Heather Hilliard Part 2


Heather Hilliard

Our interview with Heather Hilliard continues:

JM: So you had come out here to the Academy of Art. How did you get in at The Wiseman Group? That seems like quite the coup.

HH: Well, that’s also a funny story because I really wanted to work for Martha Angus.

JM: Oh, really?

HH: Yes. I had just moved out here, and I think I saw her work at a showcase or something. I started looking at her site, and saw that she had moved from New York, and that she had an art background.

JM: Right.


2009 San Francisco Decorator Showcase House by Heather Hilliard Design. Photography by Carin Alpert.

HH: I contacted her firm and I was surprised she emailed me back.  She said, “No, I don’t have any space available, but, you know, you really should work at The Wiseman Group.” She said, “Call so-and-so there, Suzanna.” And I did, and I sent a résumé and everything and they just brought me in. I told them, “Well, I’m still in school, but I did work at this other firm in Philadelphia,” which they accepted. I started  as an intern, doing just about everything. As I continued, I got more responsibility, and then, after graduating, I became a full-time designer, growing from project manager, to designer, then to senior designer. It was great! Paul is an AD100 designer and is extremely talented. It was a fascinating experience and he was a great mentor.

I hope to someday have the level of projects that I worked on there. I’m sure everyone hopes for that.

Piedmont Home by Heather Hilliard Design. Photography by Michele Lee Willson

Piedmont Home by Heather Hilliard Design. Photography by Michele Lee Willson

JM:Yes, it’s something very good to aspire to. You’ll get there.

HH: Well, it’s kind of like once you work at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where do you go from there? It’s the third largest collection in the country. Similarly, once you work at The Wiseman Group, where do you go from there?

JM: Take over the world!

HH: We had amazing projects there. All of the clients wanted things that were just so custom to their house.  Everyone wanted something that’s different and uniquely beautiful. It was just a really great experience having no restrictions on budget and, sometimes, timeline. You could create work that was a living art installation.

JM: Times have changed a bit now, haven’t they?

HH: Oh yes.  Now that I’m on my own, my clients care about budget and timelines a lot. I’ve become adept at managing costs and timelines, which enables me to design custom pieces for all my assignments. That means I don’t accept budget jobs, but I can perform work for a wide range of mid-range to high-end clients who value custom design.

JM: What is the creative process like in interior design? If someone tells you, “I want something fabulous,” how do you translate that into an actual sofa?

HH: Since space is three-dimensional, I have to think about the space and how one experiences space… I took a class when I was at Drexel called Space and Time, and it was about 2D and 3D art, including performance and installation art – really using the space around you to create something. Having taken that kind of a class, as well as having had exposure to installation art and artists really helped me when I got to lead design projects. I’ve thought a lot about how we feel in a space. It’s hard to explain.

JM: I often wonder about what it’s like for design professionals to convey their directions to a builder, which come in 2D, and then to see those directions translated into 3D. It’s kind of a funny process. I mean, in some ways, it’s very linear.

HH: Right.


2011 San Francisco Decorator Showcase Home by Heather Hilliard Design. Photography by Michelle Lee Willson.

JM: But as a designer, do you kind of know beforehand what things are going to look like? Are there ever surprises?

HH: Some designers can just walk into a space and say they know exactly what it’s going look like, but I’m not that kind of designer. Maybe it’s because my training came in drafting – CAD and drawing – but I always feel like I have to look at a plan before I look at anything else. I work it out, and then, I can start to see it in three dimensions. We also use 3D programs to build quick 3D models.

But I’m always thinking about the proportions, the sightlines, the focal points – things that maybe some people don’t consider. Other folks might be thinking more about the decoration, but I’m trying to think of it as a whole, maybe more of the way an architect thinks about it.

Once I really focus in on the plan, and work it out in my head or in CAD – I do so much in CAD or just sketching – I can visualize it.

JM: So, you will sit at a computer drawing in CAD –

HH: Yes.


SHY Light by Bec Brittain. Interior design by Heather Hilliard Design. Photography by Michele Lee Willson

JM: Saying, “Okay, this is how big is this space? Where are the windows?” –

HH: And I think about the circulation and light and –

JM: – other rooms, and –

HH: Yes, what the adjacencies are and what you will  see if you’re looking from one room into the other room. I don’t know if that’s how most people think about it.

