Billy Cotton, an interior designer for top notch artists

Billy Cotton was in his twenties, had just arrived in Manhattan in the early 2000s and was rubbing shoulders with a cocktail of youthful exuberance, weed and amphetamines, when a fire tore through his Chelsea apartment, and with it, his sense of the future.

The fire had confirmed his worst fears. “I had always thought on some level that my life was going to fall apart,” Mr Cotton said.

Slowly he picked up the pieces, settling in a series of makeshift quarters and relying on the courage to pull through. But he could hardly imagine how his life would take shape.

Cleareyed these days, Mr Cotton, now 40, has become a highly sought after interior designer, with an enviable client list of art world luminaries including Cindy Sherman, Mirabelle Marden and Lisa Yuskavage .

“I’m an artist, but I also think he’s an artist,” said Ms. Yuskavage, whose Manhattan apartment he transformed into a gray-on-grey haven, a restful backdrop for his art collection. . “Billy is kind of a teacher to me. He changed me to be much more sensitive to quality.

On a recent Monday, Mr. Cotton sat in his white-lacquered studio on West 26th Street, the space punctuated with Eames chairs, an Italian marquetry desk and colorful artwork from friends, and reminisced about his zigzag ascent. He had a series of odd jobs – waiting tables; selling decorative trinkets at John Derian; whipping up covers, pillows and fake artwork for Domino magazine; and design table ceramics and his own bespoke furniture – before arriving at a culmination of what he considers a journey of self-discovery.

Known for its low-key, quietly subversive aesthetic, its style can range from homepun (think cottagecore with a Ralph Lauren sheen) to austere cool with strategic pops of color. “I have no style”, he likes to insist. Nor would he think of imposing one.

He approaches each new project “with the meticulousness of a Method actor, aligning his approach with the specific emotional motivations of his clients,” the journalist explains. Mayer Russia written in “Billy Cotton: interior and design work», the first monograph of Mr. Cotton, published by Rizzoli in March.

It relates to those customers, real or imagined, in a visceral way. He imagined, for example, a well-born lady, kindly gone to seed, an amalgamation of Miss Havisham and a lamentable character of Jean Rhys, of which the chamber Mr Cotton has evoked for the Show home of the Kips Bay decorator in 2017.

He provided her with a back story, writing, “As with most of us, some of her hardships have been inflicted upon her, and some have encroached upon her at the cruel insistence of the world.” His hideaway on the top floor of an SRO retains remnants of its racy, high-bohemian past: chinoiserie wallpaper, a skeletal four-poster bed, and a leopard-print rug.

“His gay cohort sought to elevate him with decorations given,” Mr Cotton wrote. “In my mind,” he said in his studio last month, “I was that woman, but I was also her gay friends.”

Mr Rus refers in the monograph to Mr Cotton’s “propensity for shattering clichés and artificial boundaries throughout his career – between past and present, high and low, intellectual engagement and visceral sensation”, his eclecticism inherited from his upbringing.

The designer grew up in Burlington, Vermont, his mother was an Irish Catholic psychotherapist with a fondness for old china and antique furniture. Her father, a forensic psychiatrist and second-generation Baltic Jewish immigrant, was more keenly drawn to the stark mid-century sobriety meant to erase the darkness of her European past.

Opportunities at home were limited. “There were no decorators in Burlington, Vermont, or very few,” Mr. Cotton said. Moreover, in his youth, he resisted the caricature of the homosexual as a creative. He instead considered becoming an art historian, but abandoned that idea to pursue industrial design at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. He had by this time cultivated a circle of friends that included artists Jack Pierson, Mark Flood and John Lee, his boyfriend at the time.

“They were part of this incredible community of gay men who made things,” Mr. Cotton recalled, but decided not to pursue a similar solitary studio practice. “I was not an artist. I needed people too much.

About a decade ago, one such person, singer and songwriter Jenni Muldaur, asked him to decorate her summer home in Springs, a hamlet just north of East Hampton, hosting it in an unused shed and paying him $9,000, a huge sum of his at the time. He improvised, using curtains made from unused fabric panels and other found objects, and added as a centerpiece, a driftwood chandelier.

Cindy Sherman visited and was captivated. A year later, she asked him to design her own home, an 1830s farmhouse also in Springs, in a bohemian mix of antiques and 18th- and 19th-century flea market finds. He expressed a constant concern for contrasting textures with a mix of vintage textiles, including Moroccan rugs, African indigo clothing and Italian tapestries.

Is it difficult for an artist to hand over creative control to a decorator? Not necessarily, Mr. Cotton said. “At the end of the day, I’m providing a service,” he said. “I loved being a waiter, I loved helping people when I worked in retail. And I taught Pratt how something works: what’s the proportion, what’s the material, what’s the budget for it? All these different things I could do on a practical level to help these people.

“I’m never going to creatively match Cindy Sherman’s brains,” he added. “What I can do is work really hard to figure out how I can bring his vision to life.”

There were challenges, of course. “Cindy and I went to the Paris flea market together,” he said. “She bought this amazing giant, multicolored, Egyptian-made turkey tureen that was the size of a table. It was one of those things I wouldn’t necessarily have shown her. But one thing I’ve learned: you can’t go wrong with Miss Sherman’s trinkets.

He struck a more discreet deal with Mrs. Yuskavage, who asked him to host her art and furniture collections. He obeyed with a gray-on-grey interior restful enough to let the furniture by Pierre Paul, Achille Castiglioni and the paintings of her husband, Matvey Levenstein, shine. “I learn by listening to how someone wants to live,” he said.

There came a time, however, when the close communion with customers began to feel stifling. “There’s an intimacy to building a house with someone,” he said. “When you’re doing something so personal for people, with their money, their family, that entanglement can be scary.”

In early 2020, he closed his business to run Ralph Lauren Home. “I thought maybe it would be nice to design for the American family in a less personal sense,” he said.

But frustrated with the longer design process, he left a year later to rebuild his business. Firmer now in his beliefs, he recently warned a potential client: “One thing you need to know, I’m super intense, I get super passionate about detail. If you don’t want intensity, I’m not your man.

He avoids overworked and relentless fantasies. It is true that he designed a line of Regency-influenced furniture, streamlined with contemporary tastes. But he has little regard for the so-called “Bridgerton Effect”, the Regency-influenced style popularized by the Netflix series, which inspired some ardent fans to adorn their homes of acres with gilding.

Pretentiousness tends to send up red flags. “I grew up in Vermont, after all,” Mr. Cotton said. “When someone clearly wants their home to be a reflection of their wealth, they wouldn’t be so attracted to me, and I wouldn’t be attracted to them. Part of what I enjoy so much about this job is the travel to your authentic self.

Not that he cares about a generous helping of opulence. “If you invest in quality and comfort, I’m here for you,” he said. As for Mr. Cotton, “Nothing makes me happier than a night in Paris at the Ritz.”

Betty K. Park