A few minutes before our agreed-upon interview time, I found a one-sentence email from designer Stuart Geller in my inbox. It read, “I’m ready for my close-up,” à la Gloria Swanson in the 1950 film Sunset Boulevard. When I called him, his animated voice followed up with the punchline, “Is this Mr. DeMille?” It’s hard not to be charmed by his playful and larger-than-life theatrical personality. It’s no surprise then to hear that Geller has built a career around close friendships with his clients.
Even more than the traditional milestones of fame and success, Geller is proudest of these relationships he has forged: “They know I can capture what their needs are, their tastes, and their sensibilities. Especially in today’s world, having repeat clients is the benchmark of trust, confidence, and even love—I’m not afraid to use that word.”
Geller grew up in Queens in New York City and was always drawn to architecture and interior design. The homes in the area were Tudor style, piquing his interest in the traditional English style of architecture and design. While attending Southampton College of Long Island University, he was fortunate enough to be invited to many beautiful homes in the Hamptons and exposed to a style that was timeless and comfortable. After graduating with a dual degree in elementary education and clinical psychology, Geller headed to the warmer climes of Miami in the mid-1970s.
It’s there he began teaching elementary school while completing graduate work at Barry College (now University) for guidance and counseling. The school system was ineffective, though, and Geller found himself turning to art to bolster his students’ self-esteem. “The students were just passed from grade to grade. Some couldn’t read by fifth grade,” he says. “The kids responded really well to drawing and color. Art was the key to opening their minds.” Out of frustration with the stress of teaching in a broken system, he also turned to creative endeavors, designing patterns that translated well into wall coverings and fabric. This would become a line called Esbeget, named for his initials, SBG.
The line took off, and Geller pivoted to designing full time. “I had already started working with some clients, so I was very lucky. If you’re passionate about what you do, you are ahead of the game.” In 1979, he got his first major design gig and was being interviewed for Florida Designers’ Quarterly. Geller’s eschewal of design trends was apparent in this project, and it was just the beginning of a lucrative career that would reward him for his out-of-the-box style of designing. He laughs as he tells the story of the magazine’s publisher, Gloria Blake, playing devil’s advocate as she looked at the photos of his project, asking him, “What is this? This is not what they’re using. What did you do here?” Geller says, “I looked at her like I was the most experienced designer in the world and told her it was my client’s home and these are the things she loves. She doesn’t care what they’re using. Who are ‘they,’ anyway?”
This attitude has become Geller’s credo of turning houses into homes. He has an innate ability to see the magic in what you already have and reinvent it in a cohesive way; many of his clients already have quite a collection of art, antiques, and furniture when they come to him for a personalized design.
This was the case for the couple who commissioned him to design their double apartment in Aventura, Florida. They were moving from a two-bedroom townhouse full of artwork and sculptures that unfortunately left the home looking cluttered and chaotic. In contrast, their new 4,700-square-foot apartment spans the entire twenty-seventh floor of the building. The master bedroom and living room are situated on the east side of the building to catch the sunrise, and the other three bedrooms and kitchen are on the west side with the sunset.
After several discussions with his clients, Geller established the flow of the apartment and explained how the art would be showcased and well-lit throughout the space. In the living room, there are two walls slightly angled with one painting on each wall, creating a place that differentiates the living room area from the dining room area. The room is huge, so Geller designed very thin, tapered stainlesssteel columns with glass panels that are between these areas. The panels are subtly etched with elements of Matisse—enough to notice them, but not so much that they compete with the red sculpture in the dining area.
Old friends who are visiting their new apartment for the first time can often be heard exclaiming, “I didn’t know you had this!” Geller’s expert placement and lighting of the art collection has allowed everyone to see the clients’ carefully curated finds through fresh eyes.
Geller also designed the stunning floating bed that anchors one-half of the expansive bedroom. The clients had seen a previous iteration of the bed in another of his client’s homes and fell in love with it. It’s a complicated design, coordinated with electrical and Wi-Fi for the tech-savvy way people live today. The nightstands are oval, so they flow with the bed in a very lucid design.
Geller’s priority is listening to how his clients want to live. He explains, “Anyone can go out and buy furniture. That’s not what interior design is about. Interior design is about you and how you want to live and what you want to be surrounded by.” When one of the clients pointed out it was such a long walk from her bedroom to the kitchen, he created a coffee bar within the master bedroom suite, complete with a microwave, fridge, and sink.
Now in his early seventies, Geller looks back on his career feeling very blessed. “It’s one thing to be capable and another thing to get the right clients who allowed me to express my abilities,” he muses. “I traveled the world studying art and architecture and antiques. I worked for two major developers doing model homes. It’s really been the most wonderful run.” For twenty-five years, he’s also taken care of his community through philanthropy, fundraising millions for AIDS, Alzheimer’s, and the arts. He has kept a close eye on what matters most in life. “If life is like an arena, there are only two places to be,” he theorizes. “Either you’re out on the field playing or you’re sitting on the bleachers.” For Geller, he’ll always be out on the field trying to do his best— for his clients, for his community, and, most importantly, for himself.
For more information, visit stuartgeller.com