Heather Hilliard Part 1

Heather Hilliard. Photography by Michele Lee Willson

Heather Hilliard. Photography by Michele Lee Willson

Please join us for an interview with San Francisco Interior Designer Heather Hilliard.  Her work is instantly recognizable for its classic yet modern appeal.  She uses traditional materials, like upholstery fabric woven from horsehair, or camel wool area rugs with blanket stitching, creating pieces that are luxurious but also quite durable. Well-educated and down-to-earth, her career trajectory reads a bit like a primer on  “Six degrees of separation.”  Get to know her here, and then catch her at the upcoming 2012 San Francisco Decorator Showcase House!

JM: Let’s start the interview.  Thank you so much for participating!

HH: Oh, thank you!  I feel like I’m on Fresh Air.

JM: That’s right.  Thank you for being on Fresh Air.  This is Terry Gross…  (Laughter)  So, let’s start by talking about your extensive education.  You got your BA in Art History from La Salle.

HH: Art History, yes.

JM: Did you grow up on the East Coast?

HH: I did.  I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania.

JM: Which one?

HH: Nazareth, which is near Bethlehem. It’s in the Lehigh Valley, and it’s a really small town, with two main stop lights, and a little roundabout.  I walked to school every day when I was young.

JM: Was it a one-room schoolhouse?

Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Photograph by Brigita McKelvie

Nazareth, Pennsylvania. Photograph by Brigita McKelvie

HH: No, no, no, I mean, it wasn’t that bad.

JM: Well, that wouldn’t be bad.

HH: Well, actually, even before we moved to that town, though, I did live on a farm, and my father raised Black Angus steer as a hobby.  It was kind of a gentlemen’s farm.

JM: Wow.

HH: We also had a pond, which was stocked with fish.  I was really outdoorsy when I was young and didn’t watch cartoons like most kids.  I was always outside doing things, fishing in the pond, or playing in the cornfields.

JM: How many acres did you guys have?

HH: I think it was 75.  We leased a lot of the land out to real farmers in the area who actually did work the land. Eventually, my parents decided that we’d be better off if we moved to a town where we actually had neighbors and could participate in going to the library or other school activities without having to transport kids over to our house.


San Francisco Kitchen by Heather Hilliard Design. Photography by Michele Lee Willson

JM: Do you have siblings?

HH: I have a sister, who is three years younger.  I got her to move out to Napa a few years ago.

JM: Great!

HH:But first, I got my parents to move out here.

I am so happy they’re close. In Pennsylvania, they ate heavy “Pennsylvania Dutch,” essentially German, food. Now they have slimmed down, drink soy milk, and are living a healthier lifestyle.

JM: That’s terrific!

HH: I know.  I moved out here in 2000.

JM: What brought you out here?

HH: I had been working in nonprofits.

JM: Was that the Art Institute?

HH: Well, I had worked at the Philadelphia Museum of Art for five years.  Then – remember this is not on my résumé because it’s so unrelated to what I do now – I also worked for three years at a place called The Academy of Natural Sciences doing PR and media relations for environmental scientists.  I worked with the paleontologists, ichthyologists, botanists, and the entomologists at the Patrick Center for Environmental Research.  I translated into layman’s terms what it means to study diatoms and streams.

Diatom, photography by Argonne National laboratories

Diatom, photography by Argonne National laboratories

JM: Wow.

HH: One aspect of these microscopic organisms is that they can help scientists understand how healthy a stream is.

JM: Was that in Philadelphia?

HH: Yes.

JM: How did you get into that position?

HH: While I was at the Philadelphia Museum of Art for five years, a boss I had, who has turned out to be a great mentor, said, “I’m going be leaving to become the Vice President of Marketing at the Academy of Natural Sciences – do you have any interest?”  And I said, “I don’t know how to do PR or marketing.”  And she said, “Well, we’ll be working on a really big project.  We can hire a firm to get you up to speed, and then, you can take it from there.”

JM: Wow!

HH: I know.  It was a wonderful opportunity.  I mean, who does that?  Who hires someone and says, essentially, “We’ll give you coaching”?  So, it was a great experience.  I did PR for the museum side, too, which had many exhibitions, including dinosaurs, insects, and wildlife dioramas.


Tyrannasaurus Rex at the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia. Photography by Hoag Levins.

JM: When you were at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, were you in the PR department?

HH: No, I was in development.

JM: In development—so raising money?

