magazine | Dec 6, 2021 |
Top stylists share their on-set secrets

The most sought-after interior stylists pull back the meticulously steamed curtain to share how they work—and which fruits they’re tired of placing in bowls.

Even for creative people like designers and architects, what interior stylists do and how they work can be a little mysterious. How do they know precisely what a room is missing? How do they make ordinary bookshelves seem so alluring? And why is it so difficult to imitate their work when left to our own devices? Yes, some people are born with an eye, but they’ve also carefully honed their expertise over decades—and now they’re divulging their trade secrets.

PREPRODUCTION PROCESS

The photo shoot begins days or weeks before call time, as stylists take stock of what products they’ll need to bring in to augment the space and what their client needs from them. “I first talk to the client about what they’re trying to achieve,” says Fitz Pullins, a Jacksonville, Florida–based stylist and designer. “It starts with the designers themselves—they give me the creative direction.”

Stylists will typically peruse scouting images of the space, and the more the better. “I try to get them to take at least two different directions of a room so I can understand the layout better [and see] all the props that are on-site that I can play around with,” says New York–based stylist Frances Bailey. From there, she gets down to brass tacks to hammer out the shoot, mocking up a shot list of key spaces before hopping on a call with the designer to determine whether or not they’re being realistic about time. “I’d say we stage roughly 15 hero shots in a day, so if you tell me that you’ve got 45 shots to do, that’s going to be a two-and-a-half day [job]. You can’t do 45 shots in a day and do it well.”

Whenever possible, it’s nice to do a walk-through of the project before the shoot. “Scouting photos only show me the vibe or color schemes,” says New York stylist and creative consultant Anita Sarsidi. “I react more when I walk into a room. You want to translate that feeling into the visual story you are creating.”

CLEAR THE DECKS

Pullins begins a shoot by walking through each room, scanning for potential pitfalls that could ruin a photo. “Especially when we’re trying to get a vignette shot, I am trying to make sure there are no fingerprints on anything, or the vase is angled the right way,” he says. “When I’m styling, I’m looking for the tiniest things, like wrinkles in the sheets or a mark on a piece of glass. It’s putting a microscope on the interior design.”

Bailey recommends a professional cleaning crew first, followed by a prep day. Spaces need to be spotless, fabrics steamed and pillows fluffed, but perhaps most importantly, massive amounts of materials need to be cleared out. “The secret sauce is not what we add—it’s what we take away,” says Bailey. “Honest to goodness, if you run through the room and take all that stuff away, it already looks 50 percent better than when we arrived.” And it’s not just shelves that benefit from being unburdened—sofas and beds also shine when they have room to breathe. “A lot of pillows on a couch are overkill,” says Robert Rufino, House Beautiful’s style director, who previously styled shoots for Elle Decor and Architectural Digest and oversaw global store design and display at Tiffany & Co. for over a decade. “Sometimes, less is more.”

That’s especially true in a lived-in home. “Clients have often put in their own little cluttery things, and that all goes away. The picture frames, the personal tchotchkes—that’s the first sweep,” says Olga Naiman, a designer and stylist based in Garrison, New York. “The second sweep is bookshelves. They’re a big time investment to style, because if the books don’t look good, the bookshelf doesn’t look good, and that’s the anchor piece to a room.”

While a stylist’s insights are shaped by experience, they are also uniquely positioned to see the space in a fresh light unburdened by a designer’s knowledge of the project’s history. “Designers are so close to the subject that it can be hard for them to see it for what it is,” says Bailey. “Every single time I walk into the house with them, you just watch their faces and all they see are all the mistakes: the sofa that was 14 weeks late, the contractor never came back, the mother-in-law hates the paint. I don’t see any of that. Most stylists are the same way—we just see this beautiful thing that we want to capture in a camera.”

FLOWERS AND FRUIT

The stereotype that stylists bring and arrange fresh flowers is not entirely wrong. There’s plenty of work that bookends their arrangements, but then, what would a photo shoot be without a floral budget? “Florals are where you can get a big bang for your buck,” says Bailey, who likes using big, fluffy seasonal blooms like peonies, roses, or cheap but impactful sunflowers. “If it’s a really bland room that needs a kick in the pants, drop in something with color.” Flowers can bring double the style punch, she notes, when you place them in an eye-catching vessel or vase. Lately, she has also gravitated toward potted plants like begonias and mother ferns, or an arrangement of oakleaf hydrangeas, to round out a room.

Naiman prefers a more spare look these days. “What feels fresher to me is a very sculptural vase with six or seven very stemmy flowers, and they’re all coming out in different directions,” she says. “That feels very of the moment.”

