They Wanted a New Kitchen. In the End They Got a Whole New Apartment

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.”

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Billy Cotton’s new book from Rizzoli, due out in March 2022. BUY NOW

Stephen Kent Johnson

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.

wall detail with a long tall console studded with glass bricks on the exterior and a mirrored interior, with chairs flanking it in a gray pattern and three lamps on top of console with spiky base

The console and lamps in the entry are from Gallery 25, London, and the rug is from Eliko.

Stephen Kent Johnson

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.

stainless stove set into stainless steel counters with light colored cabinets with small shelving above with small framed artworks

Stephen Kent Johnson

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.

bedroom with large bed with a striped upholstered headboard and yellow coverlet against a light blue painted wall and a night table with a scallop shell base on a patterned carpet

In the primary bedroom the side table and sconce are from Gallery 25, London, and the chair and rug are vintage.

Stephen Kent Johnson

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.” 

march 2022 cover  elle decor

This story originally appeared in the March 2022 issue of ELLE DECOR. SUBSCRIBE

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