According to revered American decorator Billy Cotton, there’s a beguiling tension between architectural simplicity and decorative richness, something that he attributes to his Vermont upbringing. ‘There, the tendency was to eschew intricate accents in favor of relatively puritanical interiors,’ he reflects. ‘As a result, I’ve harbored a life-long fascination with the juxtaposition between humble and grand.’
Of all his projects, that tension is perhaps most evident in this mid-19th-century home in the Catskill Mountains in upstate New York. Its clapboard exterior melds into a snow-laden landscape at this time of year. Inside, however, a melting pot of antique fabrics, European furniture, Delft tiles, and English wallpapers creates a simple yet texturally detailed home for its hotelier owner, a man who was looking to swap the frenetic pace of Manhattan life for a slower lifestyle.
‘What I enjoyed was that the Greek Revival façade and layout of the house had barely been touched when I was introduced to the project by a friend,’ says Billy. ‘We wanted to keep it that way – the aim was to dig into that simplicity and enhance it. Unlike many homes of this type, it’s not on a main road and completely rural – the nearest shop is a half-hour drive away.’
Billy’s approach was to strip back before making any additions. In the living room, an awkwardly placed chimney breast had been elevated by a marble surround: his instinct was to restore it to its raw brick state and top it with an antique Venetian mirror. ‘There’s always a narrative running through my schemes,’ he says. ‘In this case, we wanted to evoke the sense of relaxed, old-world collecting. After all, the USA is a nation of immigrants who have lent us so many cultural references. I love the concept of a grandmother’s steamer trunk containing treasures – from tea cups to shawls. That was my starting point.’
That magpie sensibility is evident throughout – in the kitchen, Delft tiles share space with a mahogany table; in the main bedroom, a 1960s Italian wicker chair sits alongside a Georgian cabinet, while in the guest bedroom, a French chair that Billy found in Chicago has been upholstered in faded ticking. ‘I transported it back in a pick-up truck and it rained the whole way, but somehow that has added to the patina,’ he says.
Pattern is an essential ingredient, whether via antique rugs or Robert Kime papers, which Billy describes as ‘a wonderful base coat’. Beds are covered in African coverlets and the walls of the main bedroom are finished with Indian block-printed fabric. Throughout, a love of English decoration prevails – a few years ago, Billy was introduced to the dealers at Tetbury by a fellow interior designer and hasn’t looked back. ‘The British have a deep sense of history and a reverence for objects,’ he says. ‘I admire that tradition of craft and design, from specialists like Wedgwood to creatives such as Terence Conran. There’s an appealing naturalness to British schemes, perhaps because inherited pieces are often part of the picture.’
From plaster pink walls and exposed rafters to vintage silks and tapestry wall hangings, every room has been designed to delight the eye and to induce a sense of wellbeing. To that end, there are resting nooks throughout, the better to appreciate the space. In the kitchen, a window seat has been turned into a sleeping quarter, finished in ticking, a motif repeated in one of the bedrooms, where a built-in bed nestles behind linen curtains. ‘I wanted to incorporate that element of rest and relaxation throughout,’ says Billy. ‘After all, beauty is a meditation in itself.’