By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch
“I hate that word ‘designer’,” declares Stephen Sills, “it’s such a made-up thing from the 70s when decorators were looked down upon, so everybody became a ‘designer’. A great decorator should be every bit as respected as a great architect.” And cheers to that, we say. Stephen Sills is respected. He is widely admired for his distilled palette deployed in tranquil—and even ethereal—rooms that frequently contain a distinct combination of hand-finished surfaces, exquisite antiques, burnished metals and striking modern pieces.
His latest book, simply titled, Stephen Sills: Decoration (Rizzoli), has a foreword written by Karl Lagerfeld, who famously once declared the Bedford house, “the chicest house in America.” Well, that’s one thing most people know but here’s one thing they don’t know: Stephen once took a felt tip pen to the Italian silk velvet of the Jacobean chairs in the entry way and scribbled until the stripes became the color he wanted. “I’m a do-er,” he says. “So I just got down and did it.”
We wanted to start by asking you where you see yourself now in your career … sort where are you at?
Where I’m at? I feel more optimistic and better than ever at this point in my life. I have a sort of clarity. Everything has come together for me in the last five or six years … maybe just maturity. My whole life is my design work—it really is.
How do you think this clarity has come about?
From a very early age, I was always working so hard developing my own style and identity for my work. I was very successful at an early age but a career’s strange—it goes up and down, up and down, up and down. You just have to ride the waves. Sometimes you think, well is it in the work? Am I not producing the right vibe for the moment? And then you realize that you were …
But you have to stick to some degree of vision, even if it’s not fashionable.
Now I think my vision, the base of it, was always classic and minimal. Now it’s just a little changed, using more minimal and modern things. It’s fun.
Arriving at Stephen's country home in Bedford.
A view of the main house with its four square architecture and original clapboard.
A retaining wall and stone steps lead up to the back of the main house.
Was there a stage when it was less fun?
This business is a very tough business. It’s a service business. You have to be on it all the time. You have to be on all the time when you’re with clients. You have to be on top of your game; you have to be thinking and quick on your feet. And it’s tiring!
Yes, being charming is very exhausting.
It is! You have to be flexible and at the same time you sometimes have to stick to your guns and explain your position. It’s intense.
But experience counts for a lot.
That might be what I’m speaking of. Finally my whole psyche has calmed down and relaxed a little bit.
In the main entrance of Stephen's house, an Italian silk velvet stripe covers Jacobean chairs that once belonged to Billy Baldwin.
The limed chestnut veneer walls of the main entrance give the front entry hall a soft glow.
A Louis XVI neo-classical oak cabinet stands against a wall in the entry hall.
The portrait of an Arab boy in the front hall is by artist Christian Berard. It was once owned by Christian Dior.
Marble columns from the Mamluk period frame the entrance to the living room.
Hand-grooved plaster walls and stone floors are the perfect backdrop for Stephen's mix of fine art and antiques. A pair of English twig candle tables stand next to a pair of Georges Jacob recamiers. The oversized globe once lived in Rudolf Nureyev's apartment.
French doors fill a corner of the living room with light.
The living room is a mixture of pieces that once belonged to Stephen's 'design' heroes, including Bill Blass, Cecil Beaton, Rudolf Nureyev and Carlos Beistegui.
Would you not describe yourself as a particularly relaxed person?
No, I’m not a really a relaxed person. I’m a mellow person but I’m always doing. I’m always walking around, arranging things in my own house.
Is that perfectionism?
Well, I hate to say that because I don’t like perfectionism but I’m always wanting to change things.
We have to bring up this New York magazine article that was very hard on you—you would have needed a lot of resilience to get over that, no?
Well, I was very resilient over that. It was a real revelation when that happened because it was so awful and so embarrassing because you can’t do anything about something that’s written about you—and ninety percent of everything that was written was untrue. It was a revelation how tough New York is. New York is kind of a funny thing because people like to bring somebody up so high and then they like to chop you down. And have a lot fun doing it. I didn’t understand that.
A stunning bronze head by Picasso stands atop a 17th century Indo-Portuguese table in the living room.
A Cy Twombly drawing provides a contrast to an Etruscan terra-cotta mask.
Stephen wanted striped walls without wallpaper so he settled on hand-grooved plaster.
A "greige" armless sofa and side chairs add a modern touch and tie pieces together from different eras in design.
A Robert Rauschenberg drawing and a Louis XVI settee are centered between French doors.
