NEW YORK – For Robert Stilin, functionality and livability in a house are just as essential as the quality and integrity of its furnishings. “I like homes that feel very real. I am not interested in creating showplaces,” says the New York-based designer. “We all want things that look beautiful, but if they’re uncomfortable and not functional, who cares?” With an entrepreneurial spirit and an innate understanding of architecture and design, the self-taught Stilin prides himself on creating lifestyles for his clients. While Stilin lives in SoHo, works in NoMad and has a satellite office and store in East Hampton, his current projects range from a 50-acre, park-like family compound in Louisville, Kentucky, to a country house in Bridgehampton for a couple that ardently collects contemporary art. Drawing on 30-plus years of mastering his signature casual-elegant style, Stilin constructed three vignettes using objects from Sotheby’s Contemporary Living Online: Prints, Photographs and Design auction. Here he shares his early influences, favourite artists and best tips for incorporating art into your home. 


ROBERT STILIN. PHOTOGRAPH BY RICHARD PHIBBS.

How did you break into the design world?
As a kid I used to sketch cars and houses, but I was raised in Northern Wisconsin in a family that didn’t see design as an option for me. My dad was an entrepreneur. I was studying business. It wasn’t until after college that circumstances in my life evolved. Around 1989 I opened a sophisticated design store in Palm Beach that had new and vintage furniture, art and objects. One day a couple came in wanting to buy everything and asked if I could help with their house. I didn’t necessarily know how to do that, but I just taught myself along the way. Travelling and a lot of amazing mentors in the design and art world are how I got myself to where I am today. 

Any mentors in particular?
Early on, someone who had a big impact on me was collector Beth DeWoody. Travelling and shopping with her opened my eyes and taught me to search beyond the obvious things that attracted me. Also, all the people I’ve worked with over the years at Sotheby’s are like walking encyclopedias of art. The art world is really intimidating, less so now than twenty years ago, but there was this natural disdain for designers. I was insecure about it, but I would come to previews and absorb everything over time. All the different people that I met at auction houses and galleries, along with designers, dealers, artists and collectors sharing opportunities and sources, they have become my education.  


A PAINTING BY DAMIEN HIRST FLOATS ABOVE A CUSTOM OAK MANTEL, WHILE A SCULPTURAL 1970S SLIPPER CHAIR BY KAPPA SITS ALONGSIDE TWO WORKS BY RICHARD PRINCE IN THIS LOFT-LIKE LIVING SPACE. PHOTOGRAPH BY JOSHUA MCHUGH.

Are most of your clients experienced art collectors?
They all have an affinity for art. I have everything from budding collectors to people who have been collecting for decades. Some are very independent; others work with an advisor. I always teach them and encourage them to collect. Art adds so much value to your life, and I personally cannot imagine a home without it.  

What do you like to collect?
I’ve been collecting photography for 30 years. I love large-scale photography, foldings and hangings. I also collect paintings, works on paper, et cetera, and I own work by 150-plus artists. I like to live in a very layered way. A few names that come to mind are Richard Misrach, Frank Thiele, Wade Guyton, John Chamberlain, Damien Hirst, Jack Pierson and Stanley Whitney.  

Do you follow any guidelines in terms of incorporating art into a room?
I don’t think people should live in museums – a clean white box with perfect lighting to showcase art and furniture. My clients don’t want to own warehouses full of art. They want to live with their art. People create so much fear about living with valuable objects. Yes, art is expensive, but it is meant to be lived with. 


WORKS BY DAN VO, DAN COLEN AND HELMUT LANG SET THE TONE IN A LIVING ROOM THAT IS DECORATED WITH A SELECTION OF IMPRESSIVE FURNISHINGS, SUCH AS A MARIA PERGAY COFFEE TABLE AND VINTAGE CHAIRS BY FRANCO ALBINI AND FRANCA HELG. PHOTOGRAPH BY STEPHEN KENT JOHNSON.

How was your experience working with the many categories in Sotheby’s Contemporary Living auction?
Mixing and layering different mediums is exactly what I do in my practice. It’s consistent with how I view the world and how I view living and collecting. People don’t just buy art or design. They buy different pieces and have to put them together. Combining a variety of art and objects takes the edge off of a perfect museum or gallery shot and shows how objects can create a mood or feeling. 

What is your advice to new collectors?
Don’t overthink things. Don’t make things too special and too precious. Larry Gagosian once said to me, “Do you like the painting? Can you afford it? If the answers are ‘yes’ then you should buy it.” He says that to people all the time: if you can afford it, and you like it, buy it. Enjoy beautiful things, and make them part of your life. Do a reasonable amount of homework, but don’t overanalyze it. Art should be fun and make you feel good, not worry and stress out.  



Click the slideshow to view Robert Stilin's vignettes created for Sotheby's Contemporary Living Online: Prints, Photographs & Design auction: