a public space that was designed by Baldwin can visit the William Woodward Gallery in the Baltimore Museum of Art, which, according to Abbott, remains a popular destination for visitors after more than 50 years.

In his autobiography, published after his death in 1983, Baldwin wrote that he told a friend, "I go to bed every night with my arms across my chest, so I'll make a nice package for someone to carry out."

He was 80 when he died of a heart ailment at Nantucket Cottage Hospital.

For information on the exhibit, call the Evergreen Museum & Library, 4545 N. Charles St., at 410-516-0341.

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