HH: Yes, but I never actually had to ask for money.  It wasn’t like “smiling and dialing,” thank God.  I was in charge of a group, eventually, called The Friends and Young Friends of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  That group raised money for acquisitions for the  museum’s permanent collection.  My job was to get people who were at The Friends or the Young Friends level, say, ages 35 and under, engaged in the museum and the activities.  We’d have social events to create connections with potential future donors. Then, hopefully, the museum would get them to start moving up into the higher levels.  I would take them with curators to artists’ galleries or museums in New York.  Once we took them to see the Monet exhibit when it was in Chicago.  We flew in for a day.  Then, we went to see a contemporary art collector’s home.  It was an amazing experience – I was an Art History major!   Since I was on the development side, I wasn’t participating in creating or curating exhibitions, but I had access to all of the different departments and the curators.  We had programs that were specific to the department we were raising money for, which changed each year.  It might have been the 20th Century department, or the American Art department, or the Asian Art department.  It was just really wonderful to have access to the curators, and events, and things like that, and to organize tours.

Hillsborough Interiors by Heather Hilliard Design. Photography by Michelle Lee Willson.

Hillsborough Interiors by Heather Hilliard Design. Photography by Michelle Lee Willson.

JM: How did you get hired at the Philadelphia Museum?

HH: That is a really random story.

JM: As they so often are.

HH: I know; it really is.  So, I was at the Institute of Contemporary Art as an intern.

JM: What were your duties as an intern?

HH: Everything from organizing the first Day without Art – I think that started in ’92 – do you know what that is?

JM: No.

Day Without Art Poster, 1998

Day Without Art Poster, 1998

HH: It’s a day when the museums close in recognition of the artists who have passed as a result of AIDS.  I think I worked on that the first year.  I also helped the curators because it was a small institution.  Sometimes I did research for upcoming exhibitions – just a little bit of everything, but it was a fantastic experience.

JM: Did you get a job at the Institute right after you graduated?




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

HH: Oh, I was still in school when I started that internship.  After I had graduated I started working right away.  It was,’92, and, there weren’t a lot of jobs at all.  Real estate, everything was just dead.  Anyway, I was in IKEA with my mom, and we were in the lighting department, and she was looking at halogen bulbs, trying to understand the difference between halogen and incandescent bulbs.  An older man wearing a wool sweater with paint all over the front of him heard us talking about this, and he walked over and explained the difference.  We said, “Oh, you must be an artist,” and just started chatting with him about the paint on his sweater. I told him that I was doing an internship at the Institute of Contemporary Art at Penn.  And he said, “Oh, I know the president of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  Why don’t I arrange a lunch?  May I have your phone number?”  So I gave it to him.  I don’t know why.

Afterwards, my mom said, “You are not getting together with that old man!”  She said, “Haven’t you read the papers?  Don’t you see the news?  You’re in Philadelphia!  You never know.  This guy could just be trying to – you know! I’ve heard of this before where young women are solicited by photographers.  They say they want to take pictures of them.  What if he wants to paint you?  Or what if it’s just a ploy to get you to his place?”  I mean, she put the fear of I don’t know what in me.

JM: Oh, dear.

HH: So, the guy ended up calling, and leaving a message, and saying, “Okay, Heather.  I’ve made an arrangement to meet Robert Montgomery Scott,” who is the quintessential blue-blood President of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  His family was the subject of the film “The Philadelphia Story” with Katherine Hepburn.


The Philadelphia Story

JM: My goodness!

HH: After listening to the message, I thought, “What the hell?  This guy had paint all over him.  You just never know.”  And I called my mom and I said, “He said he made an appointment for the lunch and he gave me Mr. Scott’s secretary’s name, Alexis.”  She said, “No, you’re not going.”  She was adamant, even though I was living on my own in an apartment.  So, I had never called him back because I thought, “Okay, my mom is right.  This guy is crazy.  He’s just trying to get me somewhere.”  In the message he told me where to meet them, at what time, and said, “If I don’t hear from you, we’ll see you there.”  That day came, and he called and left message, and said, “Heather, this is Bob Donner.  I’m sitting here at such-and-such restaurant in Philadelphia, and we’re just sitting at the bar having a drink, but we’re waiting for you.”  And then, he called back like 15 minutes later, and left a message, and said, “I’m still here with Mr. Scott.  We’re just going take our seats now and I hope you’re on your way.”

JM: Right.