Baluster-shaped pewter pilgrim bottles are arranged atop a Louis XV mahogany secretary.
Elaborately carved garden stools stand next to a Louis XVI settee in the main living room.
An English twig stand from Kew Gardens references the trees outside of the living room.
A view from the living room.
Christian Dior once owned the 18th century porter's chair that stands front and center in Stephen's library. Custom bookcases also conceal a door to the kitchen.
A formal dining room and porch were converted into a spacious library where Stephen reads, watches TV and holds casual dinners.
To hide the disparate pattern of books in the library Stephen lined his glass-fronted bookcases with bamboo shades painted white.
The flat screen TV is 'out-in-the-open'.
An exquisite 18th century German Louis XVI desk is from Carlton Hobbs.
Marble columns from the Mamluk period frame the view from the library into the living room. The étagère is directoire and holds a Giacometti lamp.
Has it made you more wary?
I’m not as trusting—at all.
But one thing that did come out in that article, despite all the critical things, was that almost all the sources quoted kept saying that you were incredibly talented. Perhaps you can take that away from it.
Well what was amazing was that nobody would give their names … so who knows who was saying the nasty things? It was so over-the-top bitter and mean that I didn’t think it had any validity.
So what about ambition then—what are your thoughts on your own ambition?
I always had a single focus. My parents were so great and wonderful raising me—and I was a very odd child. My mother loved classical music and my Dad loved reading and sculpture. I always had a singular vision my whole life of what I wanted to do. I wanted to be an artist.
Stephen loves to cook and entertain in his casual country kitchen.
Open steel shelves store dinnerware.
A group of 18th century Italian prints of lemons fills a kitchen wall.
A marble shelf above one -of -two kitchen sinks displays glassware, including a container for the dog biscuits.
Looking across the kitchen island into the dining room.
A professional stove for a serious cook.
A cone-shaped chandelier by Alberto Giacometti hangs over a Louis XVI dining table and chairs. A corner of the dining room is filled with art, including a bronze sculpture by Jean Arp and drawings by Miro.
Stephen hand-stained and lacquered these now-fabulous gourds.
What kind of an odd child were you?
Because I was a very inquisitive child. I was like a self-induced adult when I was about 15 years old. I wasn’t interested in what the other kids were doing. I was driven to get out of Oklahoma—I had a wonderful childhood but I didn’t really relate to anything there and I knew that. I wanted to go to Europe.
You do seem to have a lot of “Europe” in your style. I’m British and I like the way you haven’t repaired some of the cracks in the ceiling … and it’s a bit cold in here, which is also very British …
[laughs] Oh … shall we turn up the heat?
Stephen transformed the upstairs landing into an additional sitting area. The mid-19th century German corner cabinets were built to display glassware.
A lattice-back chair and Georgian desk stand against a wall in the upstairs landing.
An 18th century French provincial map hags on a wall in the stairwell. Stephen saved the iron rods for years before he was able to transform them into these staircase spindles.
Stephen had the walls of a guest-room painted in an unusual high-gloss green. (Stephen calls the color 'pond-scum green') A tufted leather sofa and mahogany directoire chair provide and elegant and comfortable seating area.
A small mirrors stands atop an English watercolor stand.
A series of antique mirrored candle sconces hang above the guest room fireplace mantel.
A handsome Italian Empire steel bed welcomes the lucky houseguest.
A small side chair is a handy place to stack bedtime reading.
French doors flank an Italian writing table in Stephen's bedroom.
Country clothes are draped over a side chair.
An antique Austrian map, a Roman bust and sepia photos are arranged atop the fireplace mantel in Stephen's bedroom.
The upstairs bathroom has a vintage double porcelain sink and fixtures.
A stunning antique Portuguese embroidery is draped over the back of a sofa in the upstairs study. An eagle's nest of barbed wire stands in front of the study window.
The cozy upstairs study is filled with comfortable furniture and personal items including a wall covered with notes and photos of family and friends.
A standing bronze lamp by Alberto Giacometti stands next to the study bookcase.
A photograph of a pensive Marilyn Monroe by Bert Stern leans against the study bookcase.
Stephen designed a second guest bedroom in soothing tones of blue and gray.
Peeking into the upstairs hall bath.
Ah, now that’s your Oklahoma upbringing showing—if you were British you would just tell me to put another sweater on. Not that I know much about Oklahoma—perhaps you could tell us what it was like growing up there?
