The transatlantic design duo making furniture for the stars
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
“People think that I’m very tough,” says interior designer Robert Stilin from his New York office. He’s talking to his friend and collaborator Simon Stewart — the founder of Charles Burnand Gallery in London — who says in response: “I think Robert’s like a big teddy bear. He’s very kind and generous.” He adds, “There’s almost no compromise with Robert. He knows what he wants to achieve.”
Wisconsin-born Stilin is an interior-design superstar in the US with high-profile clients such as Starbucks founder Howard Schultz, fashion designer Fernando Garcia (the co-creative director of Oscar de la Renta) and, most starrily, “the Carters”. His projects have included Manhattan apartments, a family home in Louisville, Kentucky, and Hamptons retreats. “It’s curation beyond curation,” says Stewart of Stilin’s casually elegant design signature. “I don’t really know how to put into words what Robert does, because to the outside world it’s perfection.”
“Everything we do is meant to look better as it gets older,” offers Stilin, who studied finance before opening a lifestyle store in Palm Beach in 1989. Today, his aesthetic is “heavily weighted on the antique and vintage”, finished with bespoke elements and created by a small, trusted team. “I’ve worked with my main upholsterer for 22 years,” says Stilin. “And one person up in Massachusetts has been building custom furniture for us for going on 25 years.”
Stilin started to work with Stewart five years ago on commissions that have ranged from vellum-covered coffee tables to antiqued mirrors and midcentury-style cabinets. The two were introduced at a dinner in LA in 2017 — and instantly hit it off. “Simon has a great sense of humour; he’s a fun person to be around,” says Stilin, “but the truth is that when we first met, a lot of the furniture Simon was doing wasn’t exactly to my taste.”
Stewart isn’t surprised. “Our style of work was very different then,” he admits. “It was far more blingy, with a lot of shiny things going on.” A former classical musician, Stewart launched his gallery in 2009, taking over the north London store co-founded by his mother — a florist and stylist whose clients included Elizabeth Taylor. He initially focused on vintage pieces and named his business after his greengrocer grandfather.
Today, from a space in Fitzrovia, Charles Burnand Gallery is a showcase for contemporary craft and design — from the amorphous sculptural furniture of Puerto Rican maker Reynold Rodriguez to the sleek metalwork of Gloucestershire-based Callum Partridge, and the nickel-plated bronze and acrylic Lacuna coffee table by Alexandra Champalimaud, which Stilin describes as “stunning, like a gigantic piece of jewellery”. It’s also the hub of Stewart’s bespoke design and production studio — a side of the business that has “snowballed” in the past few years.
Stilin it out
Custom Charles Burnand chest of drawers in bleached shagreen and nickel-plated brass for Robert Stilin
A bespoke Charles Burnand coffee table in cast bronze and hand-dyed vellum for Robert Stilin
Bespoke Charles Burnand bedside table in bleached vellum and oak for Robert Stilin
“Simon and his partner Michael [Totten] have created this old-world bespoke business, working with incredible craftsmen, but they’re also contemporary entrepreneurs,” says Stilin, highlighting a pair of coffee tables they recently created together in wood, gilt and etched glass. Inspired by a midcentury FontanaArte design, the tables were made in London and now reside in Palm Beach, Florida.
Seeing the tables in situ, surrounded by a Julian Schnabel painting and a vintage Gio Ponti table, “was one of the proudest moments of my career”, says Stewart, who is now in the process of creating a pair of mirrors for the same property. “I want them to be a contemporary scale, but to feel antique, and that’s tricky,” says Stilin. “A lot of thought, time and energy — and a lot of back and forth — goes into the process so they don’t look new and zingy.” To this end, Stewart used intricate glass etching on the mirrors, in addition to the traditional and endangered craft of brilliant cutting. “I like to think I’m a yes person: I’m like, ‘Yeah, of course we can do that,’” he says.
Another Stilin project was a structurally challenging set of 2m-wide coffee tables, covered in custom-dyed goatskin vellum, with cast-bronze feet. “We used very fine, almost invisible pleats for a sinuous finish to the corners,” he explains. “Robert had selected the same type of bronze that Brâncuși used, which is very difficult to work with, and, as it turns out, highly toxic.”
Stilin refers to their collaborations as “the antithesis of the Charles Burnand brand, which is very modern”. The commissions are often inspired by vintage pieces, such as a midcentury bleached shagreen Jacques Adnet cabinet, “made larger and adapted for today’s living”. For Stewart, their work together has had a significant impact on his approach. “Robert’s work ethic is insane; he doesn’t switch off — and I find that infectious — and his eye has forced me to explore materials in a different way. His clients expect only the best, and that means we have to put a magnifying glass up to everything we do.”
When in London or New York, the two meet to talk shop. “Then maybe to an art gallery, before dinner — and a couple of cocktails,” says Stilin, who is also currently renovating his own new apartment in Red Hook, Brooklyn. “I’m sure we’re going to be doing something together on that project,” he concludes. “We just don’t know what it is yet — something very bespoke, something cool . . . ”