Burlington High School graduate Billy Cotton has gotten a lot of media love in recent years. Now a Pratt Institute grad, too, he lives in New York City and designs furniture, tableware and interiors with refreshingly unpretentious style. Three years ago, when he was 29, Elle Decor declared Cotton a “rising star.” The magazine touted the two lines he had just introduced at Bergdorf Goodman — his classic-meets-edgy lacquered furniture and his “clean-lined dinnerware that’s surprisingly affordable: A plate retails for a mere $15,” the writer marveled.
Since then, Cotton’s star has continued to soar — 24 high-end retailers on three continents carry his work — and with that ascent have come more gushing spreads in design magazines. This month alone has seen two prominent ones. Architectural Digest writes about how, in East Hampton, N.Y., Cotton recast Cindy Sherman’s “dilapidated 19th-century home as a richly layered, charmingly eccentric refuge.” The renowned photographer is shown reclining on an antique settee, surrounded by the artfully contrasting objets that have come to define Cotton’s look.
It was Cotton’s feature in December’s Domino magazine (tagline: “bring your style home”) that particularly caught our attention. It’s all about the residence of his parents, Paul and Nancy Cotton, in Burlington, where Billy Cotton grew up from age 13. Declares the writer of Cotton’s design work there: “The result: a modern-day farmhouse filled with the charm and character of the past.”
The home on South Willard Street where John Dewey was born in 1859 is hardly a “farmhouse”; stately and serene-looking on the outside, the white, classic New England structure has beautiful bones and a welcoming, manicured entrance. In the article and in a recent phone conversation from his studio in New York, Cotton is quick to credit his mother with collaborating on the interior design. “It’s her home,” he points out, yet acknowledges that he sometimes “pushed her comfort zone a little.” Such as when he painted a room an eggplant hue.
Nancy Cotton agrees that was a stretch and notes that her impassioned son can push pretty hard for what he wants. “He has really extended my taste,” she says, adding with faux chagrin, “but he’s usually right.”
In turn, Billy acknowledges her influence. “My mother has amazing taste, an incredible eye,” he says. “She’s been collecting for 40 years. I feel like her editor.”
The result of their collaboration is beautifully depicted in the pages of Domino: One wall of the house’s living room is hung with an antique theater curtain whose lake-and-mountain painting mirrors the view through tall windows to the west. It’s a piece Cotton convinced his parents to buy from a New York dealer.
The furniture — a dark blue contemporary couch with motley patterned pillows, a simple glass-topped coffee table, an antique Persian rug — offers the clean lines of modernity and the warm patina of age. Floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the dining room give it a library-like calm, while a stark, sculptural chandelier hovers over the round antique table.
Cotton makes no distinction between old and new, expensive and not. He adores objects, honors their history and creates spaces that are meant to be used, not just looked at.
“It’s the layering of what we live with,” Cotton explains of his aesthetic, and adds that he can appreciate both “the Calvin Klein white box and the layered patterns of Riyadh.” Though “eclectic” is an overused word, it constantly comes to mind when scrolling through the photographs of Cotton’s rooms. His unexpected juxtapositions work; each object retains its own integrity, and there is no disorienting clutter despite a mix of patterning. Absolutely nothing is “matchy-matchy”; for him, the convention that this must “go with” that would be unthinkable.
According to his mom, Cotton has been passionate about design and interiors since childhood. He loved going to the Brimfield Antique Show in Massachusetts and scouring Vermont barns and secondhand stores. (He still does.) In high school, “he used to shine the silver for me and get all his friends — his guy friends — involved,” recalls Nancy with a laugh. “He has a lot of charisma.”
The Cottons had moved from Brookline, Mass., to the John Dewey house when Billy and his twin sister, Mary, were 13. Though at that age he didn’t like being uprooted, Billy quickly fell in love with Vermont. After 14 years away, he retains his 802 phone number and calls the state “my real home.”
Though he made “the most incredible friends” at BHS, that didn’t stop Cotton from leaving early. A “loophole” allowed him to graduate ahead of schedule, he says. And he took off for Paris. There, “My eyes were blown open — it was super fascinating,” Cotton says. “I got a side job at a flea market [Clignancourt] and learned a lot about old things, the history of objects. I was also looking at people buying things, the dynamic relationship people have with objects.”
Cotton returned to the U.S. because “I didn’t like feeling like an outsider all the time.” He adds: “Paris is all about elegance and privacy. I’m a Vermonter; I’m very warm and like being part of a community.”
He enrolled at Hunter College and studied Russian history for two and a half years, while “working in the art world for a while.” But along the way he took an art history class that opened his eyes in yet another way. “I had never even heard of industrial design before,” Cotton says, and adds, “There’s nothing I love more than chairs.”
Cotton got himself into Pratt and began to design furniture. While he was still in school, he launched a business called Custom Resource. It started when a friend in Vermont asked him to help her buy furniture for a new apartment. With every such request after that, Cotton says, he learned something new. “It took me a couple years to realize I could do this, I could make a living at this,” he says.
“My real passion in school was tabletop — small ceramic designs,” Cotton continues. “Four years ago I launched everyday tableware, Billy Cotton for the Table.” He claims that his career unfolded through a combination of naïveté — which another observer might call fearlessness — and lucky encounters. One of the latter was an introduction to a buyer at Bergdorf Goodman who loved, and ordered, his tableware. That was 10 years and 23 stores ago.
Over the past decade, Cotton has built a six-person team in New York and pursued three essential lines: lighting and furniture; ceramics and glassware; and architecture and interior design. “We’re building ground-up structures and doing decorating of all kinds,” he says. And characteristically, he loves both preserving the old and creating the new.
Cotton admits he obsessively begins to make over a room the minute he walks into it, and that he’s had to “keep my mouth shut” sometimes around friends. But, he adds diplomatically, “Good design is also about mistakes. It’s the reality of how we live. I’m brought in,” he says, “when people feel like they need help.”
Where does Cotton look for his beloved objects? “Everywhere,” he says simply. “If it’s a big job, Europe — that’s where the best stuff is, the best value, even with the shipping.” If it’s a smaller job — say, another interior for a friend — anything and anywhere goes, from Pottery Barn to a real barn in Vermont.
When asked what comes next, Cotton has a surprising answer: “The earth,” he says. “Landscape — how we talk about and work with it, how we live with the land.”
He adds: “I feel like that chapter will take the rest of my life.”