All they wanted from Billy Cotton was a new kitchen. That’s why Margaret Lee and her husband, Oliver Newton, the founders of 47 Canal Gallery, originally sought out the New York decorator.
The couple had purchased their modest 760-square-foot prewar apartment in an estate sale, which in Manhattan is typically a euphemism for gut-renovation required. “It had not been touched in many years,” Cotton says diplomatically. The kitchen in question was little more than a “galley” that was “deeply nonfunctional.”
Needless to say, as Cotton is known for his work with art collectors and artists as much as his warm palettes and Dutch Old Master moodiness, he had more to offer Lee and Newton than just a one-room redo.
Lee and Cotton met years ago while the former was managing the studio of photographer Cindy Sherman and the latter was decorating her homes. They were kindred spirits, both with a yen for exhibiting great art in dramatic interiors. Cotton encountered little resistance in convincing the couple to widen the scope of this project. He loved the idea that these young fixtures of the downtown scene had decided to live in an old building in Midtown with a manually operated elevator. “The contrast was inspiring,” he says.
For the overall look, a white-box-gallery simulation was shunned. Too on the nose, too boring, not very Billy. In the living room, Cotton oriented everything around the original fireplace, creating a salon–dining area hybrid with a curved vintage Italian sofa on one side and a custom banquette (with storage below) in Schumacher velvet on the other. “The room doesn’t get flooded with natural light,” he says. “So the idea was not to fight that.” With the somber olive paint and dark fabrics, he embraced the interior chiaroscuro.
In the bedroom, Billy put down “palace-size” wool carpets, purchased at auction in Boston and cut to fit the space. The addition of the seashell side tables stoked some controversy. “Oliver was freaked out by them,” Cotton says. “I didn’t wait for their approval, though. They needed these tables in their lives.” (Oliver has since warmed up to them.)
For the window treatments, Cotton found a dead-stock roll of chintz in France, which he paired with matchstick blinds. Beside it, he positioned an Aria Dean sculpture of a red bow hanging from an industrial chain. “The art in the apartment is relatively quiet,” he says; as a result, the tension between contemporary art and traditional decorative elements is that much more compelling.
And then there’s the question on everyone’s mind: What about the kitchen? Well, as a rule, Cotton simply doesn’t give the room a lot of consideration. He embraces its utility, as here, with the 1950s-inspired linoleum floor and stainless steel counters. He sees it as a workspace where function has a two-mile head start over form. “Keep the gold and shagreen out of the kitchen,” he says. “Save that for your powder room.”
This story originally appeared in the March 2022 issue of ELLE DECOR. SUBSCRIBE
Charles Curkin is ELLE Decor's Articles Editor, covering everything related to the architecture, interior design, real estate, and travel industries, and has previously written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Paris Review.