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Decorators in the Haute Seat

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Sills and Huniford offered the Alters a full refund on all furniture, but their peace offering was angrily rejected. Now the Alters wanted blood. "As you know," wrote one of their lawyers, William J. Taylor, in a venomous letter to SHA's legal counsel, "an offer to make restitution after being caught violating the law does not erase the violation."

In response, SHA attorney Jack Pawa again proclaimed his clients' innocence and suggested to Taylor that it was in the Alters' best interest to cut a deal rather than pursue a judgment: "In my experience, arbitrators and judges are not all that sympathetic to owners who lavish this much money on a personal residence," the lawyer noted pointedly. "While it is their right, your clients have spent more on certain items of furniture than many people spend to acquire the houses they live in all their lives."

Much to the Alters' consternation, Sills and Ford had begun making accusations of their own. In arbitration papers, the decorators claimed that the Alters refused to return more than $100,000 worth of furniture and draperies they hadn't paid for, and still owed SHA $175,000 in fees and disbursements. They claimed that in one instance, Mrs. Alter moved an expensive rug from residence to residence to avoid movers who had come to pick it up. The case is now being heard by arbitrators in a proceeding closed to the press and the public. Neither Huniford and Sills nor the Alters, or either party's lawyers, responded to repeated requests for comment for this story.

Huniford and Sills wield enough power within the city's insular design community that very few have dared to criticize the two publicly. But it is equally telling that very few of their peers have publicly defended them in this crisis.

"People are saying, 'They deserve it. We knew it all along.' " says one well-known decorator, with a trace of glee. He pauses, as if to contemplate whether this indiscretion reflects poorly on him. "They probably dug their own grave," he adds solemnly. "I find it very sad." Asked who Sills and Huniford's friends are, the decorator replies curtly,

As one insider put it, "Sills and Ford are hugely unpopular. It's remarkable that two such talented people can inspire such hatred." "I worked with them, and it was a most unpleasant experience," reports one architect. "I would never work with them again."

"I have this image of them going home at night, standing before the mirror, and unzipping the human suits to reveal their lizard bodies underneath," says a well-connected writer at a glossy monthly. "They're nasty." Even Roger Prigent, a Manhattan furniture dealer who claims to be Sills and Huniford's "best and only friend," doesn't bother with excuses. "I heard that they were asking too much money for furniture," the Frenchman confesses in lilting, fractured English. "You know, decorators are very tricky. But if the client is dumb enough to buy it? Me, I don't deal with them professionally."

James Reginato, features director at W magazine, attempts to lend some perspective to the rancor directed at the two. "Almost everyone in the interior-design business wants each other dead," he says with a sigh. "It's worse than fashion."

"We all vie for the same clients, which makes for complicated relationships," agrees an uptown decorator. "You never know if you're a friend or a rival. But the thing with Stephen and Ford is that from the beginning, they made it very clear we were all rivals. They think they are better than everybody else, that they are more talented, that their clients are richer. It's too much to take."

Yet the current animosity that New York decorators harbor toward Huniford and Sills is prompted by more than mere professional jealousy. "We're worried that the Alter fiasco is going to reflect poorly on all of us," one designer admits nervously. "If Stephen and Ford's clients start to question the billing process, so will every other client." Joe Schiavo, the proprietor of OLC, a Philadelphia-based lighting and furniture showroom, says Dennis Alter's decision to go after Sills and Huniford may have a domino effect that will eventually call into question the integrity of every high-end designer in Manhattan. "They're going to be remembered as the decorators who killed the golden goose."

How did Sills Huniford Associates, Inc., one of the world's most prestigious interior-design firms, become embroiled in a debilitating legal battle with a credit-card magnate from Philadelphia? How did the budget to build a suburban home escalate from extravagant (a reported $22 million) to obscene (nearly $80 million, according to SHA's lawyers)?

Some of the blame certainly must fall on the Alters themselves. It was Dennis Alter who kept on writing checks as if they were Post-it notes, and he who gave Sills and Huniford virtual carte blanche on the job.

"Here was a guy who made a lot of money and wanted to build a tribute to himself," says one of the top designers on the Alter job. "So he got all these couture designers onboard -- there had to be fifteen, twenty consultants. And Dennis just wasn't ready for it. He was just overwhelmed trying to run his business and build this house at the same time."

Instead, he turned to Sills and Huniford, who not only had impeccable credentials (their client list over the years included high-profile editors Anna Wintour and Linda Wells, designers Nan Swid and Vera Wang, businessmen Ian Schrager and Jonathan Newhouse, and dozens of prominent socialites) but also unquestionably exquisite taste.

"They're exceptionally talented," says Wells, the editor of Allure, "but they also respected our budget and delivered the project on time, immaculately. I would work with them again in a heartbeat."

Architectural Digest editor-in-chief Paige Rense lauds them for their talent and authority, especially for "using antiques in a very contemporary way." She adds: "We've interviewed many of their clients, and we've never heard anything but wonderful things about them."


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