A master of both hospitality and residential interiors, renowned designer Nicole Hollis got her start in Manhattan studying at FIT before packing everything up and moving to San Francisco without so much as a job offer. She first became part of the team that conceived W Hotels, and then cut her teeth with Howard Backen before starting her own firm, NICOLEHOLLIS, based in the Northern California city. Almost two decades later, she is known for her curated black and white spaces that marry architecture and interior design. Her warm, residentially inspired spin is seen in hotels such as the Candler and El Prado—many of which are captured in her first monograph, released last year.
Stacy Shoemaker Rauen: Hi, I’m here with Nicole Hollis. Nicole, thanks so much for joining us today.
Nicole Hollis: Thank you for having me. Nice to see you.
SSR: It’s so good to see you. It’s been too long. So we always start this podcast at the beginning, where did you grow up?
NH: I was born in Jupiter, Florida, which is a small town, probably about an hour and a half north of Miami in West Palm Beach County. My parents are both from New Jersey, but my father was transferred there for work, and that’s where I was born.
SSR: I love it. I’m from New Jersey. Did you always have a love for design, or travel, or was there anything from your childhood that inspired you to where you are today?
NH: Yes, I think travel for sure. Like I just said, my parents were from New Jersey. We always traveled to New York and New Jersey several times a year to be with family. And so, I think the exposure, we would drive. So there was a lot of stops along the way in Charleston and different battlefields, which were not interesting to me as a child, but we’d stop in DC and head to the Smithsonian, and then we’d get to New York. My father was really into history so we’d also visit the Met. And so, I think there was a lot of travel as far as the East Coast. We never really traveled internationally as a family. But I think I traveled in my mind and looked at books and stories, and definitely as a child was very creative. So, I looked outward for inspiration. I also was influenced by living in Florida. So, I think Palm Beach architecture, there was the minor influence that was indoor/outdoor living, that was definitely an inspiration as well.
SSR: Did you end up going to school for design or architecture?
NH: Yeah, I studied at FIT in New York. I actually studied graphic design in Florida, and then went to New York to study interior design, which was great. And I worked at an architecture firm James D’Auria whilst I was FIT. So, I was supporting myself and putting myself through school. So working in an architecture firm while studying design was such a great education. And it was so real world. So I would be in courses at school, but then I’d run to the actual client meeting and I worked in the library and updated materials. I’d go to the design center. I think New York is such a great education for your eye. There’s every kind of architectural style you can imagine.
SSR: That’s amazing. What was it that you learned or took away from that time at that architecture firm while you were studying?
NH: Well, it was great. Architecture in New York back then was mostly interiors because you’re renovating. We were doing retail and showrooms. So, it wasn’t a lot of ground up construction. So it was all interior remodeling. I think just learning about communication, and this is back before computers, so a lot of letters, the typing and phone calls, but I still believe in phone calls. I think that you really need to talk to someone every day, especially on construction sites and show your face, and be involved. And so, I learned a lot of that early on. Working with architects critiquing my schoolwork was very important. I think I learned a lot about scale, a lot about light and shadow and form. Things that we weren’t quite covering in school as far as interior design and history of interior design. So, I think it was a good education.
SSR: Got it. Okay. So, you went to FIT, you graduate, what’s next?
NH: I don’t graduate. I moved to California before graduating. My boyfriend at the time had an opportunity to work in store design in San Francisco, asked if I wanted to come along. And I said, “Sure.” So, we just packed up and left. I don’t even think I told the school I was leaving, sorry! And headed to San Francisco. I had no portfolio, no CV, nothing, just the idea of… I had visited San Francisco once before, and I really loved it. I loved the light. It was definitely a good feeling. It reminded me of the light, sort of in Paris, where you just see a lot of sky and a lot of low buildings. And so, I really wanted to go and I’m glad I did.
SSR: So, what did you do when you got there?
NH: I had no job prospects, but I sent out my CV to just about everyone, and about six months later… I wasn’t used to the pace. In New York you’re like, “Hey,” you hear right away if they want you or they don’t want you. It’s always we’re not hiring, whatever. Or, yes, come in, we want to talk to you. In San Francisco, things just took so much longer to get a response or an interview. I went to interview at the Gap for store design and Banana Republic. And I thought, “Oh, my God, I’m going to die here.” It felt like a pep rally. It felt too corporate. Just it didn’t feel like me. I was stressed already in the interview. I was just like, “I can’t work here.”
