In 2019, Billy Cotton sent out an unusual note to vendors, clients and the press, notifying them that he was closing his design business. This was strange for two reasons: One, interior designers almost never officially shut down their firms (it’s an industry of Irish goodbyes). Two, Cotton was thoroughly lauded. His work for celebrity artists like Cindy Sherman had landed him in glossy shelter mags and a spot on the AD100 list. Why quit at the top?
Turns out, Cotton was about to climb even higher: He had been selected as the creative director of Ralph Lauren Home, a coveted role if there ever was one (Alfredo Paredes, RLH’s previous chief creative officer, spent more than three decades at the brand). The move also seemed to fit perfectly with Cotton’s original ambitions in the design industry—he studied industrial design at Pratt and had sold a line of plates at Bloomingdale’s. But at the end of the day, the dream design job wasn’t a fit.
“[I had been thinking] that interior design is just a means to an end—I’m leaving to go to Ralph to pursue what felt like the full manifestation of a career in product design,” he tells host Dennis Scully on the latest episode of The Business of Home Podcast. “What I learned is: I like to work on a more one-on-one fashion. I love seeing the builder on the jobsite, and the people in my upholstery shop … If I hadn’t gone to [Ralph Lauren] I don’t think I would have thought about how important [interior design work] was to me, and how much it meant to other people. And how it would lead to working with my community in this more intimate way than working for a global corporation.”
All that is to say, Billy Cotton, interior designer, is back. His debut monograph came out earlier this year, and his projects are making their way back into the magazines he thought he’d left behind. But this time, Cotton is newly energized by the basics.
“It’s not really about bigger and more right now,” he says. “It’s about: How do we do what we’re doing the best that we can do it? At this service level for these homes and these clients, it takes enormous amounts of focus to do it properly, and I want to be very careful that I don’t remove my eye from that.”
Elsewhere in the episode, Cotton explains why he likes to hire waiters at his design firm, shares the stark industry contrast between perception and reality in the design industry, and explains why, in difficult times, his most comforting balm has always been hard work.
Homepage image: Billy Cotton | Courtesy of Stephen Kent Johnson