Monday, June 02, 2008

Revisiting the Career of William Pahlmann

Isn't it amazing how people who were once celebrities can fade into obscurity? The same thing can be said for celebrity decorators, especially William Pahlmann. Okay, so perhaps he's not an obscure designer, but he does not have the name recognition of Dorothy Draper or Elsie de Wolfe. If this were 1950, we would all be talking about Pahlmann. After all, he was one of the most famous decorators of the 1940s through the 1960s.

Pahlmann, who was educated at Parsons in the late 1920s, first gained notoriety after designing a mirrored bed for the first Mrs. William Paley (this according to Legendary Decorators of the Twentieth Century by Mark Hampton). Getting her seal of approval was the impetus he needed to go onward and upward, eventually landing him the job of head of the decorating and antiques department at Lord and Taylor. Pahlmann became known for his model rooms for the department store- rooms which garnered attention by the press and brought flocks of customers to the store. After a brief hiatus during World War II (serving in the Air Force), Pahlmann returned to New York where he set up his own decorating firm. He even had his own syndicated newspaper column titled "A Matter of Taste".

Pahlmann's interiors after WWII are quite evocative of the post-war era. While Pahlmann was quite capable of designing in the traditional style, much of his work celebrates mid-century modernism. Pahlmann was a champion of modern materials, including rubber flooring and rayon and other synthetic fabrics. The exotic also played a role in his interiors. Artifacts and objects of various cultures and countries mixed freely, lending his rooms a sort of well-traveled look. And let's not overlook Pahlmann's love of color. There was nothing primary about his chosen color schemes. In fact, in his book The Pahlmann Book of Interior Design, he wrote about various color combinations that he had used thus far in his career. These included cerulean, lime, magenta pink and white as well as deep sage, ripe persimmon and French blue.

Pahlmann was so well-regarded in the design world that when a young Albert Hadley first ventured to New York seeking a job as a designer, he sought out a meeting with his design idol. Hadley describes Pahlmann as "a man of great charm with a flamboyant personality and certainly he was not shy about anything."* Pahlmann encouraged Hadley to enroll at Parsons School of Design, just as he had.

While many of Pahlmann's room may seem a bit dated today, don't you think it's worth revisiting the career of this late, great decorator?

(Pahlmann's work is featured in the upcoming Acanthus Press release New York Interior Design, 1935-1985. Another "lost" designer whose work I greatly admire is George Stacey. I'll be writing about him soon!)

A great example of Pahlmann's fearless use of color. This bedroom's colors were inspired by a vineyard.

The mod floor in this living room was rubber! The mix is a bit unexpected: modern furniture with a Victorian sofa and Spanish altar candlesticks mixed with French candle sconces.

This was Pahlmann's own living room. I love the gunmetal gray walls and the robin's egg blue leather chair. According to Mark Hampton, the cabinet is actually a snakeskin Victrola.

I couldn't resist this image of an Empire-style tented room. Pahlmann admired Napoleon and Malmaison- might this have influenced the design scheme of this room?

Pahlmann designed this living room for Mrs. Walter Hoving in 1948. In my opinion, this room is one of Pahlmann's more elegant designs. Much of his later work seemed to be more casual, much in keeping with the times.

(*Hadley quote from Albert Hadley: The Story of America's Preeminent Interior Designer)


  1. Sadly, I hadn't heard his name but recognize some of these images! It just goes to show what things make it into the history books and what things don't, unfortunately!

  2. Jennifer -- wow. What an excellent post to start the week. I'm so struck by the vibrating colors in that bedroom. These David Hicks is always referenced regarding electric hues but Pahlman was ahead of the curve.

    And I love the robin's egg blue leather chair against the dark wall!

  3. Change- So true, and so unfortunate!

  4. Courtney- Interesting point about Pahlmann being on the color bandwagon before Hicks. I too love that robins egg blue leather chair!

  5. Years ago I had the great pleasure of meeting Margaret Cousins, one of Pahlmann's friends and clients ( She had been an editor at Good Housekeeping and McCall's and Doubleday and Pahlmann decorated several places for her. Her last home was in Texas, and it was Pahlmann wall to wall. She had the most wonderful stories to tell about him.

  6. Aesthete- Pahlmann seemed to be an interesting person, and so did Margaret Cousins (based on the obit you linked to). I think you should write a post on the stories Cousins told! Unless the stories are too risque ;)

  7. The Hoving sitting-room is pretty beautiful. Mrs Walter Hoving (2 of 3) was the former Pauline Vandervoort Dresser Rogers—she was the widow of Colonel Henry H Rogers Sr and therefore the former stepmother of Millicent Rogers. At the time Pahlmann decorated the apartment, Hoving's husband was president of Lord & Taylor; he bought control of Tiffany & Co in 1955 and remained its head until 1980. Funny how the room is identified as for Mrs Hoving, when obviously Mr H certainly was around and paying those hefty decorating bills! Sexism typical of the era.

  8. Aesthete- The Hoving room is one of my favorite Pahlmann rooms. Yes, the husbands were usually missing from these magazine spreads from the 40s and 50s. Perhaps they were off at the club having their three martini lunches!

  9. Anonymous10:19 AM

    I just came across your blog and was so happy to see this post on William Pahlmann. I am currently helping to process William Pahlmann's papers at the Hagley Library and was searching out information on him. There's surprisingly little out on the web. Anyway, I just wanted to say how much I enjoyed your post and the accompanying pictures. Check out the Hagley Library webpage in the near future and we should have more of Pahlmann's papers processed and open for research!