So, I was like, “Oh, what else do I do?” I don’t really want to continue in store design. I got a call from Starwood Design Group, which is a group of designers who were formed in San Francisco who were not interior designers. They were product designers, and store designers hired by Barry Sternlicht to create a brand called W. And so, they hired me. And I was like, “Well, I don’t have hospitality experience.” And they were like, “Great, because we’re doing something that nobody else has done before. So, we’re a group of designers who are not hospitality designers intentionally. But they liked my background in fashion and in architecture, so I started working for Starwood.
SSR: Amazing. Was the fashion part from FIT or was it something else that you had done?
NH: At FIT but also when I worked for James D’Auria we designed fashion showrooms and retail stores. So it was mainly in the fashion district that I would be in all those buildings with Ellen Tracy, Valentino, we would work with all of the fashion on their showrooms.
SSR: Amazing. And so, what year was this? Was this right at the very beginning of W?
NH: It was, yeah, ’93. No, that’s not true. ’97, something like that. No, ’98, ’99 because I think it was the end of ’98, ’99.
SSR: And what was that experience like?
NH: It was amazing!
SSR: Yeah, to completely rethink hotels, yeah.
NH: It was great that I came from New York because I had spent a lot of time in the Schrager properties like at the Paramount, and there was not a lot of hotel… I had gone to… I forget the one up on the upper west side.
NH: Yes, the Hudson. I’d gone to opening to that. So, I’d experienced what [Ian] Schrager was doing. And I think that was the only person doing boutique hotels, maybe Kenton at the time, but I wasn’t aware of them. And then for us, it was like, “Well, we want the comforts of home so we want duvet covers. We want phones with no cords.” I mean, these seem so in every room right now but back then it wasn’t. So, we really wanted to challenge the industry and create the living room like your home in the lobby and make your bedroom away from home, the same sort of comforts of home.
So, some things were a challenge. Getting to switch to duvets was a challenge because it just took housekeeping so much longer to turn over a room. But it was such a great education and I worked with such talented people and I was working in public areas so I got to meet a lot of chefs and work with them on their restaurants, and it was just very good education. But I was burning out so I needed a change of pace.
SSR: Did it cement your love for hospitality though, that experience?
NH: No, it’s actually I love travel, and I constantly think of hospitality in every regard, in your scent, your smell, your taste. I just can’t, I’m obsessed. But I think I was pretty burnt out by the studio. And so, I was looking for something completely different and joined Backen Gillam. So, I joined Howard Backen’s firm that he had just started after leaving BAR, and we started working in high end residential and wineries and some hospitality projects. So, it was a nice change of pace, and it was a little more considered and a little slower. And I had such a great education with Howard.
SSR: What did you learn from him?
NH: I think collaboration is really important. I think best idea wins. Howard clearly has his last say, but he’s always open to the team and suggestions and design ideas. So, it was great to sit around a table, and we’re all with our trace paper working on a project together. So, that was really inclusive. I think that I learned a lot about presenting and how to handle client expectations, about communicating with clients, and about selling a story. It really is you have a vision for a project, but you have to bring your client along with you. I think Howard is very good at that, and I learned very quickly how to narrate the story, tie it all together to the building and keep that narration going all the way down to the forks and spoons and towels. I think there really has to be a clear vision and you have to get buy-in early from the client and gain their trust, and he’s very good at that. I mean, his buildings are beautiful.
SSR: Yeah, exactly. The winery, he just did a recent winery, too. But I love that you got to play in that space back then because I think some of their latest work too is–
NH: Oh, yeah. Travel, and Howard always said, “Travel is important. Travel, travel, travel.” So, I was like, “I think I want to go to Bali.” He’s like, “Good, go to the Aman Resort. Look at everything, photograph.” And this is back when we didn’t have phones, so I’d bring cameras and film, but I would photograph. I’d have stacks and stacks of photos that we would study. And then I went to Europe with a chef client and we went to all the flea markets. And we go to Michelin star restaurants every night, and I call Howard. He’s like, “What’s going on?” And I was like, “I’ve had 12 bottles of wine, but okay, here’s the design.” The time change, it would be crazy. But it was such an education, and he really was supportive of that. Your eye has to travel. You really need to engage and really see great design.
SSR: Do you encourage that to your team today?
NH: Absolutely. Yes, yes.
SSR: Get out. Look up, don’t have a phone attached to you.
NH: Yeah, just get out of the computer, and experience. You can say, “Oh, this looks really good.” But how does it make you feel? Look at the shadows, look at the light, feel the scale. I think there’s materiality. There’s so much you can learn, and there are places I’ve been physically moved and changed by visiting, let’s say like Donald Judd Loft in New York. It’s like a church in there. And it’s so great they don’t let you take photos. So it’s so nice. You’re just there to experience the space, and it really does change you. I think it’s important that everyone gets out, especially after COVID, we all need to travel.
