Twelve years of creating film sets together have given Stephen Alesch and Robin Standefer many gifts: a passion for historical architecture and furnishings, an amazing list of artisans and resources, and a roster of movie-star clients for their new design firm.
The two met in 1992 designing sets for The New Age, a dark comedy starring Judy Davis and Peter Weller. Robin's expertise is interior design; Stephen's, architecture. They soon became a couple and collaborated on more sets, including a SoHo loft for the Meg Ryan film Addicted to Love (1997), a traditional New England home for the Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock movie Practical Magic (1998) and idiosyncratic bachelor pads for the male models of Zoolander (2001), with Ben Stiller. Each movie required at least 30 sets, from spas to kitchenswhich were "always the center of everything," Stephen says. And each of their 15 film kitchens functioned, with a working stove and running water.
When Robin and Stephen renovated their Manhattan apartment in 1997, they created a showpiece that perfectly expresses their professional aesthetic, which mixes industrial antiques with pieces of their own design. They seek out utilitarian items from late-19th-century factories, restaurants, schools and train stations, and repurpose them for a house. For example, a marble printing block from a lithography studio is now the top of their kitchen island. As with all of their kitchen projects, they custom-designed the cabinetry.
The pair loved creating their own home kitchen so much that they founded a company, Roman and Williams, to do the same for other real people, not just characters in a movie. In 2001 Ben Stiller asked them to design his Los Angeles house, "and that changed our lives," says Robin. For the kitchen, she spent six months developing tiles, finally staining them with tea to subtly "age" them and bring out the crackles in the ceramic. For the cabinets, she was inspired by old mills and early California ranches.
Now Robin and Stephen are working on actress Kate Hudson and musician Chris Robinson's house in Hollywood. They're also designing the Japanese restaurant Kura in Beverly Hills, which will open next year, using the look of sake storehouses as a visual touchstone. Future projects may include a furniture line. But that could take a while to materialize, because the designers don't believe in taking shortcuts. Stephen puts his philosophy in a culinary context: "When you make a cup of tea, you heat the cup, too. It takes an extra 40 seconds, but it makes a difference."