JM: Well, it doesn’t matter how other people do it. You have a successful business and you do it your way; that’s fine. I’m just curious abut how the process works, especially how you translate what a client tells you they want into what they actually get. For example, in the project where you just hung that chandelier, what did the client tell you that they wanted in that stairwell?

HH: They didn’t say they wanted anything. It was a spec house, so everything had Venetian plaster – the ceilings, all the walls, everything. It had those wagon wheel-style chandeliers.

JM: Oh, no.

HH: You know the kind. I guess it’s what the developer perceived a person living in Hillsborough would want to move into as a turn-key. When I see the mottled effect of poorly done Venetian plaster and wagon wheels hanging in entry halls, it scares me.

JM: Yes, that is frightening. That is very frightening.

HH:I wouldn’t have taken that project if I didn’t think the client was going to go

Interiors by Heather Hilliard Design. Photography by Michele Lee Willson

Interiors by Heather Hilliard Design. Photography by Michele Lee Willson

along for the ride and could see something else in that house because I wouldn’t have been able to compromise that much.

JM: How did you think of that artist for that stairwell though? Have you been looking at her work for a while?

HH: Yes, I have been looking at her work. This stairwell is a 25-foot high space. It is the main entry hall, and it feels like a space with too much volume. There is nothing filling the space. The wagon wheel chandelier they did have was hanging kind of over the door, but off to the side a little bit. It was just floating in the most random place.

In that space, the focal point should really be in the area adjacent to the stairs. We needed something hanging above a big center table. That way we could fill the high, mid, and lower areas.

JM: Right.


Presidio Heights Dining Room by Heather Hilliard Design. Photography by Michele Lee Willson

HH: When people build houses these days, they build those enormous great rooms, like in McMansions. I know that families like to live that way these days, but –

JM: Do you think that people actually like to live that way though? I think that when you get into a room like that, it’s not a very pleasant experience. Those really tall entry halls bother me.

HH: Right, I know. That’s one of the ways I convinced the client. I said, “You know, there’s no human scale in this space. You have to bring something in to take up some of this volume to improve the proportions.” I showed her an elevation of what it would look like in the space. I took a photograph of the house with scaffolding as the painters were working, and I photo-shopped in a couple of light fixtures and said, “This is what it could look like that with table.” Sometimes clients can’t really understand in 2D what something will look like.

JM: SketchUp can be really handy for that, too.

HH: Exactly.

JM: A lot of our clients really can’t translate the 2D into the 3D. But you’ve had hundreds of experiences of doing that.


Interiors by Heather Hilliard Design. Photography by Caren Alpert

HH: Right, right.

JM: And builders have hundreds of experiences of doing that. We as professionals have a different kind of fluency with that language, but clients don’t have it.

HH: Right. I always have to stop myself and think, “Have they ever looked at a floor plan? Have they ever looked at an RCP (reflected ceiling plan) or an elevation?”

I try to be the kind of designer that really does listen to the client. I’m not style-driven. I appreciate it when clients come to me with different ideas of the way that they want to live or the way they see themselves using the spaces – their own aesthetic. I just try to bring out the best of what they want and help them to achieve it. Often people have an idea. They might have a couple of inspiration images, but they just really don’t know how to achieve it or if it’s appropriate. I try to take into consideration the way they want to live, the site, and the architectural style.

One time a client in Pacific Heights wanted to add a molding detail that was more common in a Victorian than in the kind of an Edwardian that she lived in. I thought, “It doesn’t seem appropriate. It’s going to seem like this applied ornament that shouldn’t be there.” I try to take all those things into consideration and try to help clients make the decision that seems appropriate for all of those reasons.

JM: So you help transform the request into something that can be done? Maybe there’s a little bit of extra ornament, but it’s not as much gingerbread, say, for example, that may be in a Victorian house.

HH: Right, or instead of putting the molding at that level with the curved ceiling, let’s just paint up to this level and then do something else above that. Or we can achieve it in a different way with lighting.

JM: What did you end up doing in the example that you just gave about the woman who wanted all the trim in her Edwardian house?

