DALLAS – Derrill Osborn has a neatly lettered placard on his stately front door: “Beware of attack cow.” Guests entering the Dallas townhouse might dismiss the message as a bit of a wink or pure whimsy. They’d be advised not to. Granted, there’s no threat of assault, in the literal sense, as you step inside Osborn’s hushed suite of rooms swathed in red and green (more on those colors later). But as your eyes adjust to the ambient glow of a crystal chandelier and silk-shaded lamps, prepare to face a furious stampede of the decorative variety.
Or, as Osborn describes it: “There may be no cows left in Texas, because they’re all inside my townhouse.”
This is a bold collection from a man who wears bold well.
As the longtime director of men’s clothing for Neiman Marcus (he retired in 2002), Osborn has been celebrated for his own impeccable and eccentric sense of style.
His mustachioed face, typically framed by a wide-brimmed hat, has graced the pages of GQ, Esquire and Vogue Hommes. He has raised a glass with movie stars and presidents. Dressing down for him is a starched shirt, tailored vest and britches tucked into handmade cowboy boots (note the steer heads stitched along the front). And you’ll almost always find him wearing his signature fresh boutonniere, either a red rose or small carnation.
So it seems appropriate that Osborn’s living quarters would be as gussied up as he is. And one glance around the living room confirms that the cattle here are anything but out to pasture.
Every available surface in the two-bed, two-and-a-half bath space holds an objet vache, from folk to fine art, almost all antique.
There are standouts. Displayed on one table are two 1830 Staffordshire porcelain cows, considered especially rare for their prominent size (it would take two hands to carry them responsibly).
In a corner is a substantial-looking 150-year-old majolica cheese dome, which Osborn loves for the lone cow perched atop. In the powder room, guests can check their makeup in a mirror with a cow-themed frame of carved wood from Germany’s Black Forest.
The collector even has his own version of bovine bling in the form of two near-life-size golden cow heads mounted above the sunroom entry.
Ask Osborn to pick a favorite and he becomes visibly pained, protesting “they are all my children.”
He was just a child himself when he acquired his first bovine object. “My great-grandfather whittled me this piece when I was 8 years old,” says Osborn. “He was a rancher and whittler; he carved all sorts of animals.”
He pulls down a smooth, red-painted cow, which has been hanging by a ribbon from the living room’s low-hanging chandelier. There are other figurines draped on the fixture, as well, forming a sort of haute lite-brite Christmas tree.
“I remember as a boy watching cows, studying cows,” says Osborn, a New Mexico native who spent his early childhood on the family ranch. “It was quite a sight – those many cows roaming the grounds, which were cut through with streams and no fences, and then I’d watch them do the brandings.
“It was powerful as a boy to witness all that. I’m not sure I liked cows so much at the time, but something happened … well, obviously,” he says, gesturing around his home with a soft chuckle. “I guess something stuck.”
Osborn has always been a man of contradictions. In 1964, he went directly from the army to a job at New York’s Saks Fifth Avenue . “It was a very aristocratic store at the time and marvelous,” says Osborn.
He spent 10 years there, starting in the boy’s clothing department then working his way up to buyer.
“Boy’s clothing was different back then,” says Osborn. “Little boys wore suits and blazers to school. They were very dressed up.”
And one of his best-dressed clients was John Kennedy Jr. “I assisted John-John with his clothes for a long time, until he grew bigger. We had quite the Who’s Who back then.”
The A-list expanded when Osborn left New York to run a men’s clothing and antiques boutique in Beverly Hills. His life took a fortuitous turn the day he literally bumped into Neiman Marcus co-founder Stanley Marcus on the sidewalk along Wilshire Boulevard.
“I knew who he was, of course,” says Osborn, “so I introduced myself.” Mr. Marcus was so impressed with the dapper Osborn that he invited him to apply for a position.
Osborn worked for the retailer for 23 years, the last 17 as director of men’s clothing.
“Here’s old Stan and me, all dressed up in black tie,” says Osborn, reaching from his 16th-century needlepoint chair to pick up a small, framed photo. “This was his 95th birthday party. He died the next year, and I miss him.
“There was something that happened when he died. I thought to myself, I don’t know if I can do this anymore without Stanley. He was a mentor and just a marvelous man.”
Osborn did retire that year, and the dandy gentleman wasted no time surprising friends by buying a black special-edition Ford Harley-Davidson pickup to travel the country.
“I’ve spent much of my working years abroad, and America is such a fabulous place, and I wanted to see it,” he says.
“Yellowstone, Yosemite, Wyoming … I fell in love with those places especially. I suppose because they’re kind of cow country, so I felt right at home.”
Osborn twice tried to move himself and his vast collection out of his townhouse – and failed both times.
“I’ve lived here 15 years and wouldn’t mind something roomier,” he explains. “Two different movers have come in to give me estimates, and both flatly declined the job.”
It may be just as well; Osborn has put a lot of work into making this space his own. Take, for example, those saturated hues of red and green.
” Queen Victoria said that red and green require much in between,” Osborn quotes in his own defense. “They are very pleasing colors to me, it makes you think about Christmas, and did you know that these colors are used throughout the world, such as in the Forbidden City in Beijing?”
Osborn covered his walls in rich green billiard felt purchased in Spain. “I find it soothing,” he says. The remainder of his formerly white walls and woodwork was lacquered in Pompei red, which Osborn says some claim has never been successfully reproduced, “but I feel I’ve come as close as possible to the exact shade.”
As for furnishings, Osborn was involved here as well. He actually worked with a friend, Tulsa-based designer Charles Faudree , on two sofas – ornate pieces with braided cords holding the arms in place: “Take that rope off,” explains Osborn, “and the sides lay down so they can become little day beds.”
Other furnishings are mostly antique, including several original gilded Louis XVI chairs and many pieces in cinnabar – carved wood lacquered thousands of times in red paint, including two display cases and a secretary. “I was in China and went berserk buying over there,” he says.
Osborn tries to sum up his home: “I like mixtures of things. There’s a little Oriental here, a little French thrown in there, red and green, and a whole lot of cows.”
These days, the bachelor has been considering what he will do with his collection of furnishings someday.
“I recently heard a sermon about laying up treasures on Earth, and I was laughing to myself, thinking: Does this pastor know I’m in the audience?” he says with a grin. “I was discussing it with him later, and he told me he’s done a lot of funerals, and he’s yet to see a U-Haul trailer behind the hearse.”
To that end, Osborn has begun cataloging his pieces. He’s talking with a small Texas museum that is considering recreating his living room as a permanent exhibit.
Let’s hope they have a penchant for bovines.
Regarding his nontraditional obsession, the collector says he’s often asked why?
“When people use the expression ‘contented as a cow,’ well, that’s pretty remarkable because cows are, in fact, tremendously contented,” explains Osborn.
“They just eat and sleep, they don’t do much, and they’re happy. I’ve often thought, why can’t humans be that way? Could I, in life, be as content as a cow?
“Well, I can tell you that today, I really am.”