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Decorators in the Haute Seat

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But when the House & Garden crew flew to Dallas a year later to photograph their residence, Jones was still in New York. Stephen Sills failed to notify his partner of the auspicious event.

When the Jones Sills, Inc., project was published in the June 1986 issue of HG, Jones's name was missing. The gorgeously photographed interior was credited solely to Sills. The article provided the editorial jolt an unknown designer would need to gain entrée into the New York market, and Jones knew it. Friends urged him to file a lawsuit, but he declined.

Jones doesn't hesitate when asked if he was surprised that Sills engineered his exclusion. "Nothing surprises me," he shrugs. "Stephen is a very egotistical person. That's why I'm not with him anymore. I'm not that aggressive. I'm not that mad to make a fortune. I'm not that mad to run over people."

Indeed, even though their partnership was strained, the two men remained on speaking terms. Jones even allowed Sills to stay at his New York apartment when he was away on business. It was on one of these weekends that James Huniford entered the picture. The handsome Syracuse native was waiting tables at Yellowfingers, a trendy singles scene conveniently located directly across the street from Jones's apartment. Stephen Sills had found his second collaborator.

In articles, Huniford is often portrayed as a former business student and Syracuse University graduate, but the registrar's office says it has no record of Huniford's ever graduating. If he ever did have M.B.A. aspirations, they were abandoned in favor of a far more tantalizing dream: Huniford wanted to be a movie star. "When James first went to New York, it was to get into the acting profession," reveals Elizabeth Huniford, James's aunt. "He dabbled in that. Modeling too. He did a number of things to survive down there."

But no one from the three big men's agencies at the time -- Zoli, Ford, Wilhelmina -- remembers a James Huniford. "Yeah, Ford was a model like Matt Nye was a model," snipes one fashion insider. "What state was he modeling in -- Michigan?"

Like Ralph Jones, Huniford was tall, attractive, charming, unsophisticated, and a very hard worker: Sills's perfect type. But unlike Jones, Huniford knew almost nothing about design.

That his business partner had a new love interest was of little concern to Jones, but with each successive visit Sills made to New York, it became more obvious that his partner of thirteen years was planning to scrap Jones Sills, Inc., and embark on a solo career. "I was the introduction for Stephen to New York. He took it from there," laments Jones. "He screwed me over. I saw it, and I said basta!"

Jones never did realize any profits from Jones Sills, Inc. All the money was tied up in antiques, which were stored at the Dallas townhouse. According to Scott Brown, Jones's current partner, there was at least $1 million worth of merchandise stashed there, half of which he claims rightfully belonged to Jones. "The house was full of priceless antiques," says Brown. "Fabulous silver, mirrors out of Chatsworth, Ming vases off the Empress Dowager's barge. And Ralph couldn't get any of it."

An attorney was consulted, but with no legally binding contracts and the deed to the townhouse in John Sills's name, there was little recourse. Jones eventually moved to Connecticut and then to Italy, where he lives with Brown, his partner of fifteen years. He says he's gotten over his malice toward Sills, and admires his old partner so much he would even collaborate with him again: "When all is said and done, Stephen is a great artist, and I respect him immensely."

For his part, Sills folded the business in Dallas and moved on to New York, where he and Huniford found a studio apartment. These days, even Sills's confidant Roger Prigent is astounded to learn that a previous partner existed. Another close associate from Sills's Dallas days explains his friend's reluctance to discuss the past. "Stephen never mentioned Ralph because he doesn't want that episode of his life opened," he says. "It's as if he had this immaculate conception in New York."

In 1984, Sills founded a new business venture with James Huniford. This time, though, there would be no mistaking who was the star; the firm was initially called Stephen Sills Associates Inc.

The division of labor was simple: Sills would be the artist; Huniford would be the enabler. Which is to say that if Sills decided a penthouse needed an oversize Louis XVI armoire, Huniford would find the crane (on 24 hours' notice) to hoist the thing seventeen stories in the air, through an open window. "The relationship between Stephen and Ford is quite complementary," explains Prigent. "It's like Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé. One is the designer; the other is the businessman."

The first few years were difficult. "I remember when Stephen and Ford had no money," recalls one fashion editor. "They told me they did their grocery shopping at Macy's Cellar because they could put it on a credit card." The money they did have went toward the renovation and decoration of their new Manhattan apartment. Plaster moldings were custom-designed, based on a Hellenistic motif; wallpaper was distressed and stenciled with Moroccan- and Islamic-inspired motifs; furniture was selected with the utmost care. But the masterstroke -- what really got editors panting -- was the improbable hand-laid cobblestone floor.


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