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William Pahlmann was no ordinary force in interior design. The eclectic Pahlmann look defined the 1950s. It was at once stylish, graceful and, to a certain extent, flamboyant for its time. Its vision and reach were panoramic.

Critics characterized the Pahlmann style as everything from "daredevil" to "lighthearted luxury" to "extravagant, sometimes outrageous." Pahlmann himself described his often astonishing mixtures of unrelated styles and periods and his palette of saturated and frequently clashing colors as "modern Baroque." The American Institute of Interior Designers asserted that "except for Elsie de Wolfe, no one has influenced American home decoration more than Mr. Pahlmann."

He had an unlikely background for an interior designer. After growing up in Pleasant Mound, Illinois, and San Antonio, Texas, where his mother ran a boardinghouse and where he first tried his hand at design with flower arrangements for the local Baptist church, he became a salesman for a plumbing pipe company. While on the road, he spent his evenings taking a correspondence course in art, which led him to abandon pipe sales for Parsons School of Design, first in New York and later in Paris. (A tall, good-looking young man, Pahlmann supported his education in New York by appearing in the choruses of Broadway musicals, whose sets played their own significant part in giving him a lasting fondness for theatrical effect.)

After returning from Paris to New York, he opened his own shop in 1931, and he was soon decorating a Beekman Place apartment for Dorothy Paley, the first wife of William S. Paley, the founder of CBS. Although the ox-yoke headboard he designed for her bed raised eyebrows, his career was launched.

The designer mixed orange, blue and avocado in a 1960s bedroom for a New York penthouse.

Pahlmann came to greater prominence in 1936, when he was hired to head the decorating department for the Fifth Avenue department store Lord Taylor. His theatrical model rooms and displays drew crowds and attracted unprecedented attention from the press. In 1941 a show of South American inspiration coined the term "Pahlmann Peruvian"; another introduced blond-wood "Swedish modern" to the American design vocabulary.

Pahlmann's unique color sense gave the late thirties, the forties and the fifties groundbreaking palettes of Cuzco blue, fuchsia, avocado, sulfur yellow, bottle green and bleached cypress. He virtually invented what are still known as decorator colors.

In his designs for Lord Taylor and in his subsequent work, the adjective most often applied to Pahlmann's interiors was eclectic. The same room might include antiques of vastly different styles and origins along with strikingly modern pieces; another might have luxurious fabrics juxtaposed against rough, semifinished materials (shingles or barn siding, for example). He loved profusion: He covered entire walls with antique plates or with prints and paintings hung in grids "salon style"—both original ideas in their time. He was also a pioneer of concealed lighting.

In 1946 he founded his own firm, William Pahlmann Associates. Although he continued to design residential interiors, he focused increasingly on hotels, offices and upscale stores, such as Bonwit Teller and Tiffany's. Among his most notable works were two fashionable Manhattan restaurants completed in the late fifties, the Forum of the Twelve Caesars and the Four Seasons, which he collaborated on with Philip Johnson.

Pahlmann had no fondness for the old business adage that always puts the customer in the right. In fact, he said, "the customer is usually wrong," and he sometimes felt bedeviled by his clients. "With the exception of psychoanalysis, there is probably no other field of civilized endeavor in which the personalities of client and advisor are in such violent conflict or harmonious cooperation as interior decoration."

In all ways William Pahlmann dared to be different, and with his love of the unexpected and the opulent, he revolutionized American interior design.


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