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,” Mr. Cotton said.
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, Mr. Cotton, now 40, has emerged as a highly sought-after interior designer, with 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 Ms. 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, Mr. 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 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 Mr. 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 at the top floor of an S.R.O. 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,” Mr. Cotton wrote. “In my mind,” he said in his studio last month, “I was that lady, but I was also her gay friends.”
Mr. Rus refers in the monograph to Mr. Cotton’s “career-long proclivity for exploding clichés and artificial boundaries — between past and present, high and low, intellectual engagement and visceral sensation,” his eclecticism a legacy of his upbringing.
The designer grew up in Burlington, Vt., 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 drawn to the clean-lined midcentury 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,” Mr. 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 the artists Jack Pierson, Mark Flood and John Lee, his boyfriend at that time.
“They were part of this incredible community of gay men who were making things,” Mr. 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, the 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 flea 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, Mr. 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.”
“I’m never going to creatively match the brain of Cindy Sherman,” he added. “What I can do is work really hard to figure out how I can bring her vision to life.”
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 Ms. 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.
There came a time, though, when close communion with clients began to feel stifling. “There is an intimacy to building a home with someone,” he said. “When you’re doing something so personal for people, with their money, their family, that enmeshment can be scary.”
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.”
He shies away from the overwrought and strenuously fancy. True, he has designed a line of Regency-influenced furniture, streamlined to 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 garnish their homes with acres of gilding.
Pretentiousness tends to send up red flags. “I did grow up in Vermont, after all,” Mr. Cotton said. “When someone is clearly wanting their home to be a reflection of their fortune, they would not be so attracted to me, and I would not be attracted to them. Part of what I value so much in this work is the journey to your authentic self.”
Not that he minds a generous helping of opulence. “If you are investing 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.”