Well it was a very small town [Durant]—a beautiful town though with a town square and a limestone neo-classical courthouse and library. My grandparents had a lovely old home in the town, parents built a beautiful, modern house about ten miles out of town. Oklahoma is a very flat, dry place with lots of sky. I had a very good education there, with marvelous teachers.
Judging from your book and clips, you seem to get very excited about cement … well, I mean building materials … stone and marble and so on.
Yeah! That’s very observant of you—no one has ever said that to me before. You have to feel the material.
Exterior views of the guesthouse. Stephen transformed what was originally a slate-roofed garage, about to fall down, and turned it into a guesthouse.
Inspired by the floor pattern of Pauline de Rothchild's Chateau Mouton, with its multi-colored tiles, Stephen decided to flip the idea 'upside-down' and paint the ceiling in this lively pattern.
The floors of the main room in the guesthouse are laid with a rough Canadian marble brick that is stained white. Formal French furniture is arranged casually around linen covered table. Grotto tables from Kew Gardens are part of the eclectic collection of furnishings.
A straw chair by Korean artist, Kim Hyun-bin, stands a Robert Morris felt sculpture.
18th century chairs from Turin, stand in front of a fabric-covered table topped with a Jean-Michel Frank lamp and ancient Chinese jade objects.
A French ormolu-mounted money-changing table sits next to an 18th century French tester bed.
Looking across the main room of the guesthouse. In the right corner a modern sculpture stands next to a rice-straw chair created by Korean artist Kim Hyun-bin.
In the guesthouse hall a small painting by Stephen's elementary school teacher stands atop an English lacquer table.
A high-lacquer grey paint creates a soothing background for a downstairs bedroom in the guesthouse. The lamps are by Dupré Lafon.
I’m interested that you like to do things like hand-trowel plaster finishes on to walls or paint a mantel Jackson Pollock style. Did you teach yourself to do things like that?
Oh absolutely. I’m a do-er. I know all those trades because I taught myself when I was learning how to paint. My love of finishes comes from my first trip to Europe—especially my first trip to Paris, which sort of changed my life. I had great connections there and I went to gorgeous apartments—and you realized that most of it was all faux painting. But it’s done so well. There’s a total operatic sort of theater to it all.
I remember going to villa in Italy that was covered with exuberant of paintings of flowers on its exterior—I don’t think I can see that happening here.
Because it’s America and we’re cautious. America was founded on a lot of hard work and it’s puritanical. But I also love American style—like Shaker furniture, it’s beautiful.
Globe-shaped boxwoods form a center island in the driveway. The guest house is in the background.
Stone obelisks and finials mark the steps leading to the long parterre garden, where a series of squares is each hedged by trimmed boxwood.
Close-clipped boxwoods line the path to the main house.
A plume of water rises above a lawn near the main house.
The garden's wide central axis runs from the main house towards a lower paved terrace.
Steps lead to the upper perennial garden.
On the lower terrace, boxwood spheres pop up through square paving forming a 'checkerboard' pattern.
Rather than an orchard, fresh fruit trees have been planted at various points on the property.
Stone spheres are placed randomly throughout the garden.
The lower terrace runs by the left side of the guesthouse.
A close up of the boxwood 'checkerboard'.
A seating area at the edge of the formal garden overlooks the property's natural pond, making it an ideal place for dining in the warmer weather.
Four antique stone columns at the end of the pool (now covered) have a classical simplicity.
Formal topiaries flank an opening in the stone wall.
An abundance of English-style perennials fill the upper garden of the property.
A bench at the top of a sloping hill provides a place to sit and contemplate.
Looking towards the main house from the garden's central axis.
Wild lavender fills the more formal clipped boxwood squares leading to the main house.
An iron bench creates seating in the lower terrace.
How are you at promoting yourself?
I’m basically a shy person and I don’t do a lot of the parties. I just don’t have … the social thing. I can really enjoy a party but I don’t know how to make small talk. But you know I’m attracted to people that are [able to make small talk]. My two best friends are the most social, most charismatic people in the world—they could talk to a telephone pole. I’m a good listener though.
What do you like to do at the weekends?
Read … watch television. My friend Rob, because he’s so young, has got me watching this brilliant comedian … Tosh.O … it’s perverse and sick and kind of fratboy insanity and absurdity. He kind of gives you a perspective to the inside of young people—but you know I get it! I laugh! [laughs]