SSR: There will be pent up demand for sure.
NH: I know.
SSR: I’m right here, number one. I mean, you haven’t traveled you said in eight months or so?
NH: Yeah, I’ve been traveling. I’ve gone back San Francisco, and I’ve traveled into Ireland. But yeah, I’ve been pretty grounded. It’s so strange. My kids are just not used to spending so much time with me, which they love. But yeah, I used to travel almost every week. So, it’s been…I think I went to LA and San Francisco once since COVID.
SSR: Yeah. Do you miss it?
NH: Absolutely. Oh, yeah, for sure. I just love that spark you get from in-person meetings and idea sharing. I think there’s just so much that you don’t get from a phone call or a Zoom call. I mean, 90% of the information I get. If I should put something in front of a client, I can tell by their body gesture if they like it or not. They’re not going to say I hate that. They’re too polite for that. But I can tell by the change in their face that they’re not in love with what I’m showing them, and I can quickly pivot and show them something else. But you can’t quite get those cues on Zoom calls, especially if they turn the camera off. You can’t make them keep their camera on. Other people are looking at their phones and they’re on the call. It’s just too easy to be distracted, and it’s been a challenge. So I do miss in-person and traveling and being with our clients.
SSR: Our CEO for our company had an all company Zoom call, and he was actually in the conference room in our New York office. And my colleague and I IMed like, “Is it weird that we kind of missed that conference room?” Just to be together, and to sit in the same room, so I totally get that.
NH: Oh, yeah. I think we all miss it. We all miss being together, for sure.
SSR: Why did you decide because then after this experience with Backen Gillam, you went out on your own, right?
NH: Yes, I had always… It’s such a strange thing, but I always thought like, “Oh, I’ll have my firm by the time I’m 30.” It was just not a hard goal, but it was a soft goal. It was like, I just always thought I would have my own thing. But I was just so busy with work. I was perfectly happy where I was. But I had to take some personal time off. I had two back operations that I needed to step away from work, and take a break. Just at the end of that I just realized I just couldn’t work the way I was working before. And then I needed to just slow down my pace. And so, I said, “Okay, I’ll take some time off.” So, I stayed on as a consultant with Backen Gillam.
And then the phone rang and past clients were like, “Well, I have a new project, but I want you and Howard to do it, and would you be interested?” And so, I just started a very slow burn project started rolling in. But when you go from Starwood where the president of Maharam, or everyone’s all over you. And then you got to Howard’s, and all the reps want to talk to you. And then when you go to your spare room of your apartment, and nobody picks up the phone. It was totally humbling. I was like, “Don’t you know who I am?” And they’re like, “Nope, never heard of you.” So, it was very humbling, and I think it was a great experience.
I just wanted to, when I set up my own company I wanted to be sure that we always kept service at the forefront. And that we are designers and we all have our vision. But I think the service side really is important. And so, just knowing that I could deliver something that I would present or design was so important to me, and follow through and really just being a great collaborator with my architecture partners and contractor or builders and vendors and fabricators. So that’s really then that sort of the ethos and the foundation of the company.
SSR: What do you know now that you wish you knew then starting out?
NH: That’s a tough one. I think I’ve never had the fear of failure. I’ve always just been like, “Oh, well, that didn’t work. Let’s move on.” And so, I think in the beginning I definitely had that. The weight of, “Oh, my God, I’m going to make a mistake.” Or, this is my reputation, and I’m so worried, which is important. You always want to make the right choice for your reputation. But I think I sweated so many little things that just caused me so much mental pain that I probably didn’t need to sweat. Like signing a contract for a copy machine was so stressful for me. It’s a three year lease, and I’m going to own this copier. It was just so stressful.
So, I think it’s financial. You have to spend money to make money, and you get what you pay for. We tell this to clients all the time. You buy something, a cheap piece of furniture or you don’t spend the money you should, you’re going to cry once. Actually, you’re going to cry twice, but you’ll cry once if you spend a lot of money.
So, I definitely wish I knew that at the beginning. My husband’s been really great about it. He’s like, “You need to pay the best salaries. You need to hire, get the best equipment.” A lot of the mental aspect of the architecture firms I worked in was like, cut cost, cut cost whenever you could. So it’s like getting a colored printer was out the question because it was too expensive. So, we were just like, let’s just put the money in and give the tools to the team that they need to do the best job they can and it really pays off. So I think I was very fearful of spending in the beginning and you should be you when you’re starting out. So, yeah, I got that copy machine and I still have it.
SSR: The lease is continuing.
