The Art of Minimalism

By Carol Tisch Photography by George Cott February 1, 2009

Maybe it’s the economy, but walking softly carries a big stick in interior design these days. Minimalism trumps excessiveness. Quiet elegance now speaks volumes about who we are and how we want to live. The pared-down aesthetic, long a signature style of Sarasota designer-builder-developer Robert L. Stuffings, brings simplicity and clarity to modern living.

“As I grow older, it’s important to me to have less,” Stuffings explains in the great room of his condominium in the Water Club on Longboat Key. “I tend to be a little sparse because I find that people need to be seen, and ideas need to be heard. Environmental backdrops need to be designed so they are uplifting to the human spirit. Our homes and workplaces must be nurturing so that we are able to interact in a way that is comfortable and thought-provoking, not pretentious.”

With few pieces of furniture and even fewer works of art, Stuffings’ great room perfectly illustrates his unique perspective on less-is-more. The setting is spectacularly luxe, yet at the same time down to earth: warm, inviting, effortlessly at ease. His trademark envelope of neutral-toned walls and floors allows important decorative objects to float museum-style—an Austrian Empire cherry inlaid chest (c. 1890) at the front door, a French Regency table delineating an entrance hall, a carved reproduction Flo rentine coffee table (the most flamboyant piece in the home) anchoring massive upholstered furniture that fades into the all-white cocoon.

“I keep the envelope neutral so the art can be seen,” says Stuffings of the sun-toned George Chaplin abstract oil painting that provides the only spark of color.  “I love colors that express joy and happiness, and frequently yellow and orange do that. George’s work is all about color, light and movement. It literally moves,” he adds. As the setting sun changes color, the edges of the painting assume a purple cast.

A Chaplin devotee for years, Stuffings was instrumental in bringing the first comprehensive Sarasota exhibition of the artist’s work (on view Feb. 5 to 27) to the Longboat Key Center for the Arts, a division of Ringling College of Art and Design. He curated and helped design the installation of the 20-piece show; its opening coincides with the center’s grand opening after extensive remodeling.

Chaplin, a professor at Connecticut ’s Trinity College and a protégé of American modernist Josef Albers, has been called “nature’s transcendent painter.” The colors in another of the artist’s works, this one gracing Stuffings’ ground-floor terrace, mirror the brilliant Gulf Coast sun and daytime azure sky. “I would never have done yellow pillows [on the outdoor furniture] if not for the painting,” declares the designer, whose interior tableaux are typically inspired by clients’ objects of art.

“I like to pull color and motion from art, and to balance paintings with sculpture,” Stuffings says, noting that the nude figure in a watercolor in the entry hall relates in movement to the figure in a Jorge Marin bronze sitting on the Austrian chest below it. He placed a contemporary bronze by Bruno Romeda on the Regency hall table, and in the master bedroom he balances a still life with a 1925 Cubist painting by Georges Tesson and another Jorge Marin bronze bust atop a pedigreed Biedermeier table.

Until guests actually sit in the living room, another example of the balancing act between painting and sculpture is not readily apparent. Dwarfed by the Chaplin painting, a modern mobile by Sarasota artist Richard Kessler commands center stage on the old-world Florentine coffee table. Mixing old with new is also an important balancing act, says the designer. “Even if you are doing an ultra-modern project, you have to have at least one antique to ground it and give it counterpoint,” he explains. “It is more mature.” 

Maturity has morphed the designer, whose work has appeared in prestigious publications from Architectural Digest to Designers West, into an activist. “I’m no longer a designer, or an architect,” he declares. “I am a social architect: I want to change lives.” And he’s doing just that in San Miguel de Allende, a historic town in Mexico where he’s owned a hacienda-style home for eight years. There Stuffings is helping to create a hospital for Mexican children born with birth defects under the auspices of a nonprofit group called For the Children International.

Material success achieved through design has led to bigger responsibility, he says. “We need to create, perhaps even through our designs, a humanness that brings people together,” Stuffings concludes. In the exquisitely simple master bedroom, that thought is echoed in a tiny plaque that acknowledges his work in Mexico . It reads Patronato Proninos (For the Children), and radiates as much beauty as the home’s stellar works of art.  



Art advice from collector Robert Stuffings.

Buy what you love. There is no right or wrong. If there is a love and a relationship between you and the object and it brings you joy, then buy it.

Juxtaposition of different forms of art—mixing styles, periods and media—creates excitement.

Art comes first in a house. Once the art is selected, I like to pull color and motion from it.

Placement and proper illumination of art are very important to the interior design plan.

Color the envelope (walls and floors) in neutral tones so that the art can be clearly seen.

Art is a reflection of man and the time it was created. We have placed our greatest value on our artists of times past. That will happen to investments in contemporary art as we move forward.



Interior design, custom furniture design: Robert L. Stuffings, [email protected]

Austrian antique chest, Elizabeth Rice Art & Antiques

Bedroom Biedermeier table, Cheryl Burke, Burke & Co.

Works by Joe Segal, Richard Kessler and David Shapiro: Allyn Gallup Contemporary Art

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