HH: I told her that what she was thinking about would probably be more appropriate in a Victorian house and I suggested, “Why don’t we just paint up to this line and then let’s let the ceiling kind of fade out to a slightly different shade?”

JM: Like an ombré effect.

HH: A little bit like ombré, yes.

JM: To change subjects abruptly – have you always been interested in art?

HH: Well, my mom always insisted that we take tons of classes, so we did painting, drawing, cooking – a little bit of everything. We went

Foam Etching by Zach M.

Foam Etching by Zach M.

fishing every summer. We went fly fishing in Canada.

JM: So, do you know how to fly fish?

HH: I did when I was younger – from about ten on.

JM: Wow.

HH: I skied like crazy. We played tennis. My mom wanted us to be in a lot of classes – swimming, gymnastics, you name it. It was a great way to get exposure to a lot of different things so I could figure out what I was drawn to. And I guess art was something I was really interested in.

JM: Have you done a little bit of art yourself, too, then? You’re laughing!

HH: Yes, well, not really, but if you ask my husband, he would probably say, “Yes.”

JM: Your biggest fan. That’s very sweet.

HH: I sketch all the time, like ideas that I might have about furniture, or

Blue Installation, by Yves Klein

Blue Installation, by Yves Klein

detailing on furniture. I did a showcase and I kept thinking I wanted to have something like Yves Klein blue in the space, but I couldn’t find a piece of art that had that Yves Klein blue.

JM: What is Yves Klein blue?

HH: It’s this really bright almost cobalt blue. It’s a very distinctive color. I was searching, and I thought, “Okay, I’ll get something from a gallery or I could go to the SF MOMA Artist Gallery and rent something for the space.” I couldn’t find anything and I happened to be in a consignment shop, and found some placements that were woven in Denmark, and they were Yves Klein blue. So, I took them to the framer – there was a huge set of them – and I said, “Let’s just float theses in a simple museum-like maple frame.” And so, that’s what’s hanging in my office.

JM: Oh, I have to look at it now.


Framed Blue Placemats by Heather Hilliard (in background of her office). Photography by Kathleen Harrison.

HH: I didn’t end up using it for the showcase because I found another piece of art in the interim while it was being framed, of course. My husband said, “I cannot believe you bought placemats at a consignment shop and had them framed all because of this color.” But that’s the kind of thing I do. I don’t think it’s really art, but I liked that they were woven and they had this handmade quality about them. The edges were a little uneven. I love to see the hand of the artist in the art, don’t you?

JM: Yes.

HH: The funny thing is, since I’ve hung that piece, a few people have walked by and asked if they could buy it. My husband is, of course, all too eager to sell it to anyone – the highest price offered. But I had to tell him, “You know, I actually just love it now. They aren’t placements anymore. They’re art. ” I know it’s ridiculous, but that was the color I was going for.

JM: So what painting did you end up using for the Showcase House?

HH: I chose something using Yves Klein Blue by Amy Kaufman. I think she’s from the East Bay, or she’s represented by an East Bay gallery. I actually rented that piece from SF MOMA Artists’ Gallery.



2010 Marin Decorator Showcase House Living Room by Heather Hilliard Design. Artwork by Amy Kaufman. Photography by Michelle Lee Willson

JM: You can rent paintings?

HH: You can rent them or buy them.


HH: Yes, and I’m assuming they probably don’t make a profit from it because they’re promoting emerging artists and mid-level career artists.

JM: That’s very cool. Speaking of galleries, you have to tell me about Art Basel, Miami Beach.

HH: I can send you a link to my favorite piece.

JM: Okay, cool!

HH: The gallery is called The Carpenter’s Workshop and it was part of Design Miami, which was in a separate pavilion. The convention center is full of international art galleries, but that’s really where the blue chip galleries show. That’s always a big deal, but now there are all of these little pavilions that are running shows concurrently, focused on more mid-career or emerging artists. That seems to be where a lot of the curators from museums and gallery owners go to try to find “the next one.” Design Miami has a lot of the same kind of galleries that you would have seen at SF20 if you went to that.

JM: Right.



You Fade to Light, 2009, by Random International

You Fade to Light, 2009, by Random International

HH: I saw a big illuminated mirrored piece that had little two-inch square mirrors with motion detectors and LEDs, so when you walked in front of it or moved your hand, it moved with you. It was such an amazing piece!

