How Designer Robert Stilin Breathes New Life Into Old Spaces

Stephen Kent Johnson/Courtesy Robert Stilin

His use of bold colors and old and new furnishings give a fine touch to an eclectic space. 

Robert Stilin has spent the past 25 years designing beautiful spaces, from stunning beachside homes in the Hamptons to townhomes in Manhattan, and everything in between. Known for mixing an assortment of styles, from antiques to mid-century modern furniture, the designer has a fresh perspective on balancing old and new—all of which is showcased in his new book, Robert Stilin: Interiors. The celebrated designer sat down with Departures to talk about his career, first book, and how he works with clients to give a fresh perspective to a space. 

When working with a new client, how do you start the process?

"I see myself more than a designer; I create lifestyles for people. I get to know my clients very well. I want them to show me what they like, what they don’t like. I like to visit them at their current homes. I’m creating a life for them, I’m not creating a life for me. Part of it is a visceral observation, but I have an ability to absorb people and get an essence of who they are. We’re always thinking about how they’re going to live in this house, how are they going to do their dinner parties, where will they drink their coffee, you can go on and on and on. I’m collecting all of that information in me and it’s always developing and evolving as I work with the clients."


Stephen Kent Johnson/Courtesy Robert Stilin 

What advice would you give someone reimagining their space?

"The best thing to do is to get someone to do a bit of homework. You want people to start paying attention to design magazines or go on Pinterest to start accumulating some ideas. Just pick some things that you like or don’t like. The things that you don’t like are just as important. A home is an autobiography of a person. The more of a story that you have and can articulate to a designer, the better idea they’re going to have."


Stephen Kent Johnson/Courtesy Robert Stilin 

What elements do you always try to incorporate when you’re designing a space?

"It’s a balance, it’s a dance. Its all about scale and proportion. But it’s honed after being in the industry for 25 years. Comfort is so important to me. If you do a room and it’s all custom upholstered furniture, it can look a little bit like a hotel. You want to interject other things that create a juxtaposition, while also being comfortable and functional. It’s a mixture of colors and material that create depth in a room that make it warm and cozy—adding layers of textures and materials. Antiques can also add a bit of depth since they all come with their own story."

Are there ever any pieces that you try to avoid adding to a space?

"If I like something and it’s a great piece then I’m going to use it. If it’s a trend, or part of a trend that’s over, it doesn’t matter as long as I like it. I’ll use pieces in a different way because they have unique shapes, different textures, etc. It’s all about mixing it up and making it work."


Stephen Kent Johnson/Courtesy Robert Stilin 

How do you go about choosing artwork for a client's home, since art can be so personal?

"With my clientele, I have people who don’t collect anything and people who are art collectors and everything in between, it’s all about what you’re personally drawn to. For me it’s about understanding the essence of a client, going through the same practices that I go through with the décor. Art fairs are amazing for people who haven’t collected before because you can see so much in an afternoon. It can be very literal with, 'I like that, I don’t like that,' but I can also see how they respond to art."