NH: The lease has continued.
SSR: It was well worth it. That’s amazing. What did you want to create? What kind of firm were you hoping? I know you said about collaboration, but where did you see the void at that time? Or was it just you wanted to create something that felt new? When people are starting to think about a business, I mean, was it very thought through? Not in a bad way, or was it just, it was the right time, it was a good opportunity because I know that a lot of people always ask that. What was the plan? Or did you have a plan?
NH: No plan, really no plan. I think it was me. I mean, it was like, “Okay, I’m going to do what I do, and if people like what I do, hopefully, they’ll hire me.” But I also turned a lot of people away because I was like, “I don’t do that.” They would ask me to do something that another designer does, and I was like, “I can’t do that. You should hire them.” I’ve never worked for an interior designer, per se. I’ve never worked for a decorator. I wasn’t super educated in antiquities, or drapery styles. There was a lot of… I was more in the hospitality, retail, wineries, and high end residential, so it was luxury.
So I wanted to combine all of that experience. A lot of clients are like, “I want my home to feel like this resort. And I want this resort to feel like that home.” So I felt like there was a niche there. But I was very much architectural in my approach. I think some designers are not. So that was sort of my thing was working for architects in my career, and then starting my firm, and really seeking out great architects as partners, and creating a great project from there. So, that was really my thing. So I just stopped all the great architects that I wanted to work with until they gave me an opportunity.
SSR: That’s amazing. You just kept knocking on the door, you’re like, “Hi.”
NH: I was like, “Hi, me again. So nice to run into you in front of your office at 7:00 AM in the morning.” But yeah, I really was like, I respected their work, and I felt like I was a good partner for them. And, of course, I had to prove it, and I had to rigorous interview process. But I really did feel like I had something to offer in that sort of niche where architects get nervous about interior designers. They’re going to change the architecture, or they’re not going to understand fully where their vision is and interrupt it. I just wanted to take their vision and continue it down into the interior environment. So, once I gained their trust, and I spoke their language I think it became a great positive for our firm.
SSR: Amazing. What would you consider your big break for your own firm?
NH: My big break, there’s an obvious project that we won. And so the downturn of ’08 was pretty rough for everyone, especially in San Francisco. I had a client, a couple come in, and they were interviewing for a project in Hawaii. And they interviewed two other firms and ourselves. And they were at the firms for quite a long time. And then they ran out of time, and swung by our office, and were like, “Hi.” We were clearly like the third throwaway firm. And so, they were like, “What have you prepared for us today.” And I was like, “I haven’t prepared anything because I’ve never met you before, and I would like to know you before I show you what I would prepare, what I would design for you.”
But anyway, we got to talking and it became really obvious we had a lot of similarities. She had studied architecture. So the approach was very architectural for her house. And so, we started speaking the same language in that regard. I told her I wasn’t interested in doing anything I had seen already in Hawaii, that I wanted to try something new and modern. So they called me maybe 10 minutes after they left my office on the way to the airport and said, “We’d love to work with you.”
So I think that was kind of a big break in two ways. One is it gave us work because we didn’t have much work and in that downturn. And two, there was a great deal of trust from the client. And they were very influential clients and could recommend me two other clients. So, it was a nice gateway into a higher caliber of clientele. So, it worked out. It was a win. And we ended up doing another house for them, and we’re still friends today.
SSR: What’s your favorite part of the process? Is it that first meeting with the client and figuring out what they want? Is it the day it opens, and you actually get to see either the residents or the hotel, whatever the project is, what’s that moment for you?
NH: Oh, it’s definitely the dating, honeymoon early, getting to know each other, the ideas are flowing. And we’re really just fresh, and we’re starting to sketch and draw and concept. I mean, that is really the drug for me. I love it. Then the second part is working with artists and craftsmen. I just love coming up with an idea, finding someone who can execute and fabricate, working with them, collaborating, seeing the end result installed. So, I think having some crazy idea like let’s do some tire bathroom and pink onyx, and then the client’s like, “Let’s do it.” And I was like, “Great,” and then they’re like, “Oh, my God, they’re letting us do this.” So it begins, and then we start finding the right partners and designing and working collaboratively. And then it comes together beautifully. That’s just so exciting.
I kind of love all the phases, I guess. The big reveal is always exciting for me and for clients, and also just sharing with all of the craftsmen and fabricators who have a little piece of the project, but don’t ever get to see the big project come together. So having that being able to share that it’s really important to us.
SSR: What do you think has been one of your most challenging projects, and why?