JM: Wow!

HH: I loved that it responds to the person or movement in front of it.

JM: I was at Bradley International Airport in Connecticut and I saw an ad for Traveler’s Insurance, which I will never forget. There was a projection of a five-foot red umbrella. As people walked past it, somehow, the image of the umbrella would burst into a million little umbrellas. Then they would slowly reassemble. Stanley, my son, and I spent a good 15 minutes in front of it. It was so cool and I couldn’t figure out how they were doing that – it was just a projected image.

HH: Right. It can be really interesting when the art is interactive. That was the only piece that I saw there that was interactive, and I just loved it. I’ll send you a link where you can see it installed in a home.

JM: That would be very cool.

HH: I’m hoping that I can find a high-tech client that might be interested in it.


I’m Not Sure Anymore, by Zipora Fried

JM: Overall, what did you think of Art Basel? Did you like it? Would you go back?

HH: Yes, I was there once before. It’s been going on for about ten years now – of course, it started in Switzerland.

JM: In Basel, right.

HH: Now Art Basel Miami has taken over and is a much bigger fair. It’s the biggest contemporary art fair in the United States and it really is the place to go to see what’s happening in contemporary art. I go so I can be experienced with dealers for clients who have a budget for and interest in contemporary art. It would be great to take a client on a shopping trip there someday.


Rubbell Family Museum, Miami. Photo by Harf Zimmerman

JM: I bet you will get to do that!

HH: It’s a great education.  There are so many collections, tours, galleries and artists’ studios that are open. There’s a new Rubell Museum. There’s The Bass Museum. There’s so much going on down there at the same time to make it a much bigger event. I loved it. We would just get up every morning and go to the different pavilions.

Piedmont Living Room by Heather Hilliard Design. Photography by Michelle Lee Willson

Piedmont Living Room by Heather Hilliard Design. Photography by Michelle Lee Willson

JM: Did you go with Bill?

HH: Yes.

JM: Does he like art, too?

HH: He has always liked art in a general way. His mom painted for a hobby, and he was a “Friends-type” member of SF MOMA and the De Young. But he definitely has a more nuanced appreciation for it now.

JM: Did you see anything for your clients, or were you shopping for clients at all?

HH: I wasn’t really shopping for anything specific when we were there, but I took pictures and requested information on anything I thought that they might like. There were a few things that I really liked, too.

JM: Did you get anything?

HH: No, I didn’t, but I probably would have bought a grouping of blue canvases that I saw. I don’t know what it is about groupings that I like so much! These canvases were just different shades of blue and I love minimal pieces. But anyway, they were sold on the first night.

JM: Darn it!

HH: I know. Actually, those pieces were from the Silverman Gallery in San Francisco. I went across the country and discovered an artist represented by a local gallery! There was another young artist I really liked at one of the other shows called NADA (New Art Dealers Alliance), which was an emerging artists show. I really loved this young woman’s work. She actually was selected to be shown in the Whitney.

JM: Good for her!

HH: Her pieces weren’t that expensive and I would have bought one, but they were already sold.

JM: Will you stay in touch with her, and follow her work?

HH: Well, I didn’t meet her, I met the gallery owner, but yes, I will. I’d like to see how her career develops and her style changes.


Two Panels, Yellow with Large Blue, 1970 by Ellsworth Kelly

JM: Yes, that’s interesting to watch. Do you have a couple favorite artists?

HH: Yes, I love – well, I love Yves Klein. I love Ellsworth Kelly. Let’s see. Gosh, I love so many.

JM: Have you been a fan of Ellsworth Kelly for a long time?

HH: I just love minimalism. I don’t know why. It seems so simple. I love Richard Serra. I love his big sculptural pieces.

JM: Have you seen the one at the Cantor Museum at Stanford?

HH: I haven’t. Is there a big one there?

JM: Yes– it’s a huge sculpture. It’s probably 40 feet tall and the diameter is probably 50 or 60 feet. It’s a big spiral.

HH: That’s what he’s really known for.

JM: But, you know, the angles change a little bit, so the spaces change. It’s at the Cantor Museum at Stanford, so you should go and see it.

HH: We went to Bilbao last year to see the Guggenheim that Frank Gehry designed.

