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Design Tips from the Masters: Alexa Hampton and Stephen Sills

Image Via World Red Eye
Image Via World Red Eye

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In the world of interior design, Alexa Hampton and Stephen Sills are BFDs. She, a member of Architectural Digest's AD100 and Elle Decor's A-list amongst her many accolades, co-founded Gilt Group's Gilt Home Design, was the only ever female cast member of PBS's This Old House, regularly appears on Martha Stewart segments and is a regular columnist for the WSJ.

Sills racks up a hefty list of awards as well, including the aforementioned AD100 and Elle Decor A-list, but what's just as impressive about him is his list of clientele: Vera Wang, the Rockefeller family, Anna Wintour- we could go on. One of his current projects includes turning Tina Turner's old, wooden Tennessee schoolhouse into a shrine of her glory, a task where the rickety floorboards and wooden facade could prove to be a challenge for one of America's most acclaimed designers, one we predict will be beautifully met.

On one torrentially storming day in April, we non-creepily stalked found the two at J. Nelson, a ritzy design showroom in Hollywood, as they were about to talk to a selective group about their celebrated design legacies and sign copies of their books, Hampton's Decorating in Detail and Sills' Decoration. We were able to steal the two away for a bit because, you guessed it, we wanted in on their design design savvy. In the midst of the party we were able to talk design steps, interior details, antique shopping and how much the two designers actually admire each others work. Let's just say if Hampton is the tufted ottoman she thinks she is and Sills the antique chaise lounge, they would compliment each other stunningly.

Let's start broadly. For the person who didn't hire an interior designer, what advice can you both give?
Alexa Hampton: Ok, well first they should hire an interior designer [laughs]!

First you have to look at your setting, your surroundings, because you want your design to be either compatible or an interesting juxtaposition, but you don't want it to just not work. And then when I'm working with clients, I always want to know what kind of life they lead because you don't want to be uncomfortable in your own house and you don't want it to be unuseful to you. You have to figure out, do you want to entertain? How many people are going to live in the house? Where does the trash can go? I would start with a furniture plan. For me that's the roadmap of the job. You just need to sit down and plot it to scale on a piece of paper so you know, ok, I'm looking for a square piece here. I'm looking for an eight-foot sofa. Oh no, that sofas too deep; I'm not going to be able to fit it through the door. All of that stuff comes out of the furniture plan, and that's also a great way to make a project you can chip away at. If it's just this big amorphous task at hand, it can be intimidating and you can stall out. That makes it something you can wrap your arms around and it demystifies the whole beginning. Get the size of the room and figure out all of the pieces, not just the quantity but also the dimensions.

Sounds a lot more technical.
AH: Yeah, but it's doable. If you measure the size of your room, you can draw it out where one inch equals one foot. You can draw out a square and then you're just putting together basics shapes like rectangles and circles. It's not like you have to get a protractor and a calculator and become a mason. Then, I always love architectural details. I always love crown moldings and nice baseboards and I feel like when you have those up they add so much to the room and take a lot of heat off of you having to do summersaults in order to get a good result. Babe [looks at Stephen], give a good tip.
Stephen Sills: I think it's very important to find out what kind of personalities [clients] have and what kind of vibe they want, and then see if it's right for the space they bought and how I can integrate their own sensibility into an apartment or a house. Suitability is the whole key to it. You have to be careful and guiding with what they live in, how they want to live and if it's appropriate for the space that they're doing.
AH: Yes, I would love to live in his house! But until I can smuggle him out in a rug, I'm going to have to live the way I'm going to have to live. You have to come to Jesus with yourself on what you can and what you can't do.
SS: You have to be careful, as Alexa said. You can't do a French chateau in a New York two-room, nine-foot ceiling apartment. I won't do it because it's not successful and it's going to be a mess.
AH And you also don't want a canned style like that. You should definitely, if you don't have a decorator, look for inspiration. Try to zero in on what speaks to you. But to take a picture of a place and try to reproduce it and create a space like a 'chateau?' it feels inauthentic. It has to be personal.
SS:AH: And it will date two years later and you'll be like oh, that was so two years ago, or whatever the number is. And nobody likes to invest that kind of money on something that's going to expire in two years. And if they aren't upset by that, then would they please call me and hire me. [laughs]
SS: Don't spend too much money on new things.
AH: Unless it's good, custom upholstery.