NH: Gosh, there’s always a challenge. But I think there was a challenge for us to remodel a house in I think it was 11 months we had, and it was a complete remodel of a 14,000 square foot house. And that nearly killed us. I think we still had PTSD at the end of that project. But the work that we did, the level of quality that we pulled off, the collaborations that in the way that everyone stepped up from builder to craftsman to everyone. I mean, it was such a high level design. It was super detailed, and all the cabinetry was like furniture, and it was just we are on site every week. The collaboration, it’s just, it was rigorous. But it really was rewarding, but it nearly broke us. I think we all had our breakdowns. I held it together until the very end, and then I think I had a meltdown on the last day.
SSR: Which is pretty good.
NH: They’re all like, “Shoot me.” After two weeks of install, and it was just so high stress. Finally, I was like, “I think I just need to take a moment to myself.” But we made it and I’m really proud of our team, and we really just, it was all like we all survived something, and it really brought us together for life.
SSR: Awesome. I love how you said you got to a level of finishes and just the collaboration. You’re known for your finishes. You’re known for your layering. I mean, you’re known for your black and just the shadow and the play. How do you constantly push that? You said earlier you wanted to do something that hasn’t been done in Hawaii. How do you push that? How do you keep reinventing, which I know is easier said than done? And also, how do you use color in such an interesting way to help tell that story?
NH: Yeah, I mean, people always say, “Oh, you only do black and white and you’re afraid of color.” I absolutely love color, and it has its place. I can’t live with it. Some people can and I just can’t, but I do appreciate it, and I do find… I have a client that we’re working on right now that every room is a different color. I show people quick shots of it, and they’re like, “I don’t even believe that’s you. I’ve never seen you do an entirely blue room.” And I’m really excited about it. But I do, I’m very strategic about color. I want it to be impactful. I want to use it as a material almost as opposed to just color, color, color.
So, if we do an all blue bathroom it really is about that experience of all blue. I think HALL Winery we did the all red bathroom and everything’s red. The floors, the walls, the ceilings, the doors, the sinks, so you just come in and it’s like in a visual arrest of color. So, I think it’s just strategic and impactful and a little bit theatrical in some ways. Another way is I just think having a really relaxed Zen muted room and then you bring in a great piece of art that just throws everything off balance is something I’m really interested in.
SSR: I remember, I think, what is it? The Angler’s Hotel you did the tiles all blue, but everything else is black and white.
NH: Yeah, in the bathroom.
SSR: Yeah, in the bathroom.
NH: Yeah, I feel like it’s just an age old Coco Chanel, like when you walk out, you take off an accessory, right? So we’re always reducing, reducing, reducing. We’re just like, “Do we really need that decoration? Do we really need that extra thing.” And so there’s always… We’ll start with everything in the kitchen sink, and then start pulling it off and off and off and really getting down to purity. And so, if you’re going to use a color, use it, and really commit to it and make it really impactful.
SSR: But it’s hard too what you’re saying your process is you’re almost editing yourself, right? You throw everything out, and then it’s editing, which I think it’s harder sometimes.
NH: So hard. I feel like some designers really should edit more. I’m like, “Oh, my God, this room is great, but it has too many ideas.” It really has, that was a great idea. That was a great idea. That was great idea. But the three really great ideas don’t work together in the room. So, I really work with my team, pick one and really make the strong narrative and have that narrative carry through the entire project, and it will be your guide. You go back and touch to it. What was our original concept and narrative for this project? And if we break our own rules, then we discuss it and say, “Okay, we know all the furniture here was going to be light oak, but we’re going to bring in this dark piece because it’s really going to change things up and challenge the room.” So, I think it really is a discussion about great ideas, and that’s a great one, but not for this. You can’t put everything in the room at the same time.
SSR: Right. I mean, we at HD believe that all disciplines inform each other. Residential informs hospitality, hospitality informs residential. You see resimercial, you see hospitality and workplace. I always have said in the last few years, I mean, even with COVID, it’s one of the most exciting times for hospitality because it’s actually influencing so many other design niches. Do you find a lot of conversation at your firm between those working in residential and hospitality and what they can learn from each other?
NH: Absolutely. I mean, we encourage it. We are a residential firm, and we do hospitality projects. So, that’s how we look at it. So we’re always approaching from the residential side. I think that there’s cross pollination in that studio, and we have to de-brainwash people when they come in and say, “Okay, this is not a hospitality studio.” Yeah, there are certain parameters and budgets and codes that we have to adhere to, but we really want to shake it up and bring that residential feeling to our hospitality projects. So having cross pollination, having materials laid out from residential projects that could translate into a hospitality project are important, having relationships with vendors that work on our residential projects, and those relationships pay off.
