Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The best known decorator of his time

So said Mark Hampton in Legendary Decorators of the 20th Century of William Pahlmann:

"If one were to come up with just the right phrase to describe the late Bill Pahlmann, it would probably be the the best known decorator of his time. He became a household word, as well as an enormous influence on the design world, both commercial and private. He was also the first man to do so - not that one wishes to sound sexist. Before Pahlmann, there had been some very famous ladies in the decorating business who dominated nearly every aspect of the field, most notably the publicity surrounding it."

Quite a claim for Mr. Hampton to make and reading it now one realizes that here is a decorator who has fallen through the cracks of populist design history. Of course, he is not unknown, but where are the design historians writing books about him and where in the modern lexicon of divas, desecrators and deans of interior design is there a place for him? He is not an Albert, an Elsie, a Mark, a Billy, a Miles, a Nancy or a Tony who have had more sycophantic guff written about them than is decent, but was bigger, if Mr. Hampton is correct, than any of them. So what happened?

Mark Hampton again:

"More important than working for Mrs. Paley was the work he did for the department store B. Altman & Co., an affiliation that also began in 1933 and that helped to prepare him for the job that became the primary vehicle for his great fame: his position from 1936 to 1942 as head of the decorating and antiques department of Lord and Taylor. There he set out on a phase of his career that reached thousands of people through the immensely popular model rooms that he created for the store. Attendance was huge, and so was the publicity. From then on, the development of Pahlmann's style was followed closely by newspapers and magazines all over the country."

Judging by these photos, fashion is what happened - the turn of the wheel. Mr. Pahlmann's style of decorating was, according to Mr. Hampton, characterized by distaste for the past and tradition that was current in certain circles in the early years of the 20th century. His main objective the mixture of unexpected visual elements creating an effect that editors and writers raved over.

"The Pahlmann look represented everything that was new. Upholstery shapes were streamlined and lowered. Materials being developed for the booming building industry, active after many quiet years, became staples in the Pahlmann design vocabulary. Vinyl floors, wall coverings and fabrics never seen before, Scandinavian furniture, and ever conceivable reinterpretation of traditional design appeared bravely juxtaposed in rooms that were notable not only for their colorful boldness but also for their informality. As one would expect, there was a great emphasis on radios, record players, and soon, of course, television sets. If anyone ever made it look backward and dull to restate the old-fashioned principles of decoration, it was Pahlmann, with his doctrine of modernizing everything in a room. He was perhaps the quintessential deconstructionist decorator."

Judging by his own rooms (shown above) his then-modern mix of the exotic was consigned to the flea markets of the country when his contemporaries died off and their children wanted their own modern interiors - none of mom and pop's old stuff for them, they were up-to-date and modern. They just didn't realize that they were following the dictates of the latest generation of marketers and publicists.

Interestingly, one can discern a DNA link in these photos between William Pahlmann and contemporary decorators such as Kelly Wearstler and in product lines such as Baker Studio.

Photos by Alexandre George Gottscho-Schleisner, from Architectural Digest - The Quality Guide to Home Decorating Ideas. Fall 1966. $2.95.


  1. I love your irreverential tone at moments. We need this! And I am excited by your post becauase, as a Brit, am only just becoming aware of Pahlmann and love his work. Your blog is great.

  2. Why, thank you, ma'am. I went to an event on Thursday in which it was said that "the mix" began in the 60s but that was wrong - it began with Pahlmann.