If the rocking chair evokes sweet nostalgia, and the recliner conjures retro machismo, then the slipper chair brings to mind an elegant lady who subtly announces her presence in a room.
She may be adorned in plush velvet or luxe silks. Or ever so casually turned out in crisp cotton. The slipper chair, according to the late Baltimore-born decorator William "Billy" Baldwin, is a chameleon.
"It is a small, low, armless chair, but with remarkable versatility," wrote the designer in his best-selling 1972 book, "Billy Baldwin Decorates." "Small women and football linebackers find it equally comfortable. It can be covered in anything from leather for a man's study to pink flowered chintz for a lady's bathroom and still look good."
The chair, which had its heyday decades ago, is enjoying a resurgence, thanks in part to renewed interest in Baldwin, widely known as the dean of American decorating.
A new book is slated for publication this month. There's a line of furniture, the Billy Baldwin Collection, that features about 22 pieces, culled from the only commercial line that Baldwin ever did, back in the 1970s. And there's a landmark exhibition at the Johns Hopkins University's Evergreen Museum & Library — the first to celebrate Baldwin's influential five-decade career — paying homage to the decorator, who created interiors for some of the wealthiest and most celebrated people of his time.
The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Cole Porter, Greta Garbo and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis were among those who sought his exuberance and expertise.
"He had a great sense of style," says Rita St. Clair, owner of a Baltimore design firm. "He had a wonderful sense of color, and was one of the first interior decorators to mix eclectic styles."
St. Clair, whose firm has tackled projects that range from tony private homes to upscale restaurants, says she has incorporated the slipper chair into certain designs over the years.
"It's marvelous," she says, describing it as a pull-up chair that goes to the floor. "It's very comfortable seating, though some clients don't like it because it doesn't have any arms."
The slipper chair's origins date back to 18th-century Europe, but the modern term is attributed to America. The chair has a rather unconventional beauty: abbreviated legs, no arms, a high back and wide body, with compact upholstery.
Baldwin's writings indicate that he does not take sole credit for its invention: "In the 1930s when I was working for [design maven] Ruby Ross Wood, we developed from the popular long-armed Lawson sofa a big armless chair, so massive that one person could relax on it quite luxuriously. ... Using this armless Lawson as a jumping off point, I pared it down, experimented by trial and error with the pitch of the back, and finally produced what is now known as the Lawson slipper chair."
It quickly became one of the most recognized pieces of furniture in Baldwin's portfolio, which merged his brand of modernism and traditional European influences, distilled through a crisp, efficient American filter.
His designs and artistry were typically understated and restrained. The materials he often chose included cotton, bamboo and straw, while classic touches were dark walls (brown was a favorite), brass bookcases, draperies, geometrics, off-white and plaid rugs, and corner banquettes.
Baldwin once noted that in his own "tiny" living room in New York City, he had no "fewer than four" slipper chairs, all slip-covered to the floor with flat, fitted, pleated skirts.
Carol S. Wilson, a certified interior designer with Karen Renee Interiors in Severna Park, who specializes in historic homes, has also used the slipper chair, but typically prefers to use just one.
"They can be traditional to contemporary," she says, noting that they are staples in bedrooms and dressing areas. "They had been popular in the past, but now all of a sudden, people are thinking of using them more. I like to cover them in rich fabrics — brocades, silk. "
The slipper chair is also a darling of brands like West Elm and Crate & Barrel, and big-box retailers including Target carry it, as well as Sears and Walmart.
Jarrettsville Furniture, which specializes in American manufacturers and often works with designers, sells the piece at prices that range from $300 to $2,800.
Mary Trivette, the store's in-house designer for 26 years, says she has definitely noticed that the chair is "coming back."
"It gives an elegant and easy effect," she says. "They are comfy in a library or a living room, and they don't take up much space."
She adds that women often love the chair, but men … well, not so much. "It's so cute. Because it's little, I recommend that the pattern not be too busy — I like chintz and toile de Jouy, and also velvet. "
Baldwin, who died in 1983, would likely be pleased with all the attention that his work is receiving, as well as the fanfare over the slipper chair.
"I think they are my favorite chairs of all," he once wrote. "They are light as a feather and people find it easy to drag them about. Those little chairs have a way of making everyone feel at home."
Billy Baldwin (1903-1983)
Personal: Born in Baltimore, raised in Roland Park.
Education: Graduated from Gilman in 1922; briefly studied architecture at Princeton.
Career: Sold insurance in his father's agency, before making the leap into decorating. In 1925, he became friends with Baltimore socialite Alice Warder Garrett. At the Greek Revival residence, now home of Evergreen Museum & Library, that she and her family shared on Charles Street, he found a great reference for his developing style.
By 1935 his work had caught the eye of New York decorator Ruby Ross Wood, who implored him: "I feel I need a gentleman with taste and I have found him in you, wasting away in Baltimore. We must get you away from there as fast as we can. There is obviously no work for you there." Baldwin moved to Manhattan. After Wood's death, in 1950, he branched out on his own.
Near the end of his life, Baldwin wrote, "No matter how taste may change, the basics of good decorating remain the same: We're talking about someplace people live in, surrounded by things they like and that make them comfortable. It's as simple as that."
Where to see
Evergreen Museum & Library, Johns Hopkins University, 4545 N. Charles St., 410-516-0341, museums.jhu.edu. The exhibition features some 35 works of furniture, textiles, paintings, drawings and photographs, illustrating Baldwin's evolution as a decorator while using his hometown as a lifelong touchstone for design inspiration. Runs through Oct. 24. Admission for adults is $6, seniors $5 and students with ID, $3. Entry is free for Johns Hopkins faculty, staff and students (with valid ID) and children (5 and under).
Where to buy
Jarrettsville Furniture, 3743 Federal Hill Road, Jarrettsville, 410-692-6867.
Ventry Ltd., 215 E. 52nd St., New York, 732-872-7300. Furniture from the Billy Baldwin Collection can be purchased online at ventryltd.com.
Other options include Crate & Barrel, which offers the Paramount slipper chair ($849 at crateandbarrel.com); West Elm, which offers a slipper chair in leather or upholstery ($299-$399 at westelm.com); and Target, which offers the Avington slipper chair ($169.99 at target.com).
Where to read more
"Billy Baldwin, the Great American Decorator," Rizzoli Press, $65, will be released this month. Author Adam Lewis, who will be part of a lecture symposium at Evergeen on Oct. 9, says Baldwin "was one of, if not the most important decorator of the 20th century."