JM: What a great trip!

The Matter of Time, by Richard Serra, at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao Photography by Elliot Levitt

The Matter of Time, by Richard Serra, at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao Photography by Elliot Levitt

HH: I know – it’s just amazing in and of itself. I wanted to see it. But they have this whole room –it must be 50,000 square feet – dedicated to Richard Serra. They have those humongous pieces and an audio tour so you can hear him talking about the pieces as you’re walking through them. They’re amazing.

JM: Well, my whole family loved his sculpture at Stanford. My son just made laps in and out running and yelling in sheer joy.

HH: Oh, that’s great.

JM: It’s worth a trip down there.

HH: I should go! I love his work. I also love Andy Goldsworthy. I’ve loved his work for many years and I know he’s just gotten more popular.

JM: Have you seen Rivers and Tides?

HH: I have. I love it. I’ve seen it three times. My poor husband sat through it with

Andy Goldsworthy with icicle installation

Andy Goldsworthy with icicle installation

me once and fell asleep. I just love it. I grew up on a farm when I was younger, so I think I identify with all of that, and I love the site-specific pieces that are temporary. I think he’s so wonderful. I would love to work on a house where a client would let me work with him and develop a piece specifically for that site.

JM: Put it out there. The universe will listen.

HH: Right, you never know. I love Vija Celmins, an artist I was first introduced to at the Institute of Contemporary Art at Penn. She does these wonderful drawings of water, just open water, but they’re just so meticulous and detailed, they’re almost like photographs. They’re just beautiful. I think I just love the simplicity or minimalist qualities of a lot of art.

Ocean, 2003, by Vija Celmins

Ocean, 2003, by Vija Celmins

JM: Rothko?

HH: Yes, of course.

JM: I’m amazed with Rothko, how something that’s just like a big painting of one color can be so evocative and –

HH: – I know! And dimensional.

JM: – and moving and powerful.

Orange, Red, Orange, by Mark Rothko

Orange, Red, Orange, by Mark Rothko

HH: Yes.

JM: How does he do that?

HH: It’s – I know. I wish I knew because I would –

JM: – You’d do it.

HH: I would do it. I’d be doing another Rothko-inspired piece. The way the edges are blurred and the color is deeper, in the center makes it feel like there’s more dimensionality in it. I’m not sure exactly. I just love it, too.

At Art Basel I saw a lot of pieces that involved cutting, like elaborate stenciled works on top of canvases, or paper, or just graph paper that could be, like, six feet by six feet. But the artist decided he was going to cut on every single graph line. Apparently, the process of cutting took him three months.

JM: Interesting. If he’s cutting the graph paper, did he cut all the way through?

HH: Yes, he did.

JM: Does he end up with 10 million little squares?

HH: Actually, I don’t have a picture of it. I’ll send it to you if I can find it on my iPhone. There seemed to be a lot of cutting as a theme at Art Basel this year, but I don’t think that it was intentional.


Living Room by Heather Hilliard Design. Photography by Michelle Lee Willson.

JM: I’ve seen a lot of filigree-type drawings that are maybe cut out of vinyl and then adhered to another surface.

HH: Yes, there was a lot of that there.

JM: Where there any other trends?

HH: Not really – I would have thought I would have seen much more having to do with technology, but I didn’t. There was just that one LED piece. I guess both the LED piece and the cutting pieces are kind of representational of the theme of dimensionality, which is a trend I’ve been noticing for a few years now.

JM: I was wondering if there would be a theme of economic downturn or anything like that.

HH: I didn’t see anything like that there, except that the shows, like NADA, Scope, and Pulse, which were the emerging artist areas, were very crowded, much more so than the big convention center. I’m sure the economy has something to do with that. For the prime attendees at Art Basel, however, the downturn wasn’t as severe.

JM: Do you get to buy art for your clients a lot? Is that part of your services?

HH: Well, I’ll tell you. This should be kind of off-the-record, but there’s nothing worse than completing a project and having the client say, “Oh, we bought this wonderful piece on vacation.” I call it Vacation Art or Honeymoon Art. It always happens to be of a scene painted, you know, along a canal, Venice, or something, or of a seaside or a landscape.  Sometimes it is just weird.  There is nothing worse than just having done all this custom work –

JM: – Oh, no, oh. You have to say, “It can go in the powder room.”

