You may know Heather Hilliard from the San Francisco Decorator Showcase, Fog Design + Art Fair or the pages of national publications like The Wall Street Journal and House Beautiful. This talented Bay Area interior designer is known for her blend of classic and modern style accented by a passion for unique art, antiques and furnishings. Heather lived in London and Paris to pursue advanced studies in art history, architecture and interior design before making a name for herself in San Francisco. To celebrate our first collaboration, Jeff King interviewed Heather to find out how she got started, the definition of good design and what sets her firm apart.
Q&A with Heather Hilliard, Bay Area Interior Designer
Jeff King: Did you always want to be an interior designer or do you remember a specific “aha moment” when you knew this was the creative profession for you?
Heather Hilliard: I majored in Art History in college. My first job was working at The Philadelphia Museum of Art, the third largest museum and art collection in the country. I toured many art collectors’ homes and always noticed that the houses were very pulled together and beautifully designed. I took an interest in researching architects, designers, periods and styles from the past and present. Going back to school for a Master’s degree in interior architecture and design was the next step. Studies in art history combined with design and architecture made me perfectly suited to a career change to interior design.
What is your favorite part of working with clients, engaging in the creative process and running a business?
Our design is based on a really detailed process of inquiry, refinement, presentation, review, and critique. And that process is built into the way my office works with clients. I am a collaborative designer; suiting a client’s specific set of needs is the most challenging and rewarding part. I value getting to know my clients. We discuss everything from travel experiences to how many pairs of shoes we are accommodating. Most of our collaboration is beyond design. It’s about home, gathering, cooking, entertaining, relaxing and living. In many ways, I’m more excited to help clients find that way to live now. To not just be swayed by trends in the modern world but to know how to live beautifully in it. To be at home.
As a Bay Area interior designer, what’s the best part of running your business? Which are your favorite days?
One of my favorite things about this business is that I learn something new every day. We are so fortunate to have vendors and dealers from all over the world visit my design studio regularly to present their latest creations. We have access to the most stunning new textiles, custom rugs, furniture as well as beautiful antiques and art.
My favorite days – installs! Depending on the scope of work, we start projects anywhere between 12-24 months in advance. There is so much planning in design, it is really exciting to see it all fall into place on install days.
What is your definition of good design? How do you hope clients will live in the spaces you’ve designed for them?
Good design is comfortable! I live by Coco Chanel’s quote, “Luxury has to be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury!” Every project starts with questions. We inquire about lifestyle, habits, needs and style preferences. All of the questions and research inspire a completely custom design unique to our partnership. We sweat all the details so the process and results seem effortless to the client. The goal is for the client to feel completely comfortable in their home.
What do all your projects have in common?
I love to edit and reduce the design to the most minimal elements. Sometimes I think it is more about what I leave out of a room than what we keep in it. I am inspired by another Coco Chanel quote: “Before you leave the house, take one thing off.” That applies to interiors too.
What’s the first thing homeowners should think about when working with a Bay Area interior designer to envision a new room?
There are so many things a homeowner should consider when envisioning a new room. They should think about how they want to use the space; who will use the room; the quality of natural light, adjacencies to other rooms and interior architectural detailing. We take a zoomed out approach and consider the whole house before designing one room.
Judging by your portfolio, fine art is a strong suit of yours. Where do you start in selecting and sourcing fine art for a homeowner, and are there any tricks of the trade to share?
At the beginning of every project I remind clients to reserve some part of the budget for art. Art adds that extra layer of texture. I try to keep up with what is going on in the art world with regular visits to galleries in San Francisco and NYC. I have attended Miami Art Basel for the past seven years and last summer I attended the Venice Biennale. I introduce clients to art by taking them to a gallery or an art fair. We meet gallerists, art consultants and artists. Buying art is like pulling a string on a sweater. Once you start, it never stops.
Of all the Bay Area interior designers we work with, none have light fixtures quite like yours. When do you go subtle and let the lighting fade into the background? When do you go bold and how do you find the right statement piece?
We aim to create layers of light in a home and to have dark and light spots for drama. We focus on three types of lighting: ambient for a general glow, task and sparkle. The sparkle can be in the form of decorative pendants, sconces or even candles. We go bold with decorative fixtures when clients don’t have a budget for art. Decorative light fixtures can be the art in a room.
I find that really contemporary projects call for minimal and very discreet lighting. That type of lighting might illuminate interior architectural detailing rather than specific objects in a room.
If clients hire you for one thing, what should it be?
I am the anti-diva designer. My design experience and education are crucial parts of my toolbox so that I can provide the best possible solution. Clients feel comfortable with me, knowing that they will get the results without the ego. It isn’t in my nature to impose a style or an idea on someone; my top priority is that my client feels heard and understood.
For more inspiration from one our our favorite Bay Area interior designers, head over to Heather Hilliard Design.