NEW YORK – “We all want things that look beautiful, but if they’re uncomfortable and not functional, who cares?” says Robert Stilin, the New York- and Hamptons-based designer known for interiors that manage to be both laid-back and opulent. “I like homes that feel very real,” he continues. “I am not interested in creating showplaces.” Indeed, Stilin’s designs are anything but ostentatious. By combining clean-lined furnishings from various eras with refined, tactile materials, Stilin creates a sense of warmth and comfort – the ideal environments for his clients’ diverse art collections. With a 2016 nomination to Architectural Digest’s AD100 list and projects ranging from a 50-acre, park-like family compound in Louisville, Kentucky, to a country house in Bridgehampton for a couple who ardently collect contemporary art, Stilin is busy these days. Yet this summer, he found time to select items from Sotheby’s Contemporary Living Online: Prints, Photographs and Design auction and created vignettes around them. Stilin spoke to Sotheby’s about his early influences, favourite artists and tips for incorporating art into a home.
ROBERT STILIN. PHOTOGRAPH BY RICHARD PHIBBS.
How would you describe your approach to design?
Mixing and layering different mediums is what I do in my practice. It’s 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 shows how things play off one another and create a mood and feeling.
How did you break into the design world?
As a kid I used to sketch cars and houses, but I was raised 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 worlds 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 Rudin 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, when I felt there was this natural disdain for designers. I was insecure about it, but I absorbed everything over time. The people that I have met at auction houses and galleries –along with designers, dealers, artists and collectors sharing opportunities and sources – all have been 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 everyone from budding collectors to people who have been collecting for decades. Some are very independent; others work with an adviser. 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.
Do you follow any guidelines to incorporate art into a room?
I don’t think people should live in museums – clean white boxes 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 these 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.
You are also a collector. What kind of art do you live with?
I’ve been collecting photography for 30 years. I love large-scale images, foldings and hangings. I also collect paintings, works on paper, et cetera, and I own works by 150-plus artists. I like to live in a very layered way. A few names that come to mind are Richard Misrach, Frank Thiel, Wade Guyton, John Chamberlain, Damien Hirst, Jack Pierson and Stanley Whitney.
What is your advice to new collectors?
Don’t overthink. 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 overanalyse. Art should be fun and make you feel good.
Click the slideshow to view Robert Stilin's vignettes created for Sotheby's Contemporary Living Online: Prints, Photographs & Design auction: