Dreams of New York led Nicole Hollis to the Fashion Institute of Technology, where she followed up her studies with a move to San Francisco in 1998. She kicked off her career at W Hotels & Resorts, during the brand’s early days, then headed to Sausalito to immerse herself in winery and residential projects at Backen & Gillam (now Backen & Backen Architecture).
Today, Hollis helms her eponymous San Francisco practice alongside her husband Lewis Heathcote, who serves as CEO. Residential projects comprise the bulk of the firm’s portfolio, but these days she is in high demand from hotels wanting her sophisticated touch, from her nature-fueled public spaces for 1 Hotels to guestrooms at the iconic Sea Ranch Lodge and a condo hotel in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
Below, Hollis shares her journey to—and continued passion for—design.
How do you think your childhood shaped your career?
Nicole Hollis: I grew up in a rural part of Jupiter, Florida and that isolation and being out in nature were influential. There weren’t very many houses or neighbors or kids to play with. I’m dyslexic, and three-dimensionality and thinking creatively were always my sweet spot. I thought I was going to be a fashion designer. I saw myself working in New York on fabulous projects and so my trajectory was always focused on that. I pored over Vogue, collaged lots of fashion pictures; I had an entire Cindy Crawford wall. My family is from New Jersey and New York, so we would go often to visit. I got exposure to museums, architecture, and fashion. That helped solidify my interest in design, not knowing that interior design was also a career option.
You launched your studio in 2002 with a focus on residential work, yet you recently completed two major Hawaiian hospitality projects—the 1 Hotel Hanalei Bay on Kauai and Kona Village, a Rosewood Resort, on the Big Island. Can you tell us about them?
NH: 1 Hotel Hanalei Bay is a stunning site. The hotel itself has been there a long time, and it’s been remodeled as many different flags. Our approach was to focus on the views and bring in natural materials.
Kona Village is a legacy project that we’ve been working on for the past seven years. It was damaged in the tsunami in 2011. It took about a year to deconstruct the site and take every single building down and then start with all new infrastructure. It’s all solar, it’s all off the grid. They have a water treatment plant, so it is a little city of its own. The buildings themselves came back as individual hales [the Hawaiian word for house or home].
Describe your firm’s creative process.
NH: We have three studios—residential, hospitality, and interior architecture. Those studios cross pollinate, sharing ideas and collaborating on projects. It’s not all about me. I do review and comment and guide and mentor as I can, and try and get people to think for themselves and grow as designers. We’re in the studio three, four days a week because there’s nothing like being there together in person.
How do you decide on projects?
NH: It’s kind of an intuition, the ability to meet people and figure out what it is they want for their project and if it’s right for you. It’s important to understand the relationship you’re about to get into and the mutual respect you receive. As designers, sometimes we undervalue ourselves and we undercut our fees to win a project, and I don’t think that’s right.
How do you find inspiration?
NH: Nature is a big one. We’re so rigid in our design, but nature is so curved and soft. Organic forms, raw woods, all of that’s inspired by nature walks—a lot of it hiking in Hawaii. Those lava forms and rock formations and beautiful plants and gorgeous birds really inform color.
How are you fostering the next generation of designers?
NH: We’re inviting high school students to our studio for a week. We’ve asked schools to send us the kids who are doodling all day and not doing great at school because they don’t realize the careers they could have. Maybe it’s industrial design, maybe it’s in gaming, maybe it’s set design, maybe it’s working in 3D AI. It’s opening their eyes to the fact that this could be a career path for them. We give them an assignment, and we let them meet with each of our teams and understand what they do.
As a company, we look to hire from secondary schools, community colleges, and state schools, rather than the top schools. We want all walks of life and all ethnicities to give us their points of view and their experience.
This article originally appeared in HD’s July 2023 issue.