Stephen sills, born 1951 in Durant, Oklahoma, is a visionary interior decorator which mixed innovation with a deep regard for history that attracted clients like Vera Wang and Tina Turner as well as supporters like Bill Blass and Anna Wintour. Sills went to the University of North Texas, where he received a bachelor’s degree in interior design, and after that went to Paris for three years where he, though he did some work with Hank Gremillion, where he majored in having a good time. At the urging of his father, he returned to the States and got a real job as a decorator in Dallas. In 1982, he moved to New York to strike out on his own, eventually teaming up with James Huniford (today work independently).
And while they soon earned trophy commissions like Wang’s Park Avenue pad and the collectors Stephen and Nan Swid’s Fifth Avenue apartment, which would further establish their reputation, it was Sills’s own three-roomer, bought for him by his father, which the design world found most beguiling. I remember Annette de la Renta looking at some photos of Sills’s living room, utterly fascinated but hard put to explain it: “There are very few rules,” she said. Even the French were impressed: “When I first saw pictures of the apartment years ago, they did something that had not been seen in America before,” says the photographer François Halard, who took the pictures for this story.
When he needs inspiration, Stephen Sills does not have to travel to London or Paris or walk through the tangled alleys of old Kyoto. In fact, he do not even have to leave their office overlooking Madison Avenue. For there, pinned to the walls like prized butterflies, are images from magazines and newspapers of hundreds-yes, hundreds-of things he like. He grew up in a small town in rural Oklahoma and magazines were his only connection to the outside world, certainly the design world.
“When i first saw pictures of the apartment years ago, they did something that had not been seen in America before”
Sills is a hard worker and still very passionate about the R&D aspect — the getting into character, client by client — of his approach to interior design. He approaches every project with sensitivity to the architecture, function, and history of the space, enriching the vision of the client. With a fresh approach to classicism, Sills brings together furnishings that span four centuries and innovative choices of surfaces, textures, and colors.
He first major client was Nan Swid, a renowned collector of modern art, a philanthropist and a former designer herself; she is famous for her elegant tableware. After Sills designed a house in Southampton for Swid and her husband, Stephen, they were asked to do their apartment on Fifth Avenue. For the couple’s New York apartment, Sills remembered a photograph of a striking entrance hall by French architect and designer Emilio Terry (1890–1969): tall double doors and geometric floor patterns that give the impression of optical illusions. The second major commission came from Wang. Pleased with their work on her Madison Avenue bridal salon—she is perhaps the world’s best-known creator of wedding gowns—Wang asked he to decorate her apartment on Park Avenue. Her instructions were deceptively simple; all she wanted, she said, was a really great Park Avenue apartment from the 1940s—updated, of course. For inspiration, Sills turned not to Park Avenue but to Lake Bluff, Illinois, where, in 1931, Frances Elkins (1888–1953) had designed a formal yet surprisingly warm library for Lester and Leola Armour.
Today he shoes no interest in slowing down or in reducing his workload. His office is flourishing and current projects include: beachfront estates in Naples, Florida and Southampton, New York; two apartments in Miami; the conversion of two pre-war buildings in Manhattan to luxury co-ops; the Chevalier Restaurant and two private residences in the Baccarat Hotel.
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