Tulips used to be Rufino’s favorite. (“I am who I am, and I have a look,” he says.) But these days, he doesn’t like bouquets with just one type of bloom, and he’s careful not to overdo it. “When you look at magazines today, there are less and less flowers in every room. Not every photograph has to have a flower in it,” he says. “I think we’re also getting into a more interesting mix of flowers. When I arrange flowers, I love to just put them in there and let them breathe. The flowers shouldn’t look uptight—they should look relaxed and easy.”

On the fruit front, Naiman loves to use a particular type of eggplant. “I get big-scale platters and bowls and fill them in a beautiful, still-life way with many of the same vegetable, like a pile of graffiti eggplant,” she says. “I love that variety because it has a deep royal purple color, but not as dark as regular eggplant, which photographs black. It’s also a simple shape, not like lettuces or anything that’s more complicated.” Another purple member of the produce aisle has recently bewitched Pullins. “I’m really into plums and figs lately, because the texture and color is so rich,” he says.

GO-TO PROPS

To be a stylist often means having little trinkets and accessories in the trunk of your car, or sprinkled around your own house waiting to be called upon. “I love big trays, because they break up a large wooden space, or spaces that are monotone. The trays don’t have to be colorful, but they add another element, a layer,” says Naiman. “They unify objects for a look that is organized but considered.”  

Rufino is particular about textiles. “I’ve been to some houses where the towels are in horrible condition,” he says. In an otherwise lovely photo, seeing pilled, rumpled or threadbare fabrics ruins the sense of wonder and luxury the image is meant to inspire. These days, Rufino often finds it easier to avoid the risk and bring a stockpile of his own: “I’ll bring linens because I know exactly what I want on that bed that’s going to bring another dimension to the picture.”

Naiman and Pullins are both fond of giant coffee table books—and the more avant-garde the better. “I encourage using some awesome, modern coffee table books whether the room is traditional or modern, because you don’t want a traditional room to look like Miss Havisham’s house,” says Naiman. “You know, modern books that look like the Whitney museum would sell them.”

The secret is to find objects that break up a visual plane without being too attention-seeking. “Anything that can take up real estate in a chic way: a tray, a bowl, a box,” says Bailey of her tabletop approach. No matter what they use, a stylist’s touch deftly softens a space—implying a life well lived without the messes of a well-lived life. The point, Sarsidi explains, “is to add a bit of a human hand.”

WHAT’S FADING

Some stylistic touches can date a photo, or border on the cliched—even if a family might actually like to stock their kitchen with a scatter of scallion stalks. “Lemons and limes are a given, but things like apples and pineapples are just overdone,” says Pullins.

Every stylist has their list of no-gos. “There was a time when everyone was doing piles of plates on dining tables, but I’m kind of over that,” says Naiman. Also: “No fig trees unless they’re really extraordinary.” Rufino, who reviews the scouting shots and photographed projects that are submitted to House Beautiful, hates images with shoes on a floor. “I just am not a big fan of the high heels thrown under the sofa or underneath the bed,” he says. The kitchen with counters overflowing with fruits and vegetables also gets an eye roll from Rufino. “I’ll tell you, I’ve seen a lot of artichokes. Or when I see a huge display of vegetables and bread and cheese on the kitchen counter, it’s just too much,” he says. “I did a shoot in the Hamptons where the kitchen was quite large. A good-sized beautiful bowl of cherries—that was enough.”

Sarsidi thinks it’s nearly impossible to avoid at least some cliches. “Bedrooms are all going to look the same, more or less,” she says. “There’s a bed and a nightstand. It needs flowers on the bedside table to make it feel like someone’s been there, or you can put a glass. But I find that you can make everything fresh.”

WHAT’S NEW

While many of a stylist’s tricks are timeless, there are new trends afoot. Lately, Naiman has noticed that photographers and editors are more inclined to allow empty visual space in interiors. “Before, we wanted to fill the space and do this kind of happy-go-lucky clutter,” she says. “Now, we’re really working with negative space in a very sculptural way.”

“Perfectly imperfect” is the name of the visual game these days, says Bailey—open windows and doors, a dog walking through the background, or a throw that looks genuinely tossed on the back of a sofa, not folded. “Anything that feels really precious is a little dated now,” she opines. That unbuttoned sense of style has impacted the kinds of arrangements she makes, too. “Florals you cut from your backyard—there’s real luxury in that. People want welcoming spaces right now, and that’s really where styling is.”

Homepage image: For a kitchen in coastal Maine by designer Chauncey Boothby, stylist Frances Bailey layered the scene with bowls of fresh fruit, flowers and greenery to complement the casual elegance of the space. | Read McKendree

This article originally appeared in Fall 2021 issue of Business of Home. Subscribe or become a BOH Insider for more.

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