After majoring in college, Richmond-based Sara Hillery turned to interior design for its more immersive quality. “I love how interior design utilizes a combination of all your senses,” says the designer, who founded her eponymous firm in 2012.
That’s not to say art doesn’t still play a big part in her designs, which often feature statement-making paintings as well as eye-catching prints and bold colors. When asked what rooms in history inspired her, Hillery gravitates towards spaces decorated by artists in rich colors, citing Monet’s kitchen at Giverny and the Rothko Chapel in Houston.
“The simplicity of space, color, and function in the Rothko Chapel inspires me to think about the essence of a space and to not be afraid to play with color, or keep things simple if needed,” says the designer. Indeed, she says, it’s all about distilling the essence of what’s most impactful—and appropriate—for the given space and its inhabitants.
That’s probably why, thanks to careful attention to details and thoughtful tailoring, Hillery’s spaces (even the most colorful!) are never over the top: “I think there is an elegance and clarity to my work that’s still very livable no matter what color palette I am working with,” she says.
What or who has made the biggest impact on your career so far?
Experience has made the biggest impact. The ability to try new things and see challenges as welcome opportunities meanwhile having a good grasp of what your limits are so that you can say no when it’s appropriate.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received (from family, mentor, boss?
“To be successful in the design business, it’s not about being able to do what’s on your plate today but the ability to see what’s needed weeks from now.”
How do you want your clients to feel in their space?
Relaxed, organized, and a little more elegant than before!
What or who was your first design crush? And your current design crush.
My first design crush: Suzanne Kasler! She is the height of quiet, understated elegance.
My current design crush is Miles Redd. I love his use of bold color and detail; this gives his spaces the ability to tell a compelling story.
What’s your favorite room, anywhere, of all time, and why?
I find it difficult to pick just one. I adore the kitchen at Giverny. It was a room ahead of its time; I remember thinking how quaint the space was for such a well-known artist and yet how much the richness of color affected me. I love all the variations in blues (the tiles, the ceiling, the table, the curtains). The pattern display of the ceramic tiles invokes a sense of play and comfort, while the lacquered ceiling reflects the natural light into the space. The room is meant to be utilitarian, but the collection of copper pots on display infuses it with passion and personality.
The Rothko Chapel in Houston is, to me, nearly as humbling as Notre Dame: both brought me to tears. While Notre Dame is overpowering, soaring space, detail, and richness of art and materials, the Rothko Chapel is stripped to the essentials with small, intimate, powerful masses of color that overwhelm your senses and immediately command respect. Even the benches are so simple yet impactful! The outside is so solid and unadorned, but the interior of the chapel actually reminds me of the elephant caves in India: as your eyes adjust and you can take in the walls and the art, you really wonder about the person who made them, how they felt at that time, and what they were inspired by.
Where do you look for inspiration?
The latest design magazines and Instagram, of course! I love seeing what other creators are doing. But when I am really looking for inspiration, there is nothing better than leaving my desk to experience something new. Locally that means visiting a new art exhibit or looking for that unique antique that has a quirky detail, or a historic building. Travel and exploration provide me with a way of experiencing new ways of thinking and looking at the questions at hand.
For under $100—or even for free!—what decorating trick that has the most impact?
Paint! It quickly changes the feel of a room!
What’s overrated in decorating?
The perfectly symmetrical room. I love balance and proportion maybe more than most, but what I love more is breaking those rules. Every space needs that wow factor or element of surprise to bring it life and remind you someone really lives here.
What’s underrated in decorating?
What would we be surprised to learn about you?
I was originally in school for pre-med at UVA. I find the human body fascinating and have always looked for ways to improve people’s lives. I think the level of detail in science translates into design and now instead of trying to mend bodies I am trying to improve their everyday experiences through their environments!
What’s your favorite—and why?
Design era/style: Do I have to pick just one? I love the Renaissance. The focus on symmetry, proportion, and geometry in classical architecture provide the foundation for which I base all my design decisions, when to follow them and even when to break them!
Paint color: Sherwin Williams Marshmallow, it’s white, ivory, and peach all rolled into one! It makes a space feel fresh, warm, and inviting.
Artist or piece of art: Joesph Adolphe’s Locution’s series.
Past Artist: Mark Rothko, the scale of his pieces in combination with his use of color is so impactful. I carry that same philosophy into my work, balancing color and scale!
Local shopping destination: West End Antique Mall. I love the hunt!
Online store: Chairish. New and old, they have it all.
Item to pick up when traveling: Art or collectables. Nothing brings back memories like a decorative object on display with a story. I have picked up art, artifacts, and even boxes.
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