Sian Ballen, Lesley Hauge and 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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]