What is something that you should spend a lot of money on?
SS: Good quality upholstery.
AH: I think if you're going to do curtains you can't do them cheaply. If you can't do them properly then maybe do blinds instead so that you don't have cheap, doily-looking, shower curtainy-looking things on your windows.
SS: Quality labor and craftsmanship.
AH:Things that you want to take with you.
SS: Get some good classic antiques too. Simple things. It's the biggest value in the world today, antiques, because they're so unfashionable. Everybody wants modern. Modern's great but don't spend a lot of money on something that was mass-produced in the 60s or 70s when you can buy something from the 18th century that's the same price.

Speaking of antiques, what advice do you have for someone who's antique shopping? Because it feels like now days everything is vintage. It could be from 1997 and people claim it's vintage.
AH: And that's the wrong use of the word. Vintage should be 50 to 100 years, right?
SS: Interior wise, I hate the term designer and I hate the word vintage. I hate all these terminologies that people have invented for decorating today.
AH: First and foremost you have to like the thing.
SS: I think you have to think about it for a while and not be an impulse buyer. With your cell phone now you can take a picture, put it on hold and think about it. Go back, look at the space you're dealing with and see if it's going to fit. Check the proportions— that's the most important thing when decorating— whether you're in a one bedroom apartment or in a big house in the country.
AH: I think there's a siren call to buy big stuff and it can immediately half the size of your space if it's gargantuan.
SS: That's definitely true, but there's a fine balance. It's better to overscale sometimes than underscale.
AH: Yes, because you don't want everything to look dinky. You never want to underscale your chandelier. You want to err on the side of big. It's good that you mention that because you can give any number of rules or tips in quotation marks but there are a bazillion instances where you shouldn't listen to a rule.
SS: Rules should always be broken when they need to be. I mean, there's a great blanket of rules but if you're really good, break them.

What's the one design rule that you guys like to break?
AH: Any!
SS: [laughs]
AH: I like my chair rail not too high. I never want to break that rule, but sometimes when you get to into a pattern, you want to shake yourself up so that you stop because you'll start looking canned. You want to do something unexpected or switch it up.
SS: I think, too, the design process is so interesting because you don't need to follow all the way through from the first conception of [the idea]. When you get stuff coming in it can change and that's when you break the rules yourself and change them.
AH: That's great advice, because then it's like an organic thing. You should never go out and do everything in a day or in a month. It shouldn't be add water, get room.
SS: That's the key to the wisdom of waiting.

Wait, how long should you wait to finish a room? Because I've been waiting three years to finish mine.
AH: Well, what's stopping you from finishing it?

I haven't found the right lamps!
AH: Well that's good!
SS: That's good!
AH: What are you going to do? Settle on something that you don't like?

But now I have a lightless room.
AH: Ok, well you might want to get something to hold you over.
SS: Buy an IKEA lamp in there for the time being as a placeholder.

Yeah, I should probably get on that. What is the one design style you think you'll always love?
SS: I love paired down, clean, classic, neoclassicism and it can go right on into clean, modern things too. I think my look has always been selectivity and getting quality objects that are very pure and clean.
AH: I would say you use your pieces as sculpture. You find pieces that are so beautiful and you allow them to...
SS: ...stand on their own.
AH: ...be absorbed and appreciated and loved. I like logical spaces and hopefully that's my hallmark. I like rooms that make sense.
SS: Comfortable rooms. I love that about your work, because comfort is very important. After 40 years of doing this, I never really cared about comfort. I always thought about the look. Now I'm going into a more comfortable kind of idea, I guess because I'm getting older and I can appreciate it.
AH: But I do think your interiors are totally inviting. They invite me, so they're not telegraphing any type of discomfort. They're achieving what you're setting out to achieve. I'm a really big fan of your work. I think if [someone wants] to have a long career, you can't be repeating yourself all the time. And, you know, we work for our clients. It's a service business.

