Before Billy Cotton was a noted interior designer and member of the AD 100, creating eclectic and distinctive rooms for an elite clientele, he was, as they say today, a maker.
Cotton studied industrial design at Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn, and in 2005 began crafting furniture and other objects — in a denture factory, no less.
“That was the dream,” Cotton says now of designing products. “It’s what I was trained to do. I figured, I’ll build a portfolio and do this until I get a real job.” His thinking, he explains, was that “people always need custom things,” especially in New York City, with its small spaces.
Cotton worked here and there and everywhere, for people like T Magazine design director Tom Delavan. The fruits of his labors, he says, “really took off,” particularly his dinnerware, which was carried by Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus and elsewhere. Then, after 2011 or so, his interiors business really took off, too.
So, Cotton’s new Regency Collection — his latest official line, consisting of 10 furniture and lighting pieces — is really a return to his roots.
The designer’s previous collection was called Joinery, and the flavor was “very strict work about volume,” says Cotton, who has his office in Brooklyn and makes his home in Chelsea. “I did feel with this collection that we could continue the dialogue about engineering and form, but that we could also have a little bit of fun.”
The fun comes in large measure from curves, with every piece offering something rounded or sinuous. The most dramatic example is the swirling demilune of the Regency sofa, whose ends curl in to enclose sitters in a cozy conversation. The fact that it is covered in a Loro Piana wool cashmere boosts the plush effect. The barrel-backed Regency dining chair follows suit on a smaller and more modest scale.
As the name implies, the collection takes inspiration from the Regency brand of neoclassicism that flourished in early-19th-century England. Cotton is known for effortlessly mixing the traditional and the modern, and he is well-versed in the historical bases of much design. “I grew up in New England, in really old, traditional houses,” he says.
In an exclusive collaboration with 1stdibs, he installed the items from the Regency Collection in one of those houses — his parents’ 19th-century home in Burlington, Vermont. The pieces take on new life in the cozy old rooms, giving Cotton a chance to demonstrate his “obsession with proportion,” as he puts it. But they would work just as well in a Soho loft or a modern house in Austin.
His Regency card table, with hand-painted fluting on its legs, certainly looks at home near the Ionic pilaster of a fireplace in his parent’s living room. One of the tailored table lamps fits in equally well next to an ultramodern Donald Judd plywood bed upstairs.
Cotton may be best known for his lighting fixtures, another obsession of his, particularly his arrestingly geometric Pick Up Stick chandelier, introduced in 2008 and appearing in many a magazine spread lately. “I think it has an emotional, physical effect on our lives and how we do things,” he says of lighting generally.
The new collection includes a variety of these all-important pieces, each of them featuring buttoned-up, classic lampshades. The largest example is the Regency five-arm chandelier, whose brass spokes hanging from a central fixture make it seems almost nautical, like a ship’s wheel.
“If you think Regency pieces will feature in all the designer’s upcoming interior work, think again. “I conceive of them as separate practices,” says Cotton, whose Dumbo office has three people dedicated to products and 10 to interiors. “I don’t ever want my projects to feel like showrooms.” In fact, he adds, “I rarely use my products. It’s only if the client drives it. It’s all about their personal taste. When I meet with a client, I’m trying to derive what brings them joy.”
Cotton’s influences, in both his collections and his interiors, are diverse, embracing both the Regency era and the Bauhaus. As different as these styles seem, Cotton’s new club chair subtly incorporates both. “The design reinterprets classicism — we have these decorative flourishes, but then we pull back so it works in a contemporary space,” he says, pointing out that the “Bauhausian casters” on which the piece stands give it a modern touch.
Tellingly, when asked for his favorite interior designers, Cotton cites the London-based former actress Anouska Hempel, whose Blakes hotel, which opened in London in 1978, is frequently cited as the first luxury boutique property. “She’s a huge hero of mine,” he says — even though Hempel’s look, with its romantic gestures and frequent use of black, doesn’t at all resemble Cotton’s (he lives in a chic, fairly minimal and white-walled apartment).
His appreciation relates to Hempel’s “thoroughness,” he says. “It’s the idea of a total environment, making that and wrapping somebody in it. Designers who have a total look have always inspired me. I love that in fashion as well.”
Cotton will be happy if his Regency Collection pieces contribute to such a look, wherever they end up. Although he keeps separate staffs for his two businesses, he sees them as two sides of the same coin. Elegance, proportion and utility are the guiding principles for both. “It’s all one conversation about American design,” he says. “The challenge is making sure everything feels thoughtful and original.”