Custom Chair designed by Heather Hilliard Design. Photography by Michele Lee Wilson

HH: So, I called my mom and she said, “I just can’t believe this guy really knows the President of the Art Museum.”  I let, probably, a couple hours go by, and then, I thought, “Well, what if he really was for real?”  So, I called the restaurant and I said, “Hi, my name is Heather.” My maiden name is Schultz.  “I’m calling because I was supposed to meet Mr. Donner,” and the hostess or whatever said, “Oh, yes; he was in today with Mr. Scott.”  In my mind I was saying, “Oh, my God!  Robert Montgomery Scott?”

She said, “Yes, they were here– were you supposed to be joining them?  They were supposed to have three in their party and they waited for a while.  They just had lunch.”  So, I called the guy, Bob Donner, and said, “Oh, my gosh, I’ve been sick – so sick that I had to leave town, and go home, and have my parents take care of me.  You know, I thought I had mono.”  I just made up this elaborate excuse and he said, “Well, don’t worry.  Don’t worry about it.” He had such joie de vivre and I could just see him sitting there.  They were both older, so they were probably having Manhattans, or martinis at lunch. It was that kind of a place.

So, he said, “Well, at any rate, call Alexis, his assistant.  She’s expecting your call, and he’d love to meet with you.”

So I called, and sure enough, it was like she knew I was calling and she said, “Oh, yes, well, what about next week?” and she made an appointment.  I went in to see him and I was sitting in the office in the Art Museum – in the President’s Office with a Cézanne and Picasso on the wall in his office.  And he just chatted with me and asked how I knew Bob Donner.  How did I know this guy?  Well, it turns out, this guy used to be the President of RCA.

Robert Montgomery Scott didn’t tell me that, but eventually, it came out from Bob Donner that that’s how he knew Mr. Scott because they had been on the board together.

Then he walked me down to HR and said, “Tell Heather every job that is posted and not posted, and make sure she is working here soon.”  So that’s how I got that job.

JM: Wow.

HH: It was a development position, but, you know, even those were really highly sought after.  I was so fortunate, and it was such a wonderful position.  The exposure to the donors, the curators, and the education staff – it was really a great experience.  I’m so lucky.  I just used to walk through the halls thinking, “This is a dream job!”  It doesn’t get any better, you know?  It was amazing.

Philadelphia Museum of Art

Philadelphia Museum of Art

JM: And you left with your mentor?

HH: Yes, she was hired to be the Senior Vice President of Marketing at the Academy of Natural Sciences, and she knew that I was ready for a change. I always thought, “Okay, maybe I’ll go back to school for Art History, and go on for a higher degree there, and maybe become a curator.”  But, she said, “Why don’t you just give this a shot?”

And so, I did, and it was really fun.  I mean, I got a piece on Nightline for discoveries that the ichthyologists and paleontologists made.  It was a bit of a sidetrack, bur I really enjoyed it.


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

JM: Were you writing?

HH: Yes, I was translating scientific research papers that were peer-reviewed and submitted to journals like Science into something that the layperson could understand.  I would distill all of that complicated information into something comprehensible for ordinary folks.  For example, have you heard about these big scares with the mercury levels in fish?

JM: Yes.

HH: When I was working there, in the late ’90’s, the Ichthyology department had fish in their collections from the early 1800s.  They were able to take fish from different areas of the country from different oceans and lakes, and test them for mercury.  It turned out that in the fish from the 1800’s, mercury was present in the same level that they’d been finding in the fish from the late 1990’s.  I found that really interesting.

JM: So, you would read these very dense scientific texts and then extract the information and write it in a way that –

HH: Well, I would try to convey how the science  impacted people’s lives.  Is the research relevant to the average person?  I also wrote a lot about the importance of biodiversity, which was also pretty fascinating.  It seems so far away now, but it was a really great experience.  You just never know where life will takes you.

JM: So true.  Then how did you get to California?

HH: I really wanted to get out of the nonprofit world.  My first job was making $18,000.00 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  I had made a lot more than that at the Academy of Natural Sciences, but still, it was a nonprofit.

JM: Right.

HH: And I thought, you know, “I really like going out to eat.  I love vacations.  I love seeing the world.”


Hillsborough Interior by Heather Hilliard Design. Photography by Michelle Lee Willson.

JM: The simple things.

HH: I thought, “I have to transition into the for-profit sector, but what am I going do with eight years of nonprofit experience?”  This was at the time when everything was happening out here in terms of high-tech.

JM: Right.

