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Decorators in the Haute Seat

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When completed, the studio apartment was a huge hit. Sills and Huniford doled out sections of the apartment, bit by bit, to different publications at different intervals. "They really rotated that apartment around," one designer says enviously. "For maybe two years or so, that's all that they published. And every time you saw another picture, they'd move a chair or a table."

Then, in 1988, Stephen Sills got the break that would push him over the top. Anna Wintour, then editor-in-chief of House & Garden, picked Sills as a member of the "Clean Team." The April issue of House & Garden profiled five young New York decorators whose fresh approach to interior design went "beyond the traditional and the predictable -- without succumbing to trendiness." Even at this early stage of his New York career, he showed no signs of false modesty: "I have a very persuasive way of creating an environment for my clients, and making them think it's their idea and their taste," he says in the article. "I give them what they think they wanted, but it's always better than what they imagined."

When House & Garden organized a national promotional tour to publicize the issue, Sills declined to participate. "Everyone else was excited, but Stephen was like, 'I'm not doing that, thank you,' " recalls Sills's friend and fellow Clean Team member Mark Zeff. "We couldn't understand why, because it was such a great opportunity. We were all a bit snobbish, but he was more snobbish than all of us."

Sills undoubtedly felt he had reason to be a snob. After all, he had been schooled in the finer points of interior design by Jacques Grange, the man many considered to be the world's best living decorator. Sills was introduced to Grange by Prigent at the Paris flea market. "Grange was definitely a mentor of sorts to Stephen and Ford," says Prigent. "They would ask him for advice."

According to Prigent, Grange taught Sills and Huniford two invaluable lessons that would inform their work. The first was how to combine antiques (especially Louis XVI and Empire) and modern furniture in a simple yet artful manner. The second was an appreciation for the great French Modernist furniture designers of the twenties and thirties, particularly Jean-Michel Frank. "Stephen started by copying Jacques Grange -- that's his idol," says Prigent matter-of-factly. "He will never admit it, but their apartment is a complete copy of Jacques Grange's apartment."

When Architectural Digest's Tina Turner exclusive appeared in InStyle the same month, "Tina called and begged Paige Rense for forgiveness," says one P.R. source. "Paige wouldn't even take her calls."

Today, though, the mentor is largely estranged from his protégés. The incident that caused the rift had to do with an apartment Grange had done in Paris that Sills and Huniford were curious about. To oblige them, a friend of Prigent's threw a cocktail party at the newly decorated residence and invited the two American designers. According to one guest that evening, Sills and Huniford did little to hide their competitive impulses. Drapery was pawed over, furniture was inspected, eyebrows were arched. "They should have said, 'Oh, it's a very pretty apartment. Thank you for inviting me,' " says the guest. "But they behaved in a judgmental way. It was not very elegant."

Sills and Huniford's Paris Faux Pas did little to dampen their popularity back home. In only four years, Stephen Sills Associates had compiled a client list better than those of most established firms, and as the money poured in, they expanded their design empire. The business -- now up to fifteen employees -- moved to a tony office at 30 East 67th Street. The couple also traded in their studio apartment for a penthouse on 86th Street between Park and Lexington.

With each new commission, the Sills look evolved, until it become a branded commodity, as recognizable as a Mario Buatta or Albert Hadley interior. There were many facets and layers to admire: the craftsmanship involved in the various finishes, the mix of colors and textures, the composition and lighting. But what every editor raved about was the "eclectic" furnishings, invariably seventeenth- and eighteenth-century antiques mixed with Modernist pieces, especially those designed by Jean-Michel Frank.

Of course, they couldn't just be great pieces; they had to be exquisite, museum-quality pieces. Furnishings were categorized as either "important" or "very important," depending on how exalted the lineage happened to be. "I call them the provenance decorators," quips one insider mischievously. "Everything has a provenance." In the library of their 86th Street apartment, for instance, an oval Directoire wine-tasting table that once belonged to Christian Dior shares space with a mirror that was Cecil Beaton's.

Mitchell Owens, a New York Times reporter who once curiously trailed Sills and Huniford at a Paris flea market, marvels at the decorators' unerring eye. "It's almost like a sixth sense," he says. "Not only do they choose the best example of a given style, but it always turns out to be something that was owned by some incredible person. There's always this nexus of history, society, craftsmanship, and international chic."

In search of a larger showplace, in 1992 Sills and Huniford purchased a run-down white-shingled house and guest cottage on twenty acres in Bedford, New York. Previously owned by the garden enthusiast and writer Helen Fox, the historic Hi-Low Farm would turn out to be Sills and Huniford's tour de force, complete with eighteenth-century French stone floors, golden chestnut paneling, and plaster walls painstakingly hand-troweled to create 3-D stripes. When the renovation of the house and the elaborate gardens was completed, Karl Lagerfeld proclaimed the retreat to be "the chic-est house in America." Not surprisingly, magazine editors clamored for the exclusive.

It was Anna Wintour, now at Vogue, who got the nod. She reserved ten pages for the house, and slated it for the December 1995 issue. But a week before Vogue hit the newsstands, the December issue of Elle Décor came out, with the Hi-Low Farm prominently featured on the cover. To embarrass an editor (and client) -- especially one who had promoted their early work -- much less someone as powerful as Anna Wintour, was regarded in the industry as evidence of a professional death wish. To this day, Wintour refuses to speak to them, and she declined to comment for this story.

By then, rumors were circulating on the decorating circuit about disgruntled clients and questionable business practices. "Sills and Ford became known for overcharging," Lori Newhouse says bluntly. "They've got a pretty bad reputation in Paris with the antique dealers, too." In 1991, her brother-in-law, Jonathan Newhouse, hired the firm to decorate his Paris apartment in the 16th arrondissement. The trouble erupted over a $20,000 bookcase that turned out, according to Lori Newhouse, to be worth only a fraction of the billed price. Subsequently, she says, it was discovered that other furniture prices were also absurdly inflated. Sills and Huniford were fired from the job.


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