Old-world classic, traditional and modern elements harmonize in Stephen Sills’ gift-worthy new decorating book
This collection of 16 projects by Stephen Sills will give your coffee table chic touch and teach you countless lessons on how to mix styles with careful editing. Sills is one of America’s premier interior decorators, and the book features his projects from Aspen to the Hamptons, as well as his personal labor of love and design laboratory: his own home in Bedford, New York.
While the book features homes where the sky seems to be the limit in terms of budget, there are many lessons to be learned from them. Plus, the gorgeous photographs, by François Halard, make the book a joy to pick up when you feel like doing some daydreaming.
Raised in Oklahoma, Sills moved to New York City in the 1980s and honed his unique ability to balance classical and modern elements. He’s also a very keen shopper, collecting antiques and artwork from all over the world.
Calming yet energetic, traditional yet avant-garde, his style has been given the ultimate compliment: Karl Lagerfeld claims if he ever bought a home in America, Sills would be his choice as the interior decorator. (He has also done work for very discerning style divas like Anna Wintour, Vera Wang and Tina Turner.) Here are some key design lessons from the book that can be applied to any home.
Make an impact in the entry. Yes, I know, the entry in this Gilded Age–inspired home is larger than a lot of our entire dwellings, but the mix of elements is a lesson in editing. The house was decorated with the owners’ extensive modern art collection in mind, with classical decoration providing a background to enhance the pieces. Museum-quality antiques complement the museum-worthy paintings.
Sills designed the unique stone and wood floor after a middle-of-the-night revelation that the keys needed to go in different directions. Architectural details like the molding, French doors and arched elements add classical refinement.
In the kitchen, think about function first, then balance styles. This kitchen has modern function, complete with a large island, two sinks, two dishwashers and a table. To create a rustic, comfortable European-inspired farmhouse style, the following elements mix in harmony. A neutral palette featuring biscuit-white paint, and warm wood floors, tie them all together.
European style: Rustic wood beams, a large vent hood, antique plates hung on the wall and a simple square tile backsplash.
Farmhouse style: Bin pulls, an apron-front porcelain sink and Shaker cabinets.
Modern elements: Stainless steel appliances, a pot filler over the stove, tulip-style dining chairs and a faceted pendant light.
Play with scale until you get it right. This Fifth Avenue apartment has beautiful classical proportions that needed furniture to match.
High ceilings and large windows with transoms that stretch almost all the way to the ceiling emphasize dramatic height in this bedroom. This meant the bed needed to emphasize these proportions as well; its warm metal finish and striking shape make it a focal point, while its height stands up to the high ceilings. Swing-arm reading sconces keep the area around it uncluttered. In addition, simple window treatments brought right up to the crown moldings emphasize the window.
“Modern living can be achieved in classical backgrounds,” writes Sills. This 1908 Renaissance revival landmark building in New York City, The Apthorp, had been chopped up and renovated; Sills was tasked with bringing it back to its original glory while adapting it for modern lifestyles. Excavating through renovations that had happened over the past century to get down the original bones, Sills prioritized restoring the building’s original classical proportions and architectural details.
To update the look, he bleached some of the dark paneling and added modern light fixtures to “lift the whole thing up,” he says. In this case a custom gilded cage adds texture around a midcentury modern globe light. Carefully placed antiques and a lot of space result in a pleasing balance. Items like the French wooden screen add depth, color and texture to the light-colored room.
Create versatile spaces, especially if you entertain a lot. In this dining room, Sills used four square black lacquer small tables that can be pushed together into one large dining table or broken apart for more intimate seating arrangements.
This is in the same building as the previous photo. The sculptural modern light fixture was crafted by artist Christopher Trujillo from paper plates.
Look to Europe for garden inspiration. Back in the day, architects, designers and landscape architects used to travel to Europe for “The Grand Tour,” gleaning inspiration from the great gardens of England, Italy and France. Today we can take a virtual Grand Tour for free, thanks to the Internet and the public library.
On Sills’ own property in Bedford, New York, boxwood hedges, pathways, walls and patios create distinct garden rooms and vantage points. Antique objects like the obelisks at the end help define the different spaces, draw the eye and create forced perspective.
Relaxed country style doesn’t have to mean classic Americana. Sills approached this classic 18th-century saltbox house with his clients’ desire for a lighter and more austere take on the era. American colonial architecture, European antiques and midcentury modern furnishings play nicely together.
Bleached oak plank floors and a Swedish painted tea table add Scandinavian country simplicity. An antique French screen and modern stools add unique character. Oversize green glass bottles with large leaves play with scale, and extensive windows bring the pastoral views into the room.
A mirror is one of the easiest ways to make a big design impact. Sills seeks large and unique mirrors for his design projects. While the rest of this transitional room is tailored, this intricate Roman mirror is a standout among all the clean-lined geometric pieces, including the bronze fireplace surround below.
Sills often puts a mirror over a fireplace, so that the entire tableau becomes a focal point rather than two strong elements dueling for attention.
Let a favorite work of art determine the color palette and tone of a room. This home in Aspen, Colorado, is full of iroko wood and warm neutrals, but a painting by Joan Mitchell amps up the color palette. With his careful editor’s eye, Sills played off the reds and blues with a few other colorful pieces dotted around the room.blues with a few other colorful pieces dotted around the room.