HH: So I thought, “Well, if I can distill information from scientists’ writings, surely I can do some type of PR for high-tech companies as well.”  So, I came out here and got a job.  You’re not going to believe this, but I came out here and basically lived in a friend’s prayer room.

JM: Really?

HH: Yes! I had a roommate whom I had introduced to her husband; they’re Indian.  He was from the Bay Area and they said, “Move out, and you can move in with us!  You can stay in our prayer room until you find a place and a job.”  I said, “No, no, I can’t do that.  My God, you guys are newlyweds.” She was expecting a baby.  They said, “Oh, no, we insist, we owe our relationship to you.  We wouldn’t have found each other if you hadn’t introduced us for a blind date.”

JM: That is very generous!

HH: I know.  And they said, “We’re Indian.  We’re used to having family stay with us for long periods of time.”  I was thinking, “No, no,” but even her husband said, “No, you’ve got to.  This is a risk you have to take.  There’s so much going on out here.”  My friend was working for a startup.  And so I thought, “Oh, what the hell?”

So, I gave probably six weeks’ notice at my job, and I moved into their prayer room on an inflatable mattress.


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

.JM: It sounds very serene though.

HH: Sort of – there wasn’t a lot of praying going on in that room because there was no room for it.  It kind of had to be cleared out.

JM: Oh, dear.

HH: So I moved out here, and then, got a job – thank God – soon after.  I can’t believe I just picked up and left!  I worked for a small agency called Mindshare, which ended up going under about six months after I took the job.  They were representing many small startups in the supply chain technology and CRM area.

I was feeling confident that if I could understand and translate the process of, say, an ornithologist discovering a new bird species in South America, then I could just as easily figure out supply chain technology.  However, it was really a brief experience, and then the firm folded.  At that time I was seeing my now husband, and I said, “I don’t know what I’m going do.  I moved out here.  I got this job.  Now, there are no jobs.  It’s a complete downturn.”  It seemed like a total bust.  No one was working.  Everybody was moving back home to the different states where they had come from.  He said, “Well, what do you really want to do?”  I said, “I hated high-tech.  I do not want to do high-tech PR.  That was a way to get out here, but it’s not what I want to do.”

He suggested, “Well, what about doing what you used to do?”  I said, “I don’t want to work in nonprofit.  I wish there was a way to bridge the art with something else – maybe design.”  It was really through his encouragement that I decided to give that a shot.  He said, “Why don’t you just start taking classes at Berkeley Extension?” I ended up taking about three classes there.

JM: I know a lot of really successful designers that have taken classes at Berkeley.


2009 San Francisco Designers Showcase House by Heather Hilliard Design. Photography by Michele Lee Willson

HH: I thought it was great, but at the time, I thought, “Well, this is a certificate program, but I think I should get a Master’s if I’m going put in this much time.”

I also took a couple of classes at Stanford.  One was Art of the ‘90s, the 1990s. It focused on just that decade.  Another one was Finding and Developing Your Creativity, which was taught by a psychologist.

I was really enjoying the design coursework, and then 9/11 happened.  I had been in California for about a year.  My husband (we were still just dating at the time) was selling his company, and after 9/11, I thought, “At some point, I want to move back to the East Coast to be near my family.  Even living just a few hours away would be nice just in case something like this happens.”

JM: Yes.

HH: I missed them, and ideally I wanted to live somewhat close to them.  He said, “Well, we can go back.”  We weren’t even engaged or anything.  I said, “Okay, good.  I want to go.”  I asked him what he was going to do. He didn’t know, but he wrote to one of his professors at MIT, who then wrote a letter of introduction for him for Wharton.  Wharton’s first response was to point out that he already had an MBA.  But he said, “Well, I saw something on the website about a Visiting Scholar program.  Could I just do that?”  So, he became a Visiting Scholar.  Then I enrolled at Moore College of Art.  I did a semester there, and then I applied for the Master’s program in design at Drexel.  I had completed about a year there, and then I thought, “Oh my gosh, why did we leave California?”  One day there was a terrible ice storm in Philadelphia.  I came home to the apartment that we had bought and were renovating to find the kitchen flooded, and the hard wood floors ruined.  The reverse osmosis system had burst during the storm.  That very same day, my husband was out in California at a business meeting and he called me after having run five miles along the Embarcadero.

JM: Outside.

HH: He said, “Oh, it’s so beautiful out here today.”  I said, “I think I made a terrible mistake.”

JM: Oh.

HH: I was just standing there with water all over the kitchen floor from the broken reverse osmosis system.

JM: A sign from the universe.