We work with a lot of vendors, a lot on our residences. And I’ll say, “Hey, can you do me a favor? Make this for a hospitality project. I know it’s not the price point that you’re used to.” I think because they’ve done so much for our residential they’re like, “Yeah, okay I’ll knock myself off, or I’ll create a lower budget version of myself for your project.” I think it makes a difference. So yeah, we definitely have a residential approach to our projects, which is hard, which makes it so hard. We do everything the hard way in our studio. There’s no way about it. It has to be the hard way.
SSR: Love it. So I want to break down one project, the Candler in Atlanta, which we love. So it was a 1906 era building that was on the National Register of Historical Places. What was it like working with such a building, and how did you approach it?
NH: So, a funny story, they had called us and said, “We want you to work on this hotel in Atlanta.” We said, “No, thanks.” Then a couple months later like, “No, no, no, we really think that you should work on this hotel in Atlanta.” And I was like, “Yeah, we’re really busy,” and just didn’t seem like a good fit for me. They said, “Well, why don’t you just come and see it.” I was like, “Okay.” So, we go to Atlanta we show up and this building is so beautiful. It’s like this Bose arts building in the middle of downtown. Original Coca Cola headquarters, it has beautiful marble on the inside, and I think it was sandstone on the exterior.
It was just stunning, and it was in great shape. It was an office building, and it was a lot of lawyer offices and business offices that the owner wanted to convert into a hotel. So once we saw that we’re like, “Okay.” It has great bones. It has so much light, the windows are huge, so every room just was awash with bright light. So that was very inspiring for us. So yeah, we just drew inspiration from Atlanta. We toured some historical properties. We looked at other inspirations. But I think that later on I found out that other firms had interviewed for this project, and everyone had put a Coca Cola sign in their presentation or a pitch, and we’re the only ones that didn’t. And we’re like, “Why would we do that?” I don’t know. But I guess everyone felt like they needed to show that it was the Coca Cola original building. So the owner was like, I guess that was something that resonated with them. Like you didn’t even want a Coca Cola sign in your moodboards. I was like, “Why would we do that?”
So, we approached the project holistically. We really wanted to preserve as much as we could down to the original hardware. There was a lot of issues where we had to put… We discovered mosaic floor when we pulled up the carpet, and we had to keep the mosaic floor. So we’re like, “Let’s just use it. Let’s work with it.” There’s a pink marble wall in the basement that was so cool. We wanted to try and turn into a speakeasy or there’s an old safe down there. I mean, there was a whole bunch of things that we really wanted to incorporate into the project. But it had so many challenges. And it took so long to convert the building and really get the architecture up and running. So when it opened, I think it was just such a joy for us to get through that project and the team leader Brandon Asbury and our office, the studio. Yeah, Brandon really poured his heart and soul into that project, and it really shows. He really did a great job.
SSR: What was it at first just wasn’t right for you guys? Was it just you were just too busy? Was it just not something you wanted to do? How do you decide that?
NH: Yeah, for me, it’s for any sort of development or hospitality, it really has to be something that is exciting. Because to be honest there’s not a lot of financial gain in a lot of those projects. So at first it was timing. It wasn’t a good time for us. We were really in the middle of some other projects, and we didn’t have a team available. But when they came back to us, and they still hadn’t hired anyone we were like, “Okay, maybe we really need to make room for this project.” Then we heard it was a Hilton, and we’re like, “Oh, we don’t want to do Hilton because it has brand standards.” And then we heard from Hilton that it would be a Curio and that there were no brand standards, very minimal.
And so, I think anything that had brand standards for us was just a no because we’re, “We just don’t want to be tied down to any sort of parameters.” So once we were told, “You can pretty much do what you want, and just keep Hilton in the loop.” That made it a lot more appealing and interesting to us. But once we saw the building I was like, “I got to do this project even if I pay them to hire me.”
SSR: Like I’m in.
NH: I’m in, I’m in love. So I think there’s so many… It has to move me. I want everyone in our studio to wake up in the morning and be so excited about what they’re working on. And if I take something because it’s a good paycheck, then they’re all like, “Oh, we are doing this.” At the end they’re just like, “What are we all killing ourselves for?” So, it really is on the top of the list, is this something we want to do?
SSR: Yeah. No, that makes sense. And I know you didn’t have Coca Cola signs on a peach. How did you also honor Atlanta through it because I know also being-
NH: Oh my God, I love Atlanta. I’ve spent a lot of time in Atlanta and in the south. I grew up in Florida, and driving through Georgia was always part of it. But Atlanta has such a great culture. Everyone there is so wonderful. So yeah, and the owner really talked botanical gardens, and the flora and fauna of the south. So she really wanted us to incorporate that. So, we sort of drew inspiration from there. But really, it was just trying to keep it transitional. Not super modern, a little more Southern in its appeal with some nuanced references to maybe antiquities, but not exact replicas and copies.
