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A STAR IN HIS CROWN: A WASHINGTON D.C. RESIDENCE BY BILLY BALDWIN
'Billy was so different from those decorators with their enormous satchels brimming over with fabric swatches. He'd arrive with a slim, elegant briefcase that couldn't hold more than a few cuttings he deemed worthy of consideration.' Billy is Billy Baldwin, whose famously diminutive frame looms disproportionately large over the history of 20th-century decorating. And the speaker, an icon of the no-nonsense American style synonymous with Baldwin, is an indefatigable supporter of biomedical AIDS research, and the wife of a lawyer and former United States ambassador.
Some time ago this couple purchased the charming house in Washington that would be their home for years to come. Exacting in their taste, they engaged Baldwin, who would soon become a fast friend. It fell to the wife to accompany him on visits to the fabric showrooms of New York and Paris - one of the few clients Baldwin considered sufficiently knowledgeable to be worthy of this honor. Such was their level of connoisseurship of fabrics she and Baldwin would have their sections embellished with hand-painted additions. Or, dispensing with the showroom altogther, they would commission artisans to paint on humble cottons or fine silks the floral specimens they desired in the colors they preferred (for instance on lots 239 and 280). The result, for the house, was a succession of ethereal rooms built on a palette of whites, leavened by delicate pastels, and filled with flowers from the much-admired garden beyond the windows.
But for these perfectionists decorating is more than fabrics, flowers and fine-tuned color schemes. It requires things, old things, things French and Chinese, but above all things that are pretty, unpretentious, useful and just right. Over the years this couple, on their own and with Baldwin, acquired a trove of white-painted and gilded Louis XVI chairs, beds à la polonaise, Chinese ginger jars and porcelains, lacquered screens and japanned commodes. They ordered woven rattan as well as sleek steel-and-glass tables, brand-new Tiffany crystal candlesticks (today prized as vintage), and more than a few of those slipper chairs for which Baldwin is so justly celebrated.
Having recently moved from their Washington house to a Manhattan apartment overlooking the East River, this couple found themselves decorating yet again, but without their long-time collaborator, who died in 1984. This time around they enlisted the services of two friends and fellow Baldwin admirers, the decorator Howard Slatkin and the architect Daniel Romualdez.
If Baldwin is a tough act to follow, his exacting clients ensured continuity through their own assured taste. No wonder, then, the revered decorator included them with Linda and Cole Porter, Babe and Bill Paley, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Diana Vreeland in the chapter entitled 'Stars in My Crown' (distinct from the subsequent chapter, 'Thorns in My Crown'), in his 1974 decorating memoirs, Billy Baldwin Remembers. There, he pays tribute to this distinguished couple, even singling out his former shopping companion as an 'up-to-date woman with charmingly old-fashioned manners' who 'succeeded in adapting the eighteenth century of France to suit herself, adding to its opulence the comforts of today'. A statement that, judging from the flawless quarters they now occupy, can stand unamended.
R. Louis Bofferding