Billy Cotton was in his 20s, newly arrived in Manhattan in the early 2000s and coasting on a cocktail of youthful exuberance, weed and amphetamines, when a fire consumed his apartment in Chelsea, and with it, his sense of a future.
The blaze had confirmed his worst fears. “I’d always thought on some level that my life would fall apart,” Cotton said.
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Slowly he picked up the pieces, settling in a series of makeshift quarters and relying on grit to pull through. But he could hardly have envisioned the way his life would take shape.
Cleareyed these days, Cotton, now 40, has emerged as a highly sought-after interior designerwith an enviable client list of art-world luminaries, Cindy Sherman, Mirabelle Marden and Lisa Yuskavage among them.
“I’m an artist, but I also think that he’s an artist,” said Yuskavage, whose Manhattan apartment he turned into a gray-on-gray haven, a restful backdrop for her art collection. “Billy is a teacher of a sort to me. He’s changed me so that I’m much more attuned to quality.”
On a recent Monday, Cotton was sitting in his white-lacquered studio on West 26th Street, the space punctuated with Eames chairs, an Italian marquetry desk and vibrantly colorful artworks by friends, and reminisced about his zigzagging ascent. He had a string of odd jobs — waiting tables; selling decorative gewgaws at John Derian; whipping slipcovers, pillows and fake works of art for Domino magazine; and designing tabletop ceramics and his own custom furniture — before arriving at a high point in what he considers a journey of self-discovery.
Well regarded for his uncontrived, discreetly subversive aesthetic, his style can veer from homespun (think cottagecore with a Ralph Lauren sheen) to coolly austere with strategic bursts of color. “I don’t have a style,” he likes to insist. Nor would he think to impose one.
He tackles each new project “with the fastidiousness of a Method actor, aligning his approach with the particular emotional motivations of his clients,” journalist Mayer Rus writes in “Billy Cotton: Interior & Design Work,” Cotton’s first monograph, published by Rizzoli in March.
He relates to those clients, real or imagined, in a visceral way. He dreamed up, for example, a well-born lady, genteelly gone to seed, a fusion of Miss Havisham and a woeful Jean Rhys character, whose bedroom Cotton conjured for the Kips Bay Decorator Show House in 2017.
He provided her with a back story, writing, “As with most of us, some of her hardship was self-inflicted, and some encroached upon her at the cruel insistence of the world.” Her refuge on the top floor of an SRO retained the remnants of her racy, haute bohemian past: chinoiserie wallpaper, a skeletal four-poster bed and a leopard-print rug.
“Her gay cohort has sought to uplift her with donated decorations,” Cotton wrote. “In my mind,” he said in his studio last month, “I was that lady, but I was also her gay friends.”
Rus refers in the monograph to Cotton’s “career-long proclivity for exploding cliches and artificial — between past and present, high and low, intellectual engagement and visceral boundaries,” his eclecticism is a legacy of his upbringing.
The designer grew up in Burlington, Vermont, his mother an Irish Catholic psychotherapist with a predilection for old china and handed-down furnishings. His father, a forensic psychiatrist and second-generation Baltic Jewish immigrant, was more keenly century drawn to the clean-lined mid spareness meant to obliterate the darkness of his European past.
Opportunities at home were limited. “There were no decorators in Burlington, Vermont, or very few,” Cotton said. Besides, as a youth he resisted the caricature of the gay man as a creative. He considered instead becoming an art historian, but abandoned that notion to take up industrial design at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He had by that time cultivated a circle of friends that included artists Jack Pierson, Mark Flood and Paul Lee, his boyfriend at that time.
“They were part of this incredible community of gay men who were making things,” Cotton recalled, but resolved not to pursue a similarly solitary studio practice. “I wasn’t an artist. I needed people too much.”
About a decade ago, one of those people, singer and songwriter Jenni Muldaur, asked him to decorate her summer house in Springs, a hamlet just north of East Hampton, lodging him in an unused shed and paying him $9,000, a vast sum to him at the time. He improvised, using curtains made from dead-stock fabric panels and other found items, and added as a focal piece, a driftwood chandelier.
Cindy Sherman visited and was captivated. A year later she commissioned him to design her own home, an 1830s farmhouse also in Springs, in a high-bohemian mash-up of 18th- and 19th-century antiques and fly market finds. He expressed an abiding keenness for contrasting textures with a medley of vintage textiles, including Moroccan carpets, African indigo clothes and Italian tapestries.
Is it difficult for artists to cede creative control to a decorator? Not necessarily, Cotton said. “At the end of the day, I provide a service,” he said. “I loved being a waiter, I loved helping people when I worked in retail. And I learned at Pratt how something works: What is the proportion, what is the material, what’s the budget for it? All these different things, I could do on a practical level to help these people.”
There were challenges, of course. “Cindy and I went to the flea market in Paris together,” he said. “She bought this incredible giant, multicolored, made-in-Egypt turkey tureen that was the size of a table. It was one of these things that I would not necessarily have shown her. But one thing I learned: You do not screw with Miss Sherman’s knickknacks.”
He struck a more muted chord with Yuskavage, who asked him to accommodate her collections of artworks and furnishings. He obliged with a gray-on-gray interior restful enough to allow signature furnishings by Pierre Paul, Achille Castiglioni and paintings by her husband, Matvey Levenstein, to shine. “I learn by listening to how somebody wants to live,” he said.
In early 2020, he shuttered his firm to run Ralph Lauren Home. “I thought maybe that it would be good to design for the American family in a less personal sense,” he said.
But frustrated by the longer design process, he left a year later to rebuild his business. Firmer now in his convictions, he recently warned a prospective client: “One thing you must know, I’m super intense, I get super passionate about detail. If you don’t want intensity, I’m not your man.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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