And where do you find the inspiration for the individual rooms that you decorate?
SS:: From the people. From talking to the people. Look at how they dress.
AH: I always hear that, but I always wear like, a Gap t-shirt and Theory pants.
SS: But I could talk to you and figure it out. But a Gap t-shirt and jeans has a message...
AH: It's a horrible message!
SS: I don't think that's a horrible message!
AH: It's not the message I want to send! I mean, I would love for it to be all Balenciaga or Saint Laurent from the 70s.
SS: But you're telling me that, and I get it. So if you don't have Balenciaga and Saint Laurent now but you own one or two pieces and you're more comfortable in a Gap tshirt, that's selectivity.

I think that makes perfect sense though. You mentioned Theory pants, and Theory is very smart and tailored, yet a little bit luxurious and that's kind of what your style is like in terms of decorating. On the topic of clothing though, Stephen has designed the homes of many fashion personalities like Anna Wintour and Vera Wang. What's it like working with people who have such strong styles?
SS: It's wonderful. I always find that the really great fashion designers have a great sense of interior decoration.

What design element do you start with first in a room?
AH: For me, a lot of inspiration comes from the fabrics in a room. I talked to Mariette Himes Gomez the other day from High Point Market and she says a lot of her rooms begin with the rug. I know for a lot of people that's true but strangely not for me. It's the fabrics.
SS: I always look at the overall picture of the rug as it's in my head. Sometimes the rugs are the last thing and sometimes the first thing. You never can figure it out. It's a general concept I go for. There's always a backwards and forwards and sideways.

What are some of the places you think would be great to shop for pieces in a room?
AH: I love antique store but it's kind of like going to a farmer's market, which P.S. I don't do so this is a totally lame metaphor because I don't cook, but this is what I understand people do. You just gotta keep looking.
SS: You have to look everywhere too. You can find the greatest things right in your own backyard if you get off your ass and go look.
AH: And with the internet there's a huge temptation not to move, but you've got to move. That can be your first line of defense.
SS: There's great modern stuff here in Miami.

You guys use a lot of classical elements in your rooms. How can you create a classical room without making it feel boring?
AH: I don't think anything is boring about classical.
SS: I think you have to make it current with textiles and fabrics...
AH: …and the artwork.
SS: You have to make it relevant for today. You have to be a product of your time...
AH: …and not make it look like a museum installation where it's in amber. It's not Winterthur [museum of decorative arts].
SS: No, it's not a recreation of the past.
AH: Wouldn't that be awesome though? If we were like, reenactors and we did period rooms and showed up in powdered wigs [laughs]?
SS: It would be my next career.

What are you each loving now in home design?
SS: I love modernism. I love modern Italian furniture, though it's a boring thing if you have to rely on a contemporary piece of art. I like a found object put on the wall. I just bought some new Jean Prouvé screens from Paris and they were magnificent. They were huge and so much better than a piece of modern art made out of aluminum in the 40s.
AH: But that is modern art.
SS: It is, but it's not a painting.
AH: I am enjoying different materials. Having some metal, mixed with wood, mixed with straw. That dynamic mixing is fun. You get static when everything is too matched and that's certainly something I sometimes do by accident. I have to keep on myself to make sure I don't fall into that trap. Don't be afraid to have a brass something in the room with a nickel something. Don't be so doctrinaire. The deeper and more layered it is, I'm enjoying that.

Stephen, you're redoing Tina Turner's old school house. What's that experience like?
SS: I'm going tomorrow to Memphis! It's a schoolhouse that she went to school in and the Tennessee Heritage Society is going to restore it to put her glamorous life inside. it's kind of a challenge to create the glamorous life of Tina inside the humble, wooden schoolhouse where she was from, so we're making this big glass cube like Space Oddyssey to put her life in a space capsule inside the schoolhouse. And she's a phenomenal human being. Talk about glamour.

Now this one's for both of you. If you were each a piece of furniture, which piece would you be?
SS: I might be a late Louis XVI mahogany chaise lounge with no gilt ormolu or anything. Just purely inspired by Roman, Etruscan, or something like that.
AH: I'm sure I would be a tufted ottoman, but I would like to think I'd be a Klismos chair.
· Home Goods 38 [Racked Miami]
· Mark Hampton LLC [Official Site]
· Stephen Sills Associates [Official Site]