HH: I can’t even bear it. It’s so hard.

JM: How about the garage?

2010 Marin Designers Showcase House by Heather Hilliard Interiors. Photography by Michele Lee Willson

2010 Marin Designers Showcase House by Heather Hilliard Interiors. Photography by Michele Lee Willson

HH: My husband has that kind of art from his life before me. Just like he was a client, I told him it would look great in his office!

JM: How do you go about getting your clients to consider more sophisticated art?

HH: I often start by suggesting, “Why don’t we go to a couple of galleries together? Do you have any interest in that?” Or, “I know this gallery owner, and she’s so interesting, and tells the most fascinating stories about the artists and about the process.”

JM: Like Lisa Dolby Chadwick?

Figure with Clipped Wing, by Stephen De Stabeler, at Dolby Chadwick Gallery

Figure with Clipped Wing, by Stephen De Stabeler, at Dolby Chadwick Gallery

HH: Yes, she’s really great. That usually piques people’s interest. Sometimes I’ll get somebody else involved like a gallery owner or a consultant. If people are really serious, like they might be in the market for a Picasso, I need to make sure to provide them adequate education.

JM: Like about cost?

HH: Well, cost, value, quality, etc. I’ve worked with Steven Platzman, who’s wonderful.  He follows the market and can help a client find the best piece for what they want. I determine whether they just want the piece because it’s a Picasso, or if they’re looking closely at investment value.

I always tell clients to buy what they really love.  Try not to worry about what its value  might be in ten years because what’s the point?

JM: Well, and can’t the value change drastically?

HH: – Yes.

JM: It seems similar to watching the stock market.

HH: Right.   If they are buying for appreciation, I definitely bring in an art consultant so they can buy at the right value.  I’ll tell this story, too, about an artist’s work that I used at one of the showcases. His name is Doug Kerr, and the SF MOMA Artists’ Gallery had just three of his drawings. I loved them. They depicted highways, bridges, and the arteries of cities. They’re beautiful – very architectural. I was trying to figure out some artwork for the Showcase House and I thought, “Okay, I’ll just take these from my dining room and put them here in the showcase.”


Setback, by Doug Kerr, 1999. Photograph courtesy of the artist.

At one point during the showcase, one of the best known art collectors in San Francisco approached me and said, “Are those for sale? My husband loves them. I’d love to buy them as a gift.” I had to tell her that they were not for sale, since they were from my dining room wall at home. She gave me her card and said, “Well, if you change your mind, just give me a call.” I never changed my mind, but I did send her information about Doug Kerr. That just goes to show – you just should buy things you really love, without regard to the market. I think that strategy has worked for a lot of the country’s great collectors: the Fishers, the Andersons, the Broads, and others.  I mean, think of Herb and Dorothy Vogel!

JM: Who are Herb and Dorothy Vogel?

HH: They are American art collectors. Herb was a postal clerk and Dorothy a librarian. They lived in New York, and starting in the mid-60’s, they began buying art.  They used Herb’s salary to purchase works by unknown artists and Dorothy’s salary paid for living expenses. Years later, after filling their one-bedroom Manhattan apartment with thousands of artworks, their collection was worth many, many millions of dollars. They donated their entire collection to the National Gallery of Art so they could clear the walls and start again.

JM: What a great story!

2011 San Francisco Decorator Showcase Library by Heather Hilliard Design. Photography by Michelle Lee Willson.

2011 San Francisco Decorator Showcase Library by Heather Hilliard Design. Photography by Michelle Lee Willson.

HH: I know.  Art is a lot like beautiful interior design, you should live with what you love. It will definitely enrich your life in one way or another.

JM: So true! Well, on that note, I think we might need to close. Thank you again for spending this time with me!

Jill Moran

Jill Moran

HH: You’re quite welcome.

Jill Moran is a construction professional with 20 years of varied experience in high-end residential remodeling. Her recent entry into motherhood, timed precisely with the downturn in the local construction industry, has resulted in a slight re-engineering of her career. She currently works closely with the management team at Mueller Nicholls, with an emphasis on communicating to the world at large about residential remodeling.