Decorators in the Haute Seat

It was the kind of party one would expect from the most successful interior-design team in New York. Stephen Sills and James Huniford flaunted a dazzling celebrity-client list, inspired glossy-magazine spreads, charged exorbitant fees, and collected Twomblys in their spare time.

In December 1997, Huniford had turned 40, and the partners, at the top of their game, celebrated the occasion with the tasteful extravagance that distinguished all their projects. The vast TriBeCa loft they booked for the event was accessorized with vintage Warren McArthur furniture and illuminated by hundreds of flickering votive candles. A wall of windows afforded a panoramic view of the Hudson. As a frigid wind howled down Vestry Street, guests nibbled on Beluga while male models in white jackets poured endless glasses of Veuve Cliquot.

When the cake was presented, several large television monitors were wheeled out, and on cue Tina Turner’s pixelated big hair washed over the screens as the rock diva serenaded Huniford with a soulful rendition of “Happy Birthday.” The grand gesture was Turner’s way of saying thanks for the work they had done on her house in the south of France – an effort that was rewarded when the home landed on the cover of Architectural Digest.

But before the evening ended, another client – far less famous but infinitely more valuable – delivered his own heartfelt tribute to Sills and Huniford. In the back of the room, removed from the sea of editors, socialites, and design groupies, a tall, distinguished-looking man with a neatly clipped mustache raised his glass and proposed a toast. He was Dennis Alter, the multimillionaire chairman of Advanta, one of the country’s largest issuers of MasterCard and Visa credit cards. The kind of client whose net worth would quicken any decorator’s pulse.

Alter spoke eloquently of the newfound friendship he and his wife, Gisela, felt so fortunate to have found with the two decorators. He went on to explain that Sills and Ford (nobody calls him Huniford) not only were supremely talented but were the only ones who truly understood his aesthetic vision. Which is why, after an extensive vetting process, he had entrusted them with the 38,000-square-foot dream house he was building outside Philadelphia.

Unless Sills and Huniford made full restitution, Alter warned, he would leak their misdeeds to the press, “make their lives hell,” and “put them in jail.”

Alter gushed that he couldn’t be happier with the results. True, it had been an arduous process – the project was entering its fourth year – but with the end nearly in sight, the Alters seemed actually saddened by the prospect of life without Ford and Sills. Glasses were raised to toast this marriage of Manhattan’s superstar design team and Philadelphia’s premier power couple.

Less than nine months later, the “marriage” – not to mention friendship – was in shambles.

On September 11, 1998, the alters summoned Huniford to an urgent meeting. According to court papers, it was not a pleasant one. Dennis Alter went ballistic, charging that Huniford and Sills had grossly inflated the prices of furniture they had selected for his house. According to the Alters’ lawyers, the designers had agreed to purchase furniture and fixtures at fair market price and to pass them along with no markup or commission.

Unless Sills Huniford Associates (SHA) made full restitution, legal papers indicate, Alter said he would leak their misdeeds to the press, “make their lives hell,” and “put them in jail.” Several months later, his lawyers issued an ultimatum: The decorators would reimburse the Alters on the overcharges by March 11, 1999, or face criminal charges.

When no satisfaction was forthcoming, the Alters hired, according to legal papers, “one of the world’s leading criminal-investigative firms and forensic accountants to aid in the prosecution of this matter.” On July 9, 1999, the couple initiated arbitration proceedings against Huniford and Sills and their corporation, accusing them of fraud, professional negligence, and breach of contract and fiduciary duty. The Alters demanded $6 million in damages, plus interest, costs, and attorneys’ fees. Documents filed by the Alters include a list of antiques they claim they overpaid for dearly.

Topping that list was an eighteenth-century Italian Baroque mirror purchased at John Hobbs in London, for which the couple paid $165,020. The Alters had obtained an appraisal that placed the mirror’s worth at no more than $43,000, and as little as $20,000. Other items included a pair of French Empire armchairs from a Paris antiques dealer ($36,645), worth, according to the Alters, between $10,000 and $22,000, and a $90,000 Italian chandelier with an appraised value of $30,000.

