Minding the Process

The creative process and breaking the rules, in conversation with designer Robert Stilin.

Manners, conventions, following the rules and breaking the rules. Robert Stilin believes you can do a bit of what you want, as long as you’re respectful. “And as long as it’s thoughtful and aesthetic and creative, I think it is acceptable.”

Robert Stilin has run his own design firm for over 25 years. His work has been featured in Architectural Digest, Elle Decor, House Beautiful, W, and Hamptons Cottages and Gardens, as well as in design books, including The Big Book of the Hamptons. An avid art collector, he is a member of the Director’s Council at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

The interiors of the New York- and Hamptons-based designer are renowned for their strong, clean lines; warm, rich palette; antique and vintage furnishings; and custom upholstery frequently combined with modern and contemporary art. Fifteen of his finest projects are featured in his first monograph; Robert Stilin Interiors. They range from city townhouses, apartments, and lofts to beach houses and country abodes. Whether the architecture is traditional or ultramodern, Stilin’s interiors exude a casual, comfortable elegance that he expertly tailors to the specific needs and taste of each client.

“I decided that I wanted to do a book from very early on in my career. I think it’s just a natural evolution of one’s career as a designer. It just takes time for it to evolve. A couple years ago, it just all sort of came together. It was the right time. Steven Kent Johnson shot the entire book. I always wanted one person to do the whole book and that’s a really fun process. I got to love that creative process. But it’s also quite gratifying to install it and have it all come together… this thing that you’ve been working on for a year or two or three or four years and it all comes together, that’s very gratifying.”

“I’m drawn toward balance. I’m drawn toward perfection, but I also know there’s no such thing.”

If there is anyone who understands and appreciates the creative process, it is Robert. From woodworking to art collecting, Stilin instills patience with every project he works on. We live in a world of immediacy; multiple channels of media, social media throwing information at us as quick as we can catch and absorb it. But this simplifies the process to the receiver, the viewer – yet not many could execute it from behind the scenes. 

“It reminds me of a story. I’ve lived in this apartment for 10 years. And so maybe, you know, two or three years into it, I invited my friend Anita Saracini, who was the design editor of Elle Decor at the time. And she came in, she walked through. She’s like, okay, when are you getting more stuff? It was maybe five more years before I really got into a place where I really felt like it was published. It just takes time. And it’s an accumulation. I try to teach my clients to understand that every time I send you that tiny little dust painting or you know, the Star of David, all these pieces that make up this puzzle, you have to decide each time, because it’s not realistic to go out and buy that entire wall in a day. You just can’t do it.”

Never a perfect science, Robert lives by the adage that if you do something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.

“The best gift that my father ever gave me is that he always told me, do something you love. He must’ve told me that a thousand times, and I believed it. I feel like that’s my life. I don’t really feel like I work. I have passion for what I do and I love it and sometimes it’s challenging. I’m drawn toward balance. I’m drawn toward perfection, but I also know there’s no such thing.”