Hilliard’s work speaks with a quiet elegance that is rare in these contemporary days. It’s a subtle mix of old world comportment with modern timing and a mood infused with connoisseurship. Hilliard specializes not so much in homes but in ‘residencies’, each space leading to an overall narrative that is a careful balance of her creative vision and the client’s aspirations. We sat down with Heather for a quiet lunch at Spruce, just a few blocks from her eponymous studio.
How long have you living in the Bay Area?
I moved here in 2000. It was a sort of circuitous route. I majored in art history. I worked as in intern at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania. Then I worked for six years at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Then someone I worked with there recruited me to go, switching gears, do PR for environmental scientists for about three years. I worked with ichthyologists, and entomologists, and paleontologists. Tried to describe what diatoms are and extreme water.
How does an East Coast girl get affected by the West Coast design?
This probably sounds really trite, but there’s so much natural beauty that surrounds the city and all of California. Maybe I feel like I’m more aware of it because I’m from the East Coast. I feel like I’m on vacation every day here. We always try to consider the site and the views, really taking all of that into account when we’re designing an interior just because it’s so beautiful. We like to use a lot of natural materials. I think there’s less of an emphasis on antiques and older things, and more on streamline and living in a minimal way.
What’s your ideal project?
You know, we focus on residential, high-end residential. We haven’t ventured into the hospitality area yet. I have had a couple calls asking if we would do that. Right now, I feel like our focus is on high-end residential. The ideal is to have clients that understand the value of design and have the means to do the most beautiful things in their homes. Let us do some custom pieces. In addition, since art was a part of my earlier career, I try to stay in tune with what’s happening. We just went to the Venice Biennale. We go to Art Basel of Miami every year.
When do you start thinking about what furniture to use?
Well, I try to look at what would be in context to the house. Since this was a demo for a spec house and leaning towards this kind of faux Mediterranean, I thought, if we just white-wash everything in here, we can do anything. I really start by asking the clients a lot of questions and asking if they have any experience with furniture and antiques. Do they have anything that they want to bring with them? Do they have any preferences for style? Usually people don’t. We really try to work with the clients to give them the best of what they want. That’s kind of my philosophy. I try not to be a really style-driven designer with a signature look. I try to make sure that if a client wants the finest Georgian antiques, we know where we can source them in London and New York. If a client is really interested in deco, we try to think about that within the context of the interior architecture. But also, just tried to thread it through the house so that there’s continuity.
How big is your team?
I have eight people right now. I started in 2008, right at the beginning of the downturn. I chose the worst time to go out on my own. I used to work at the Wiseman Group for about six years. After I left, Lehman crashed and the whole market imploded. I started just working out of my guest bedroom. Then I got an employee and she got tired of seeing me in my bedroom slippers. I mean, I would get dressed but I would wear my slippers. I thought, “Okay, it’s probably time. Now we have a few clients. We can get an office.” I guess, to some extent, the economy, the downturn worked to my advantage because I was able to get this office space which was vacant for several months.
Do you ever visit clients after a project has closed?
It’s really funny sometimes when I go back to our clients homes after they’ve been installed for a few years and in some cases, nothing has changed. Everything is exactly where we placed it. I’m always sort of surprised that things haven’t shifted a little, because you just think people are going to make their own mark and shuffle things around or add things. In some cases, they say, “No, this is exactly what we paid you to do. This is how it should look.” It’s really flattering, but it’s funny. Sometimes I like to go back and see that, as well, people have added their own personal touches and you can see that layer.