The Alters contend that furniture from SHA’s private inventory was outrageously overpriced as well. According to the Alters, SHA’s original asking price for a pair of Italian neoclassical benches (circa 1800), for example, was $130,000; it was offered to them at a “discount” price of $90,000. But a subsequent appraisal obtained by the Alters valued them at no more than $60,000. A German rococo-style side table priced at $290,000 was later appraised by the Alters at $92,000; the Alters allege that the table was also similar to one sold at auction within the past eighteen months for $78,000. But perhaps the most significant markup alleged by the Alters was that of a mid-twentieth-century T. H. Robsjohn-Gibbings dining table the decorators had priced at $65,000. According to legal papers, a similar table had sold recently at Sotheby’s for just $5,750.

The Alters even claim that Sills and Ford butchered one of their pricey purchases: “You surreptitiously reduced the size of an Italian Baroque frame with mirror when it didn’t fit in the intended space and then lied about your conduct when confronted with the facts.” They also question the authenticity of a pair of Louis XVI side cabinets purchased in Paris. The Alters’ lawyers denounce Sills and Huniford as two people whose “actions were driven by greed and corruption.”

For their part, SHA’s lawyers fiercely dispute the Alters’ appraisals, pointing out that valuing a piece of art or furniture is far from an exact science. In other words, who is to say what an Italian Baroque mirror is really worth, chopped or unchopped? The decorators’ lawyers claimed they could produce higher appraisals that corroborated the prices charged to their clients.

As for the alleged fake Louis XVI cabinets? SHA’s lawyers maintained that the shop that sold them was exceedingly reputable and vouched for their authenticity. However, that didn’t prevent the lawyers from offering this disclaimer: “In no case did SHA or its principals vouch for or guarantee the authenticity, antique status … or pedigree of any furniture the Alters selected.” Given that Sills’s reputation is based in large part on his connoisseurship of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century antiques, this escape clause was poorly received, to say the least.

Sills and Huniford offered the Alters a full refund on all furniture, but their peace offering was angrily rejected. Now the Alters wanted blood. “As you know,” wrote one of their lawyers, William J. Taylor, in a venomous letter to SHA’s legal counsel, “an offer to make restitution after being caught violating the law does not erase the violation.”

In response, SHA attorney Jack Pawa again proclaimed his clients’ innocence and suggested to Taylor that it was in the Alters’ best interest to cut a deal rather than pursue a judgment: “In my experience, arbitrators and judges are not all that sympathetic to owners who lavish this much money on a personal residence,” the lawyer noted pointedly. “While it is their right, your clients have spent more on certain items of furniture than many people spend to acquire the houses they live in all their lives.”

Much to the Alters’ consternation, Sills and Ford had begun making accusations of their own. In arbitration papers, the decorators claimed that the Alters refused to return more than $100,000 worth of furniture and draperies they hadn’t paid for, and still owed SHA $175,000 in fees and disbursements. They claimed that in one instance, Mrs. Alter moved an expensive rug from residence to residence to avoid movers who had come to pick it up. The case is now being heard by arbitrators in a proceeding closed to the press and the public. Neither Huniford and Sills nor the Alters, or either party’s lawyers, responded to repeated requests for comment for this story.

Huniford and Sills wield enough power within the city’s insular design community that very few have dared to criticize the two publicly. But it is equally telling that very few of their peers have publicly defended them in this crisis.

“People are saying, ‘They deserve it. We knew it all along.’ ” says one well-known decorator, with a trace of glee. He pauses, as if to contemplate whether this indiscretion reflects poorly on him. “They probably dug their own grave,” he adds solemnly. “I find it very sad.” Asked who Sills and Huniford’s friends are, the decorator replies curtly,

As one insider put it, “Sills and Ford are hugely unpopular. It’s remarkable that two such talented people can inspire such hatred.” “I worked with them, and it was a most unpleasant experience,” reports one architect. “I would never work with them again.”

“I have this image of them going home at night, standing before the mirror, and unzipping the human suits to reveal their lizard bodies underneath,” says a well-connected writer at a glossy monthly. “They’re nasty.” Even Roger Prigent, a Manhattan furniture dealer who claims to be Sills and Huniford’s “best and only friend,” doesn’t bother with excuses. “I heard that they were asking too much money for furniture,” the Frenchman confesses in lilting, fractured English. “You know, decorators are very tricky. But if the client is dumb enough to buy it? Me, I don’t deal with them professionally.”

James Reginato, features director at W magazine, attempts to lend some perspective to the rancor directed at the two. “Almost everyone in the interior-design business wants each other dead,” he says with a sigh. “It’s worse than fashion.”

“We all vie for the same clients, which makes for complicated relationships,” agrees an uptown decorator. “You never know if you’re a friend or a rival. But the thing with Stephen and Ford is that from the beginning, they made it very clear we were all rivals. They think they are better than everybody else, that they are more talented, that their clients are richer. It’s too much to take.”

Yet the current animosity that New York decorators harbor toward Huniford and Sills is prompted by more than mere professional jealousy. “We’re worried that the Alter fiasco is going to reflect poorly on all of us,” one designer admits nervously. “If Stephen and Ford’s clients start to question the billing process, so will every other client.” Joe Schiavo, the proprietor of OLC, a Philadelphia-based lighting and furniture showroom, says Dennis Alter’s decision to go after Sills and Huniford may have a domino effect that will eventually call into question the integrity of every high-end designer in Manhattan. “They’re going to be remembered as the decorators who killed the golden goose.”

How did Sills Huniford Associates, Inc., one of the world’s most prestigious interior-design firms, become embroiled in a debilitating legal battle with a credit-card magnate from Philadelphia? How did the budget to build a suburban home escalate from extravagant (a reported $22 million) to obscene (nearly $80 million, according to SHA’s lawyers)?

Some of the blame certainly must fall on the Alters themselves. It was Dennis Alter who kept on writing checks as if they were Post-it notes, and he who gave Sills and Huniford virtual carte blanche on the job.

“Here was a guy who made a lot of money and wanted to build a tribute to himself,” says one of the top designers on the Alter job. “So he got all these couture designers onboard – there had to be fifteen, twenty consultants. And Dennis just wasn’t ready for it. He was just overwhelmed trying to run his business and build this house at the same time.”

Instead, he turned to Sills and Huniford, who not only had impeccable credentials (their client list over the years included high-profile editors Anna Wintour and Linda Wells, designers Nan Swid and Vera Wang, businessmen Ian Schrager and Jonathan Newhouse, and dozens of prominent socialites) but also unquestionably exquisite taste.

“They’re exceptionally talented,” says Wells, the editor of Allure, “but they also respected our budget and delivered the project on time, immaculately. I would work with them again in a heartbeat.”

Architectural Digest editor-in-chief Paige Rense lauds them for their talent and authority, especially for “using antiques in a very contemporary way.” She adds: “We’ve interviewed many of their clients, and we’ve never heard anything but wonderful things about them.”

Stephen Sills was born in Durant, Oklahoma, on May 20, 1951, to parents who encouraged their son’s rarefied interests from an early age. While other boys were playing sports and reading comic books, the Sillses – John, an ophthalmologist who was also the mayor, and Eloise, a piano teacher – were escorting their son to museums and buying him subscriptions to shelter magazines.

Eloise Sills says her son demonstrated a precocious talent for interior design from the time he was 10: “He did his room over all the time. One time, he went to the dime store and brought back some tinware and paisley fabric. He painted flowers on those bowls and with a little ol’ hand stapler, he put that paisley fabric all over the walls.”

In a backwater like Durant, such diversions would hardly have endeared him to his classmates. Neither would revealing that your heroes were decorator Billy Baldwin and Cecil Beaton. “Growing up, Stephen didn’t have a lot of friends,” recalls Eloise Sills. “He was in another world all the time.”

After graduating from high school, he moved to Denton, Texas, and enrolled in the interior-design program at the University of North Texas. He thrived there, graduating with a B.F.A. in May 1973.

The decorator who would later become a staunch proponent of early neoclassical styles started out as a Bauhaus fan. But Sills’s minimalist leanings abruptly dissipated when his parents treated him to a grand tour of Europe. For the 22-year-old graduate, this excursion would prove to be an epiphany. “It was magical,” Sills once said of his first glimpse of Paris. “I knew it would change my life forever – and it did.”

“Stephen never mentions his old partner because he doesn’t want that episode of his life opened,” says an old friend. “It’s as if he had this immaculate conception in New York.”

When he returned home, Sills landed a job in Dallas with top decorator Jerry Oden, whose chintz-drenched interiors gained him a reputation as the Sister Parish of Dallas. “I was really excited. It was a good firm and everything,” remembers Eloise Sills of her son’s first design gig. “But he wasn’t there long before he said, ‘Mother, I can do this by myself.’ I just thought to myself, Oh, dear.

While the tedious tasks of ordering fabric and answering phones were far removed from the life he envisioned for himself, the job did give Sills the chance to meet Oden’s wealthy clients, and he soon became as adept at spotting – and handling – an oil tycoon as a Chippendale repro.

While working for Oden, Sills met Ralph Jones, a Texas City native who was marking time as a design assistant at John Astin Perkins, another local interior-design firm. The hunky six-foot-four-inch Texan had studied architecture at the University of Houston, but, disillusioned by the bean-counting part of the profession, decided to pursue decorating.

Jones was everything Sills was not: tall, handsome, charming, and incredibly unambitious. And unlike Sills, who was well traveled and aristocratic in demeanor, Jones was rather naïve. The two became lovers and eventually decided to go into business together. To cement their commitment, they set up house at 3701 Turtle Creek Boulevard, a posh address in the Highland Park section of Dallas.

Sills’s next employer was Lloyd & Paxton, the town’s most renowned antique emporium, where he acquired much of his appreciation and knowledge of antiques. As he became more confident in his appraisal skills, he began purchasing furniture for the business venture he was planning with Ralph Jones. Pooling their funds, the two men started frequenting estate sales and auctions, and began selling pieces on the side to Texas socialites.

Sills’s stint at Lloyd & Paxton ended unhappily when he was, according to a high-placed source at the firm, angrily dismissed by Lloyd Taylor in the middle of a job. “Stephen was just irresponsible and didn’t follow through on things,” the source says. Tired of working for others, Sills decided to strike out on his own. He borrowed money from his parents and moved with Jones into a two-story townhouse in a fashionable Dallas neighborhood, which they quickly transformed into a showplace. The design firm Jones Sills, Inc., was founded then, as was an eponymous antiques shop, where clients could find the best French and English eighteenth-century furniture.

The townhouse would require a complete gutting and take two years to complete, but when it was done, the interior was a revelation. Here, in the middle of Dallas, was an audacious interpretation of an eighteenth-century Italian villa. Despite the traditional elements (trompe l’oeil, freestanding fluted columns, Roman antiquities), the space somehow managed to transcend cliché. The most highly praised feature was the magnificent wall treatment in the living room, which looked surprisingly like an expanse of meticulously cut stone. The ingenious illusion was accomplished by painstakingly dipping muslin sheets hundreds of times in wet plaster.

By 1983, after they’d been in business together for a decade, their affair had run out of steam, and the partnership was limping. While Sills remained in Dallas running the firm, Ralph Jones moved to New York, where he rented an apartment on East 60th Street above Serendipity III and began the arduous task of promoting his and Sills’s work to magazine editors and patrons. In 1983, he walked uninvited into the offices of House & Garden, armed with photographs of the Dallas townhouse. When Jacqueline Gonnet, the magazine’s decorating editor, saw the shots, she immediately took them into the office of Alexander Liberman, Condé Nast’s famed art director. Both agreed that the interior was spectacular, and they committed to publishing it. Jones phoned Sills with the good news: They’d finally been discovered.

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.

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.

“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.

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,, 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.”

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.

Decorators in the Haute Seat