Green House, 2009, by Kyung Woo Han

Green House, 2009, by Kyung Woo Han

HH: I know!  I know.  I thought, “I can’t believe I just dragged this guy out here, and he bought a place.  I’ve been to two schools and he’s happy in his Visiting Scholar program.  I want to go back to California.”  When he came back and we had dinner.  I said, “I just think I want to go back.”  He said, “Okay, I’m glad I didn’t sell the place back there yet.”  He was renting it out, just in case.

JM: He sounds very flexible.

HH: Yes, he is, and he’s very supportive.  I think because he’s a little older and he’s had his own successes –

JM: He wants to see you have yours, too.

HH: Yes.  So there I was, having put in a year at Drexel in a Master’s program, plus a semester at Moore.  I wasn’t sure how to finish my coursework in California.  He’s said, “Well, I’m sure there are schools in San Francisco.”  He’s pretty fluid in his thinking about education, since he’s been to approximately 14 schools.  He said, “Well, just fly out and see if you can get an interview.”   So I got an interview at the Academy of Art at San Francisco.  I flew back and saw Nan Rosenblatt, who was the head of the Interior Design Department at the time.  I guess it was a good thing I did the year at Drexel because they wouldn’t accept anyone into their MFA program who didn’t already have an undergraduate degree in Architecture or Design.  Having that year allowed me to get a higher level of training in the MFA program, but it was like starting from ground zero.  I had to start all over again.

JM: You’re flexible, too.


Fountains on the Drexel Campus

HH: So then we moved back, and Bill became a visiting scholar at Berkeley.

JM: How did he get that position?

HH: Through good fortune.  I had just started the program at the Academy.  At first I thought, you know, “I can’t believe I’ve just been through all this – all of these classes, working toward the end goal of a Master’s and now I’m starting all over again.”  But it seems like it was all meant to be because I learned different things at different places.  The program at the Academy was surprisingly challenging for me.  All of the students in my department were international and probably 90 percent of them were already architects in other countries – many from Asia.  They already came with so much knowledge and they were so far advanced.  A lot of them had worked on big projects – commercial and hotel.  They came here for a second degree in a related field to get the American experience, but they really already had all they needed.  They didn’t need to get an MFA in Interior Architecture because they already had so much familiarity with their field.  I really learned a lot from the other students.  It was great to be there.


Interiors by Heather Hilliard Design.

JM: Is it a two-year process?

HH: No, it’s three-year.

JM: And were you working during the time?

HH: Yes, yes.

JM: Was that when you were working with Tracy Banks?

HH: No, I was with her before we moved back to Philadelphia when I was taking classes at Cal and Stanford.    Our friend had sold a place and Tracy had staged it to get it ready to go on the market.  Bill had suggested that I work there.  Staging homes taught me some skills that I don’t think I would have learned working in a design firm or in school.  I learned how to put emphasis in certain areas of a room, or how to draw attention to a focal point, scale and proportion, and doing those things quickly.

It was interesting, but I knew that I didn’t want to do that.  There isn’t any client interaction in staging.

JM: While you were going to Drexel and Moore, were you working at Marguerite Rodgers?

HH: Yes.  That started out as an internship, but she said, “No, you have to work part time because as an intern, other obligations could take precedence over your work here.  If I pay you, I own you.”  At that time I thought, “Well, gosh, that’s kind of crazy,” but it was true.  I just took it so much more seriously because I was getting paid, and I was expected to be there to participate in specific assignments.

It was a great experience and I learned a lot from her.  She was doing high-end residential, but she started in hospitality, and made a name for herself

Marguerite Rodgers, photography by Michael Persico

Marguerite Rodgers, photography by Michael Persico

in the rebirth of Philadelphia when Mayor Ed Rendell revitalized the city.  There was so much economic development downtown.  She did a lot of restaurant design, which she then parlayed into high-end residential work.  That was my first exposure to high-end residential design.  You know, I think she had a similar background to you – I think that she worked in a woodshop.

JM: Oh, really?

HH: Yes, and she went to art school.  Her husband is a really interesting architect – Timberlake?  He’s won all kinds of AIA awards.  You should look him up.  A guy that my husband met through Wharton was an architect, and worked with her husband on something, and made the introduction for me to work with her.


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

JM: It’s funny how a simple introduction can have such a big impact.

HH: It’s so true!



Please stay tuned for Part Two, where we learn about how Heather got hired at The Wiseman Group, and how she convinces her clients to take design risks.