It’s a sultry 88 degrees in New York City at the start of a busy holiday weekend and I've been granted an audience with American interior decorating royalty. Stephen Sills has agreed to meet me at Marea on Central Park South to talk about his craft.
What does one ask a man who’s a member of the AD [Architectural Digest] 100, has won a coveted spot as one of their “30 Deans of American Design” and been listed as one of Elle Decor’s Top 25 designers, among many other glowing commendations? My nerves prove unfounded within seconds of his arrival—the warm lilt of his Midwestern accent matches the humidity of the afternoon and he orders a martini (up, dirty, three olives). I settle in for a whirlwind two hours in the company of this gentle, unassuming and highly intelligent man.
“My mother was a classical musician. My grandmother had five sisters who were all artists, so I grew up in this wonderfully creative environment. I started painting classes at the age of 12, which took me from the small town in Oklahoma where I grew up to Dallas. Dallas was a cradle of culture for me—I remember being haunted by one painting at the Dallas Museum of Art by Francis Bacon of a walking figure. It had a rawness and refinement along with ingenuity that stayed with me. And I loved discovering later on in life that Bacon started out as an interior designer.”
It’s this innate fluency in the language of art that has undoubtedly endeared Sills to his clients over the years. A cursory glance through his book (with photography by François Halard) tells you at once that he is the serious art collector's decorator of choice. His client's homes contain work by a roll call of the most coveted artists of our time: : Richter, Picasso, Calder, Mitchell, Twombly, de Kooning, Giacometti, Kapoor. But removed from the white walls and custom lighting of the auction house preview or dealer's rooms, these greats are complimented by a skillful blend of antique and modern furniture—not the stark minimalism that you find so often elsewhere.
Sills shows you how to really live with this art. And the result is the zeitgeist of interior decoration—the ability to effortlessly juxtapose harmoniously—with moments of focus but also repose. Sills’s interiors possess drama without theatricality. So how does he do it?
“There is a contemporary approach to antiques and it’s all about selectivity. There is nothing more modern than Louis XVI furniture with its neoclassical form and elegant proportions—especially when it’s pared back and unadorned. It's about the message you want to convey with something old. Throughout history, designers have always looked to the past in order or re-interpret or re-invent. In the end it all comes from nature.”
A Sills interior is imbued with a sense that its contents have always belonged together, which is precisely what sets them apart and makes them feel so fresh. In the collection that leads the inaugural Living With Art sale in New York on October 7 and 8, German rococo and Queen Anne were styles that he used to offset Miró and de Kooning in the grand hallway of his client’s Midwestern home. What excites about his interiors is the ease with which these disparate elements of the fine and decorative arts come together.
A Pair of Queen Anne Gray-Painted Center Tables. Late 17th/early 18th century. Estimate: $8,000–12,000
A Pair of French Cut and Gilt-Glass Chandeliers by Andre Arbus, circa 1940. Estimate: $50,000–80,000
“I don't just sell a look. Some people decide to become decorators without the desire to know or understand the medium in which they are working. We find ourselves at a time where decorating is often reduced to styling—all surface and no connoisseurship.”
If there are leitmotivs to Sills’s style, then connoisseurship, depth and attention to detail are certainly among them. He places furniture and lighting like an assured painter applies his brushstrokes—everything is considered.
“The responsibility of a good decorator is to understand it’s up to you to give a client the best environment to them personally—to get to the root of who they are and the type of space they want to live in. At the moment I’m working with a beautiful young woman and her charming husband. They are passionate about design and furniture and have the means and interest to pursue it. I’m currently moving an entire Frank Gehry house across the country for them!”
Sills cannot name a favorite project or one that encapsulates his design philosophy precisely because despite his huge success, there is no complacency.
“You always have to check yourself—question yourself—that the play you’re acting in is still inspiring a good performance. I’m still trying to find true clarity. I remember realizing when I was in my 40s that being good wasn’t about breaking conventions. I had my vocabulary—I just needed to relax.”
And it is precisely this self-awareness that he encourages others to find in their approach to art and furniture.
“If you’re buying antiques or contemporary art, figure out what your style is and don’t waver from it. Don’t be swayed by fashion—stick to your own vision.”
To learn more about our October Decorative Arts sales, visit A Month of Decorative Arts.