We definitely looked around at other historical properties and did some research and then tried to bring it forward. And then in the lobby, we wanted to bring it way forward. We thought, “Okay, this is a new lobby. So we’re going to do a little bit more contemporary design just in that lobby.” And then when you go into the historical part of the property, it gets a little more classical.
SSR: Yeah. I love there’s a little bit of a feminine edge throughout. I mean, it’s very you. Again, your signature black and white, but then just the little bit of tassels and the floral accents, and even the ring lighting with the globe balls. It just has this kind of–
NH: It really does have a feminine. I think a lot of that was by the owners. She was very involved. And I was like, “Remember, this hotel is not just for you, but it’s for everyone.” But she just couldn’t not have a personal approach to it. When I put my makeup bag down, I want… And so, it was very much driven by her personal desire. And then the pink was just drawn from that original pink stone we found. Yeah, so we sort of pulled from those original colors.
SSR: Very cool. I mean, you must deal with so many different owners, especially on the residential side, but I think on the hospitality side having that personality though, going back to what hotels were. They were sometimes family heirlooms or run by one individual. So having that personal touch, I mean, must have been refreshing, in a sense.
NH: Absolutely. I mean, it was challenging at times, there were multiple family members. But they all had such great personal experiences. I think it was just…Yeah, it was very much about pleasing them, and it shows through their personal style, and how they wanted to honor the building as themselves. And this is their first hotel. They’re not hoteliers that just buy and flip hotels. This was a big deal for them. So there were a lot of discussions about how to respect the building and how to bring it forward. But also, we wanted something really great for Atlanta, and to really activate downtown again, and get people staying down there. And somewhere really beautiful for the business traveler.
SSR: And it took four years, right?
NH: Yes, it took a long time.
SSR: Which is I think always sometimes the challenge to with hospitality is by the time you start something, and then open it so many things changed in the four to five years that you’ve been working on it.
NH: Yeah, and I think that’s the same with residential. So, a lot of our projects are a year, a year and a half in design. And then there’s about a two year sometimes three year construction schedule. So by the time you start, and by the time you finish your taste and style may be completely different. So you’re always revisiting and saying, “Do I still like this? Was this a great idea?” And so, I think you have… Sometimes I’ll see things published, and I’m like, “I use that light, too. I already bought it. It’s been in a warehouse for a year. I can’t change it.”
You really have to be timeless in your approach. Everyone says, “What do you think trends?” I try not to look at trends because like I said, my Projects take so long. Some of our staff are like, I don’t want to… We’re used to something that’s a one year turnover, and I’m like, “Welcome to that slow. We take three years to complete a project and sometimes four and sometimes five.” So, I think you have to be really thoughtful about not falling into those little traps of whatever Pinterest ideas that come and go.
SSR: Yeah. And how have you stay inspired every day? Or keep your team inspired, especially the last call it 12 months now?
NH: It’s definitely been a challenge. I’ve been sending some people books, like surprise, here’s a book, look at a book. I just myself have been ordering books, and I’ll just take the afternoon like, okay, I’m done with my Zoom and lay out some books, and look at art books or design books or travel. I’m missing travel so much. I try and read online, and it just doesn’t feel the same to me. I think the way a book is organized by the editor, or the author, it really tells a story and a narrative and I really tried to stick to that. And so, just skipping ahead to the photo that I like.
So, I try. I mean if you can’t travel I think books are the best way to do it and getting something that maybe you’re not typically interested in, but I think it’s been really great for me, and I’ve been encouraging other people. We try and send out newsletters and blogs and go on a walk and take photos of the sky and share it with the whole studio. I mean, anything we can do to get people outside looking at nature, looking at color, looking at material. It’s helpful, I think, in the pandemic, especially.
SSR: Yeah. And you also recently released or about to your first monograph.
NH: Yeah, we released our book in October last year, which is the worst time and during COVID.
SSR: Yeah. So, it could be this year. It all blends together.
NH: No, yeah, it’s like an ongoing release. We had no book signings, and I don’t think I’ve signed any books, really, just a few. But it was three years in the making, so we finally came out with it. And we were so thrilled that the press in Italy didn’t close, even though it’s probably not good for them, but it’s good for us because the book got printed and it did ship. So, yeah, it’s out. It’s called Curated Interiors.
SSR: What was it like to go back and look through and take a moment to reflect on everything you’ve created since 2003?
