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Billy Cotton Brings Vermont Values to Ralph Lauren Home

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Billy Cotton - COURTESY OF NOE DEWITT
  • Courtesy Of Noe Dewitt
  • Billy Cotton

Seven years ago, I wrote an article for Seven Days about Billy Cotton, the Burlington High School and Pratt Institute grad who had become a rising star in the design world. Retailers on three continents were carrying his classic-meets-edgy lines of lacquered furniture and dinnerware. Publications such as Elle Décor and Architectural Digest wrote gushing articles about him.

A feature in Domino particularly caught my notice, because it included photos of stylish rooms in the South Willard Street home where Cotton grew up — and where his parents, Nancy and Paul Cotton, still reside. Billy had a hand in designing those rooms, though he credited his mother as a collaborator. "He has really extended my taste," Nancy said at the time, "but he's usually right."

Billy subsequently opened a chic showroom in Brooklyn, and his reputation continued to grow. He was named an AD100 designer for 2016-17 — an attribution from Architectural Digest based on an annual survey of the top names in interior design, architecture and landscape design.

Still, no one — perhaps least of all Cotton himself — imagined then that in a few years he would be heading one of the world's most influential companies in home goods. Last November, Cotton, 38, was named creative director of Ralph Lauren Home.

In a phone call to his office in New York, I asked him how he thought he got there. It was "really the stew of all these things," Cotton said, referring to his successive accomplishments. "It's how you bring an object to life; it's my ability to create environments, making houses and portraits work. It's how Ralph Lauren does things — it's about stories."

Cotton was still marveling at the opportunity — "It's sort of unbelievable," he said. "I didn't seek this out." In his new role, he'll be in familiar company: His former business partner, Day Kornbluth, was hired as the global president of Ralph Lauren Home.

Though he's "beyond busy," Cotton took the time to answer some questions for Nest about his new life and the aspects of his old life in Vermont that he carries with him.

NEST: I find a lot of Ralph Lauren Home a little more, I guess, classical than your design. Is he looking for a shift in direction?

BILLY COTTON: They wouldn't have hired me if they didn't want a shift from the past. But I like that it's rooted in tradition, like the work that I did under my own name ... It's still Ralph. It's about channeling his vision.

NEST: It must have been bittersweet to wind down your own brand with your name on it.

BC: Yes, it was really one of the hardest decisions I've ever made. I had a wonderful team of people who really nurtured me. I loved my clients. It's been very complicated. I'm still winding down.

NEST: I noted in my previous story that you made no distinctions between old and new, expensive or not. Still true?

BC: Yes, that's really super important — and so in line with the values of Ralph Lauren.

NEST: Did growing up in Vermont in any way help shape your design sensibility, or the way you approach interior spaces or objects — or anything else about your psyche?

BC: Totally! It's a huge part. I will always say, a colonial tradition will always be part of my DNA — how austerity and ornament interact. There are so many touchstones for me.

Vermonters' eschewing of the traditional notion of luxury and what that means — I'm always interested in that. There's an interesting relation to design up there: that it's overindulgent to indulge in luxury and beauty. But there's so much design, so much creativity! [Vermont is] marching to its own drummer.

NEST: When it comes to designing their homes, do Vermonters have any advantages over an urban dweller?

BC: They don't care! It doesn't keep them up at night. A kinder way of saying that is, there's less pressure. Everyone has their own relationship to beauty. Vermont is a place of individuals; there are no social norms or pressures around [presentation].

The landscape is so beautiful — maybe that suffices. But people love their home; there's just no pressure to conform.

NEST: I noticed you no longer have an 802 area code.

BC: I finally gave it up and got a New York license and 917 phone number. I've been here 20 years! Vermont bore me; New York has nurtured me — in a way that's been extremely fruitful.

NEST: At the end of our previous conversation, you said something that proved to be prescient, given the surge of concern about climate change. I asked you then, "What comes next?" You said, "The earth — the landscape and how we talk about and work with it, how we live with the land." How has that interest manifested in your professional and perhaps personal life?

BC: It has, and has to. I have worked more with land in house projects. Ralph Lauren has a deep commitment to the environment, trying to get to a carbon-neutral place. That's one of the reasons I made the move. I acknowledge the conflict, but I do believe we can make things, and objects do bring us joy. I think there's a way to do this without destroying the planet. I hope to bring those values to my new job.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Home Good | Billy Cotton brings Vermont values to an international brand"