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Decorators in the Haute Seat

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Stephen Sills was born in Durant, Oklahoma, on May 20, 1951, to parents who encouraged their son's rarefied interests from an early age. While other boys were playing sports and reading comic books, the Sillses -- John, an ophthalmologist who was also the mayor, and Eloise, a piano teacher -- were escorting their son to museums and buying him subscriptions to shelter magazines.

Eloise Sills says her son demonstrated a precocious talent for interior design from the time he was 10: "He did his room over all the time. One time, he went to the dime store and brought back some tinware and paisley fabric. He painted flowers on those bowls and with a little ol' hand stapler, he put that paisley fabric all over the walls."

In a backwater like Durant, such diversions would hardly have endeared him to his classmates. Neither would revealing that your heroes were decorator Billy Baldwin and Cecil Beaton. "Growing up, Stephen didn't have a lot of friends," recalls Eloise Sills. "He was in another world all the time."

After graduating from high school, he moved to Denton, Texas, and enrolled in the interior-design program at the University of North Texas. He thrived there, graduating with a B.F.A. in May 1973.

The decorator who would later become a staunch proponent of early neoclassical styles started out as a Bauhaus fan. But Sills's minimalist leanings abruptly dissipated when his parents treated him to a grand tour of Europe. For the 22-year-old graduate, this excursion would prove to be an epiphany. "It was magical," Sills once said of his first glimpse of Paris. "I knew it would change my life forever -- and it did."

"Stephen never mentions his old partner because he doesn't want that episode of his life opened," says an old friend. "It's as if he had this immaculate conception in New York."

When he returned home, Sills landed a job in Dallas with top decorator Jerry Oden, whose chintz-drenched interiors gained him a reputation as the Sister Parish of Dallas. "I was really excited. It was a good firm and everything," remembers Eloise Sills of her son's first design gig. "But he wasn't there long before he said, 'Mother, I can do this by myself.' I just thought to myself, Oh, dear."

While the tedious tasks of ordering fabric and answering phones were far removed from the life he envisioned for himself, the job did give Sills the chance to meet Oden's wealthy clients, and he soon became as adept at spotting -- and handling -- an oil tycoon as a Chippendale repro.

While working for Oden, Sills met Ralph Jones, a Texas City native who was marking time as a design assistant at John Astin Perkins, another local interior-design firm. The hunky six-foot-four-inch Texan had studied architecture at the University of Houston, but, disillusioned by the bean-counting part of the profession, decided to pursue decorating.

Jones was everything Sills was not: tall, handsome, charming, and incredibly unambitious. And unlike Sills, who was well traveled and aristocratic in demeanor, Jones was rather naïve. The two became lovers and eventually decided to go into business together. To cement their commitment, they set up house at 3701 Turtle Creek Boulevard, a posh address in the Highland Park section of Dallas.

Sills's next employer was Lloyd & Paxton, the town's most renowned antique emporium, where he acquired much of his appreciation and knowledge of antiques. As he became more confident in his appraisal skills, he began purchasing furniture for the business venture he was planning with Ralph Jones. Pooling their funds, the two men started frequenting estate sales and auctions, and began selling pieces on the side to Texas socialites.

Sills's stint at Lloyd & Paxton ended unhappily when he was, according to a high-placed source at the firm, angrily dismissed by Lloyd Taylor in the middle of a job. "Stephen was just irresponsible and didn't follow through on things," the source says. Tired of working for others, Sills decided to strike out on his own. He borrowed money from his parents and moved with Jones into a two-story townhouse in a fashionable Dallas neighborhood, which they quickly transformed into a showplace. The design firm Jones Sills, Inc., was founded then, as was an eponymous antiques shop, where clients could find the best French and English eighteenth-century furniture.

The townhouse would require a complete gutting and take two years to complete, but when it was done, the interior was a revelation. Here, in the middle of Dallas, was an audacious interpretation of an eighteenth-century Italian villa. Despite the traditional elements (trompe l'oeil, freestanding fluted columns, Roman antiquities), the space somehow managed to transcend cliché. The most highly praised feature was the magnificent wall treatment in the living room, which looked surprisingly like an expanse of meticulously cut stone. The ingenious illusion was accomplished by painstakingly dipping muslin sheets hundreds of times in wet plaster.

By 1983, after they'd been in business together for a decade, their affair had run out of steam, and the partnership was limping. While Sills remained in Dallas running the firm, Ralph Jones moved to New York, where he rented an apartment on East 60th Street above Serendipity III and began the arduous task of promoting his and Sills's work to magazine editors and patrons. In 1983, he walked uninvited into the offices of House & Garden, armed with photographs of the Dallas townhouse. When Jacqueline Gonnet, the magazine's decorating editor, saw the shots, she immediately took them into the office of Alexander Liberman, Condé Nast's famed art director. Both agreed that the interior was spectacular, and they committed to publishing it. Jones phoned Sills with the good news: They'd finally been discovered.


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