When other kids were reading The Lorax, Robert Stilin was reading the Wall Street Journal. His unconventional childhood in small-town Wisconsin was spent in meetings with his father learning the ropes of the family lumber business, which they both thought he would take over one day. Instead, Stilin ended up in the world of design. After moving to Palm Beach with his now ex-wife and finding financial jobs in short supply, he opened a home goods shop, which led to local design projects. It wasn’t private equity, but the entrepreneurial skills he learned from his father paid off. “There was a lot of bad press about designers not being good business people,” he says. “I wanted things to be clear-cut and straightforward. Every client is almost like a mini marriage. You get so intimate with these people; I don’t want to have the business part be a problem all the time.”
Flash forward almost three decades and Stilin is one of the industry’s most celebrated talents, regularly appearing on the Elle Decor A-List and the AD100. He tailors his firm to clients who are in the creative and entrepreneurial worlds, using his passion for art to help attract a specific clientele. “I don’t want to live without art,” he tells podcast host Dennis Scully. “I don’t see how anybody could live without art. It’s what makes a home come alive.” On this episode of the show, Stilin talks about business transparency, maintaining relationships in the art world and the possibility of one day going into business with his son.
Crucial insight: Because many of his clients are private people who don’t want their homes published in magazines, Stilin uses showhouses to promote himself and his work. “I’m not trying to create some fantasy of my own—I couldn’t care less about that,” he says of his 15 showhouse spaces in the Hamptons, Palm Beach and New York. “My job is to show what I can do for the kind of people I want to work for. That’s what I’ve done, and that’s been hugely successful.”
Key quote: “I like to say that we create lifestyles for people, because [our designs are] not about anything specific. It’s not about a certain kind of architecture. It’s not about a certain kind of art. It’s not about a specific piece of furniture. It’s about the whole thing,” he says. “When I’m designing a life for people, I am literally putting myself in their position and trying to build a home and a life that is gonna be for them, that they’re going to feel is theirs.”
The Thursday Show
BOH executive editor Fred Nicolaus joins host Dennis Scully to discuss the biggest news in the design industry, including an uptick in luxury home sales, a look at the Dallas Kips Bay Decorator Show House and an update on the legal battle between artists and AI. Later, Vesta founder Julian Buckner explains why he thinks subscription furniture has a future.