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Decorators in the Haute Seat

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At Sills and Huniford's insistence, sources say, Viñoly was finally fired (calls to his office were not returned). Dennis Alter also terminated two project managers, several engineering firms, two construction managers, two landscape designers, and the lighting designer. "Dennis got to the point where he would trust nobody else but Stephen and Ford," says landscape designer Morgan Wheelock. "They would suggest people be fired, and Dennis would fire them. In the end, Sills and Huniford were the client. They said yes or no to every design choice."

By spring 1998, Sills and Huniford were responsible for all design and architectural decisions, overseeing an army of landscapers, architects, and consultants. As they assumed more responsibilities, sources say, the decorators demanded an extra $1.2 million for services rendered, but the Alters negotiated billing rates ranging from $250 per hour for the principals to $45 per hour for the drafting assistants, who toiled in a trailer five days a week, around the clock. Forcing SHA to submit time sheets kept costs in check to some degree. Then project manager Larry Goldfarb was fired. Once he was gone, says a source on the project, "they were able to charge whatever they wanted."

With Goldfarb out of the picture, Sills and Huniford began billing Alter $151,852 per month. By April 1998, the Alters had paid Sills and Huniford a total of $4,364,194 in fees. According to one on-site architect, the final bill for the shell of the house was $40 million.

When a new project manager, Bob Cato, finally replaced Goldfarb in late 1998, among his first moves was to sift through old receipts and invoices. Cato alerted the Alters, who mounted their own investigation. Soon after, the SHA gravy train came to a screeching halt.

The alters' assault comes at an awkward time for Huniford and Sills, who have just launched a Website, Dwellingsny.com, to sell their own line of signature furniture. "The prices fall somewhere between Crate & Barrel and custom," Huniford said of the 40-piece "Dwellings" collection shortly before he cut off contact with New York. "The look ranges from city modern to country." But price points skew more toward custom. A hanging cone lamp runs $2,640; a steel-and-glass coffee table, $2,900; and a seven-foot custom sofa with hand-tied springs and foam-down seat cushions can be had for $4,900.

"My God! You're talking about two people who are among the best decorators in the world," says photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. "If one doesn't have taste, one needs to buy it."

There is also a Dwellings store planned for the Upper East Side and a book in the works that Huniford said will not be the typical coffee-table design tome. "This won't just be a bunch of pretty pictures," he promised. "It will be a very practical how-to book: how to approach a room, how to arrange furniture, color, fabrics. It's going to be a real style manual."

As the court costs pile up, the cash-strapped partners have put expansion plans on hold, and real-estate sources say they have placed their cherished Hi-Low Farm on the market for $12 million. It is rumored that their much-photographed penthouse apartment is for sale as well. And they're also attempting to dispose of some of the contents of their warehouse in Spanish Harlem. Last January, they unloaded a fair number of things at a tag sale in Manhattan. "They're sitting on a lot of furniture," says dealer Frank Swim, who organized the sale. "I was surprised at how much they had purchased over the years and were still unable to place."

Sills and Huniford certainly do not live modestly. Everything they do -- from the clothes they wear (Anderson & Sheppard suits, Charvet shirts, John Lobb shoes, vintage Patek Philippe watches) to the cars they drive (two classic Mercedes-Benzes; a Range Rover for job-site commutes) to the artwork they collect to the Westchester trends they choose to embrace (the conspicuous hand-laid stone wall that surrounds their Bedford property reportedly cost $1 million) -- reeks of money.

After attending a party at the Bedford house, fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi, no stranger to sybaritic pleasures himself, marveled, "How do decorators get to live like this?"

According to one design expert, footing the bill for such luxuries is challenging, given the tight profit margins decorators have to work with: "Even if you have a $3 million interior budget, a firm would charge 20 percent; that's $600,000. If it takes more than two and a half years to complete, you're in the red."

The difficulty increases as design firms grow. "The trouble with all these decorators is that they have huge staffs -- 20 to 25 people," says a veteran designer all too familiar with this cruel calculus. "They have to pay the bills, and you can't make it on the profit margin in this business. Sister Parish died in her eighties. She had 30 people working for her. She didn't have any money. Billy Baldwin died broke. Elizabeth Draper didn't make money; neither did Mark Hampton. None of them made a lot. There's no way to make a lot of money unless you mark things up to some horrendous price."

Meanwhile, the charges against the decorators don't seem to have discouraged clients, who keep coming. Their latest coup has been landing the owners of Bed Bath & Beyond as clients. The two designers have been seen squiring the couple around Manhattan's finest antiques venues like a pair of delicate Ming vases. "This is a $6 million job, maybe $10 million," says Roger Prigent. "Don't kid yourself."

And many supporters think they're quite worth the expense. "They have exquisite taste," says P.R. honcho Nadine Johnson. "I think that if they're overcharging clients, well, I'm sorry, you get what you pay for."

Photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders agrees: "My God! You're talking about two people who are among the best decorators in the world. Some people with money have the worst taste in the world. If one doesn't have taste, one needs to buy it."


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