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Decorators in the Haute Seat

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"I knew that Jonathan was very upset with the prices they were charging for furniture," says his sister-in-law. "I actually have that same bookcase in my house today. Jonathan gave it to me. He couldn't bear to look at it."

In 1995, the two partners were hired for a high-profile job at an apartment in the Pierre Hotel that also ended in their termination. "Stephen and Ford took advantage of me in a pretty bad way," says the client, a financier. "They sold me a whole bunch of things that they supposedly marked up x but in reality were marked up 3x."

After the client fired SHA, he hired famed architect Peter Marino to finish the job. But despite his unfortunate experiences with Sills and Huniford, the financier says, he continues to recommend them. "Anyone I hire is going to steal from me. So it all comes down to who does a better job. In the end, you hire the more talented thief."

Indeed, several years after Jonathan Newhouse fired Sills and Ford, Ellen and Sam Newhouse hired them. Elyse and Michael Newhouse were next in line. Lori Newhouse explains why the very rich really are different from you and me: "They knew about Sills and Huniford, but they saw something they liked and they were in denial. They interviewed some other designers, but Ford is very persuasive."

Still, inflated prices aren't the only reason clients have let Sills and Huniford go. Samantha Bass, daughter of socialite Anne Bass, hired Sills and Huniford to redecorate her 5,000-square-foot loft on Perry Street, but eventually fired them, according to a former SHA employee. "At meetings, they would treat her like an idiot," says the employee. "Stephen would talk to her with utter disgust in his voice. They're so arrogant."

This year, just as the Vogue flap was fading from memory, Sills and Huniford struck again. Paige Rense, the editor-in-chief of Architectural Digest, was promised the new Tina Turner house in the south of France for her March 2000 issue. Unbeknownst to Rense, the same interior was given to InStyle for February. To make matters worse, the story was leaked to Entertainment Tonight and NBC's Later Today, both of which aired it before Rense's magazine came out. "Tina called and begged Paige for forgiveness," says one P.R. source. "But Paige wouldn't even take her calls."

"I wasn't thrilled," Rense acknowledges, "but I don't blame them for it. I don't think they engineered it." And she says the InStyle story focused largely on Turner and little on the decorators' work, making it less problematic than the earlier Vogue-Elle Décor duplication. Which is a good thing, because when the New York Times did a piece on the earlier flap, she told the reporter: "I would have just . . . killed them. It's a . . . very stupid thing for a decorator to do. No other editor will trust you."

In this case, at least, they seem to have escaped unscathed; one of their latest interiors appeared in a recent issue of Architectural Digest, and it is rumored that Tina Turner has handed them another commission.

The original contract between the Alters and Sills Huniford Associates (as his P.R. and managerial skills became increasingly indispensable, Huniford was granted second billing) was signed on November 20, 1994. The terms stipulated that Sills and Huniford would be paid $875,000 for their interior-design services.

It was an ambitious project by any estimate. Alter didn't just want a house; he wanted a Wagnerian statement. "It was built more along the lines of a museum than a house," says one consultant. Which made perfect sense; one of the main functions of the structure was to provide a suitable space to display Alter's formidable Abstract Expressionist art collection, which ran the gamut from Mark Rothko to Morris Louis.

To construct his suburban palace, Alter assembled a dream team comprising the best consultants in their respective fields, including architect Rafael Viñoly, landscape designer Morgan Wheelock, and SHA.

No expense was spared during construction. Consider, for instance, the cost involved in fabricating the tiles and tub in just one of the thirteen bathrooms. Bob Capoferri, a local craftsman, traveled to a quarry in Carrara, Italy, to personally select the marble for Gisela Alter's bathtub. After the marble chips were approved, Capoferri flew back to Carrara and supervised the cutting of three blocks from a contiguous portion of the quarry's wall. The tub was carved from the middle block. The other two blocks supplied the tiles. Because of the block's uniformity, the grain and coloration of the marble flowed as seamlessly across the master bath suite as it originally did on the quarry wall in Italy.

There was no skimping on Dennis Alter's master bath suite either. The tiles are hand-cut onyx from Pakistan. "I did things on the Alter job that normally aren't done," says an awestruck Capoferri. "Nobody goes to the trouble of matching marble grain or hand-carving a bathtub." Gisela's tub alone cost $60,000.

As the construction of the house at 115 Skippack Pike in Ambler, Pennsylvania, progressed, Sills and Huniford realized they were putting in more hours than they had anticipated. Numerous revisions, dictated by Alter on an almost daily basis, were driving up their costs. In fact, entire new structures were added, including a "pool cabana and pool area," a "dining pergola," and a monstrous 25,000-square-foot "playhouse-sporting complex" that featured an elaborate exercise room, a guest apartment, and a sunken clay tennis court where Alter, a nationally ranked amateur, could volley with the pros who played in his Advanta-sponsored tournaments.

By 1996, there were so many revisions that SHA refused to continue until the original contract was amended to include extra design fees. After much negotiating, a new deal was struck, and with it SHA began providing architectural as well as interior-design services. None of this could have pleased Viñoly, a world-class architect who must have feared that his original concept -- a Modernist interpretation of a medieval fortress, with four towers and an interior courtyard -- would be bastardized if Sills began making architectural changes, which he did immediately. This was a constant source of tension. So was the job's rapidly escalating budget. Viñoly had originally promised to produce a shell for $13 million, says a well-placed source on the project. The new GMP (guaranteed maximum price) that the contractor signed off on was $20 million. By the spring of 1997, the budget had hit $25 million and the house still wasn't completed.


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