Designers We Love: Stephen Sills and James "Ford" Hunniford
Quotable Quote: Transforming empty rooms into the kind of home that you want is not quick or easy, nor is it without its heartaches and missteps. For most of us, decorating is intimidating. It requires major expenditures and big decisions often made with insufficient information. (How can you predict the impact of twenty yards of fabric based on only a small swatch? What will a color chosen from a paint chip look like on four large walls? Will that sofa overwhelm the room?) -- excerpt from 2003 book Dwellings: Living with Great Style
Background: Sills attributed to be the design genius behind the company, formed in 1984. Now located at 30 East 67 Street. Ford attributed to handle the business side. Collaboration works handily. Influential, leading-edge American interior design firm. Architectural Digest Editor-in-Chief Paige Rense quotes on the back cover of their first book: "Sills and Huniford are essential study for Decoration 101 or a Doctorate of Design."
Stephen Sills, born 1951 in Durant, OK. Father was town mayor and ophthalmologist. Mother a piano teacher. Bought their son subscriptions to shelter mags. Took him to museums while growing up. "He did his room over all the time," mother says. She describes how he bought tinware bowls and paisley fabric at dime store. Painted flowers on bowls. Used stapler to put fabric up on walls. Decorator heroes: Billy Baldwin and Cecil Beaton. Studied in University of North Texas' interior design program. BFA in May 1973.
Sills had early Bauhaus leanings. Faded quickly at age 22 when folks treated him to swank European trip. Of his first Paris visit, he noted, "It was magical. I knew it would change my life forever -- and it did." Back in Dallas, landed design assistant's job at Jerry Oden (known as Sister Parish of Dallas with over-the-top English country, classical, traditional stylings). Next stop: Lloyd-Paxton, big Dallas antique dealer. Sills and lover Ralph Jones went to estate sales and auctions on the side, sold pieces to wealthy Texans. Sills left L-P quickly. Opened up Jones Sills Inc. Sold quality French and English furniture from 18th century.
Famous for townhouse in Dallas the couple transformed into 18th century Italian villa. Breathtaking living room wall treatment that looked like cut stone. Illusion revealed: muslin sheets dipped many times in wet plaster.
What follows reads like soap opera drama. Fast forward to 1983. Sills and Jones living separately. Their Dallas townhome makes House & Garden. Sills meets Huniford waiting tables at Yellowfingers (no longer there, but former trendy east side Manhattan dining, bar scene). Two became a couple, and business formed. Huniford: former Syracuse University student, hard working, strong business compliment to Sills design acumen.
Jacques Grange met Sills at Paris flea markets, became semi-mentor to Sills. Lessons learned: how to combine antiques and modern furniture simply and artistically. Also how to love Jean-Michel Frank and other French modernist furniture gurus. Outsiders observe Sills Huniford's early work as hugely influenced by Jacques Grange.
SHA evolved consistent signature style. Each piece must be top quality. All furnishings must be "important." Provenance to everything. Mix of colors, textures, layers. Precise compositions and lighting. Eclectic, amazingly interesting blend of furnishings.
Rumors in design community of SHA overcharging clients. Infamous Dennis Alter 1999 legal proceedings against SHA and New York magazine article that startled the luxury design industry, "Decorators in the Haute Seat." But guess what? Bad publicity oftentimes best publicity. SHA skated through, emerged unscathed and thriving.
Gorgeous work on couple's own Bedford, NY home. Breakthroughs in shelter magazines. Famous clients in both residential and commercial projects. Fabulous commissions fueled SHA growth story. Clients include Anna Wintour, Linda Wells, the Newhouses, Brooke DeOcampo, Vera Wang, Tina Turner, Nan Swid, Starwood Properties and the St. Regis, and Rockefeller family. Home furnishing line Dwellings, with custom-designed lighting, tables, upholstered pieces. Also vintage furniture from SHA's famous shopping trips.
What We Love: We consider Sills Huniford Associates to be the design equivalent of Bad Boy Rock Stars. Are they both nice people? America oftentimes expects famous or successful people to be nice. Get over it.
We love to put successful people on pedestals, then we love to knock them over. While the New York magazine article was good journalism, and it told a juicy story, it did not harm the high-end design industry as some predicted and it barely impacted Sills Huniford. It probably made future SHA clients more attentive to the bottom line. It gave many designers pause to consider more "truth in advertising," particularly in reporting the fair value of furniture, artwork, and other design elements.
We love SHA because they craft beautifully designed interiors. They epitomize what luxury decorating is all about in America. They attract the clients every designer wishes she or he had. We love the description of one of their clients as "writing checks like Post-it Notes."
Money, we believe, can buy an amazingly incredible interior . . . but only in the right designer's hands. This is a message many who aspire to high-end decorating do not fathom. If each element of the interior is to be the best quality, that costs money. That's one part of the message. But the other part is, the money must be spent in service of the higher vision, and not all designers have the vision thing. SHA does. One piece of furniture could out-cost the price of the average U.S. home, and Sills Huniford is justly known for putting together interiors that take your breath away because they aggregate so many important museum-quality elements.
We enjoy the controversy in the industry that Sills Huniford inspires. They have a way of arousing snarky jealousy. Many would love their client list, the lavish budgets they control, and the freedom to source anything beautiful and unique for appreciative patrons.
Are they too expensive? Do they mark up things ridiculously? Puhleeze. Prada charges over a thousand dollars for their version of a mass-produced synthetic-fiber bag. You don't see Prada getting flack. Artistry and design brands come with a price tag. You buy an interior from SHA, and SHA marks it up. Their entire design package is wrapped up with a charge for signature talent and style. That's the way high-end design works.
We love Sills Huniford's style inspirations and their beautiful executions. Grange, the French modernists, and furnishings and furniture from four different centuries -- what's not to love? "Eclectic" is a basic chapter in our design bible, too, and SHA helped write it. They respect structure and architecture as the starting point for any great room design. We are intrigued with their use of fascinating materials: limed oak, tooled leather, parchment, and anything tactile and rarified is fair game in their design schemes.
Karl Lagerfeld called their phenomenal Bedford, NY renovated house and gardens "the chic-est house in America."
We applaud the envelope-pushing on all fronts when it comes to Sills Huniford: personal drive and ambition, industry controversy, flamboyant extravagance, and talent wrapped in a luxurious and pricey package.
Sills Huniford Sampler: