Master’s Degree in Design from Stephen Sills

Stephen Sells and I have been in a conversation for eight years. It started when I first wrote about his work in 2014, and it shows no signs of stopping. What started as an essay and led to a friendship is now his third book: Stephen Sills: A Vision for Design released by Rizzoli this month.

I wrote the script, and in doing so combined my interviews with Stephen into something like the end of a series of conversations, like a diary. The first directive he gave me was that he wanted this to be a “teaching” book. The best way to do that seems to be to get out of the way and let the leading American interior designer of our time use his voice. Sills, whose range of knowledge is enormously expanding, could teach a course in the history of the decorative arts. To guide us until then, there’s his new book, with an introduction by Tina Turner and a chapter on Gardening in Conversation with Martha Stewart, plus excerpts here.

Stephen Sills: A Vision for Design

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Credit: Rizzoli New York

The home shown in these pages is a new, recently completed project of Sills’ dear friend and Bedford, New York, neighbor of Dominique Bluhdorn. Charlotte Worthy, Project Architect, Bluedoorn & Sills introduced it immediately: “What happened was more than just a decoration, it was a series of complicated, fun and beautiful moments. We were standing on the stairs together, walking around the barn at 7pm” The sills were all mixed up in colors In many cases, we apply the same glazes and oils to give the rooms a bohemian, handcrafted quality.The result is a take on an American country house: cozy, comfortable, and beautiful, filled with plants brought from the garden, folk art, and quilts.

But as always with Stephen Sills’ work, there’s a feature under All Things Pretty–surprises in color palette and size of things–that demands your full attention and might make you wonder if you’ve ever met a yellow color like this in the hallway. –David Netto

Don’t you think curiosity is everything? In life, in art, in work, only in life? “

Interior design is a historically interesting topic. I think before the end of the 19th century people did not have decorators. They had architects, they had painters who were considered interior designers at the time, and they had upholsterers. The upholsterer and the painter were two separate entities, but it kind of randomly, and often very successful, devised the interior scheme. Mario Prause documents this well in his book An illustrated history of interior decoration (1964). Every young person interested in design should read this.

Stephen Sills Interior

An Italianate cabinet surrounded by 18th-century chairs—and topped with an early American glass bottle—adds advertising charm as well as allure to the entrance hall.

William Waldron

Interior decoration as a profession is an American invention, and Elsie de Wolfe was the first person to make it a business. She single-handedly invented the profession as we know it now. There were companies like Herter Brothers designing furniture, and they did fully decorated environments that were amazing, for the Vanderbilts family and in homes like Evergreen in Baltimore. I have no doubt that it is an art form, and culturally we seem to have come to that opinion, but I must pay tribute to the great interior designers who came from America, because as a culture we have the least amount of source material to work from. I mean we only go back two centuries, in the sense of the heritage of decoration, architecture, weaving of fabrics, tapestries, and paintings that we refer to.

I think in America we had to innovate a lot, we’ve produced so many great designers who really had original visions that got everyone excited. I never meet anyone in Europe, for example, no matter how historically their work is based, who doesn’t like Billy Baldwin. I fell under the spell of Billy Baldwin at a very young age, and thought he was the greatest. I was fortunate enough to see those homes so early and understood what it was like, and it was just amazing. He did some awful rooms too. But so am I! These are called errors.

Stephen Sills Interior

Dining room with Louis XIV chairs, Ottoman-inspired pink and green wallpaper, and a French pool chandelier.

William Waldron

In the past ten to fifteen years, the decoration business has completely changed. Many of the old top interior designers have gone into hiding, and there is an absence at the top of real leadership. In decorating more than almost any other business, there must be leaders who define their era and show the way, and shape flair, and we’re not in a particularly strong moment for that. For me, it was Billy Baldwin and Jack Grange – I thought he was a great new designer when I was up, and I still do. I would also say Mika Ertegun. People always associate my work with John Dickinson, who I think is really cool, but I don’t really know why.

Stephen Sills Interiors

Plants from the owner’s greenhouse are always rotating in this sunroom. The ottoman in the center is covered in a Le Manach fabric.

William Waldron

I was the designer who came from top talented designers like Barrish Hadley and Mark Hampton. They defined an era, and when you closed your eyes and thought of them, you knew what it meant to say “American style.” There was a classic, efficiency and admiration for American decor. That was wonderful. What I want to remember is to respect that — and know the value of my moment, sure compared to now — but also try, every day, to be totally radical and authentic.

Stephen Sills Interiors

Another view of the entrance hall with its welcoming yellow staircase and walls.

William Waldron

I was interested in trying to do something that hadn’t happened before. I’ve worked like hell at it, but that, to me, is what makes decorating an art form. Don’t you think curiosity is everything? In life, in art, in work, and only in life? I was never afraid of change. Invention is what excites me about doing interior design. The challenge and discipline to create a new business unlike anything else you’ve done, you never think of it as a business. This is the most important part. I will probably change again in another 10 years. The last two or three projects will be completely different. This excerpt is from Stephen Sills: A Vision for Design, Rizzoli New York, 2022.

This story appeared in the September 2022 issue of Town and Country. subscribe now

David Netto is a writer and interior designer.

Stephen Sills, designer and author Stephen Sills: A Vision for Design.

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