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Decorators in the Haute Seat

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Indeed, in some circles, SHA's hefty price tags have come to be seen as something of a status symbol: After all, if everybody could afford an SHA interior, how special would it really be?

And since the American Society of Interior Designers (asid) -- the industry's largest professional organization, of which Sills is a member -- declines to offer guidelines concerning fee structures, the potential for abuse remains prevalent. Asked if fraudulent billing was a problem in New York, Fred Kass, the president of asid's New York Metro chapter, concedes grudgingly, "Perhaps with some."

But it's hardly new, Kass insists. "This kind of thing has been going on for a long time -- going back to Edith Wharton, when she was doing interiors at the beginning of the last century," he says. "And later with Elsie de Wolfe and Billy Haines in California in the forties. They had prominent clients, and when they saw they could make a lot of money, they made a lot of money. Double-dipping and all this kind of stuff was extremely commonplace. And they had all kinds of deals going on with the galleries and dealers. Certainly, to some extent, these practices have been carried forward to the present."

Five and a half years after construction began, the Alter residence is still not finished. "We should be done soon," says Greg Yale, a landscape-lighting designer. "I was up there today fine-tuning some lamps."

In any case, it is an irony noted by many that a house built to make it into Architectural Digest probably won't end up there soon. Certainly it could be photographed, but who would consent to an interview? Neither the architect nor the designers nor the owners want to talk about a project that has come to be seen as an $80 million lesson that greed and vanity are, after all, not necessarily in good taste.


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