NH: There were so many things I was not loving because you’re over it. And so, I had to really go back and re-shoot some projects with a different point of view. There’s some projects I didn’t get to put in the book because clients wouldn’t allow, which is always a challenge for any designer. So, yeah, I wanted to show a cross section of scale and proximity, like different locations. So we have a few like with the Stinson House, we have the city house, we have the Hawaii house. So I think it feels like it shows a little cross section of what we can do. Yeah, it was definitely, it was interesting to look back.
SSR: Yeah, I’m sure. What did it mean for your team to publish this, a lot of their work? What’s your team like?
NH: So, we structured the studio like an architecture firm. So, we are structured in studios. We have a residential design studio. We have a hospitality design studio. We have an interior architecture studio. We have a furniture design studio. We have an art director in graphic design. And then we have our purchasing and admin team. So we have these different little pods, but they definitely all cross pollinate together in one space when we’re back from COVID. So, I think the structure is we have directors that work under me, and then they work with the senior designers and the product designers.
And so, we really try and connect with each other often to make sure everyone feels included in the overarching vision. And then everyone goes off and does their duties. But I think it very much is about collaboration and about cross pollination. So we try and keep the studio open, and people walking by and seeing what they’re up to, and what sketches are pinned on the wall. And so, it’s very collaborative. I think the book was very exciting for everyone that worked on it. And there were so many to mention I didn’t know how to do it. So I just did a general thank you. There are nights I wake up, and I’m like, “Oh, I should have mentioned them by name.” But I was like, it’s just so hard. So, it’s such a challenge. But, I mean, clearly, all of these projects required so many people and vendors and fabricators and builders and designers and contractors. So, definitely it wasn’t just me, for sure.
SSR: How big is your firm currently?
NH: We are hovering around 100 people right now. So yeah, we’re a quite large for an interior design firm, I’d say. There aren’t that many interiors firms maybe that scale, but plenty of architecture firms that are.
SSR: You mentioned a little bit that you got through 2008, 2009, how does that compare to the last year, and what you had to do to keep your business afloat and moving forward? Because it has been challenging, to say the least. Maybe residential not so much this last year, maybe it’s been good on residential side.
NH: Residential is booming. So, in March we didn’t know what to expect and financially we’re like, let’s just buckle down and prepare. However, most of our clients move forward with their current projects, and a lot of new projects have come up. People are really focused on home now. They’re really focused on the secondary market getting out of cities. So, I think a lot of residential interior designers like ourselves have been very much busy. We are so busy. So, that just poses a challenge. There’s logistics of getting together, traveling to the site. Furniture installs have been challenging. But I would say we’ve had a very productive year, almost too productive.
I’d worry about everyone working too hard because it’s just like their work-home boundary is so blurred right now. I’m like, turn off your computer and get out of your room because it’s just easy to…I see people working at 10 o’clock at night and I’m like, “Well, just because I am doesn’t mean you should be.” They should be off. So, yeah, well, I see the productivity is very high and very efficient. So I think we’ve learned a lot. There’s a lot that can be done from home.
SSR: Right. Very different though from 2008, 2009 I’m sure where it really dried up.
NH: Yeah, I think development really, especially in the hospitality side was really dried up for a while, but then there was the backlog of things coming up. I think we’re going to see a backlog from this COVID year where a lot of projects went on hold, and financial, the PPP money came through, but it wasn’t enough to really kick off development work. So I think there’s going to be a lot of new projects starting, hopefully fourth quarter this year, first quarter next year.
SSR: Yeah. And are there any projects you’re looking forward to that you’re working on that you can talk about?
NH: What can I talk about? Well, I’m working on Kona Village, which is my baby right now. So, Kona Village is a resort here in Hawaii. I’m here in Hawaii right now working on Kona Village. So, it is a sort of a… I want to say it’s a boutique hotel. It’s 150 rooms. It’s going to be operated by Rosewood. But it’s a historical hotel in that sense where it was here since the early ’30s. It was basically thatched huts on the beach that were wiped out in 2011 Tsunami, and then private investors have stepped in and are rebuilding the whole project. And so, we’re working with Walker Warner architects, Greg Warner is the architect designing these cool little guestrooms that have thatched roofs, but it feels very luxury and very unique, especially for Hawaii. So, I’m very excited. But don’t ask me when it opens because I can’t tell you, because I don’t know yet.
SSR: It must be nice to have been in Hawaii the last couple of months to be there and really immerse yourself in it.
NH: It’s been really great being on site and watching the buildings come out of the ground, and it’s very much like ground up construction project, and really seeing the site being formed and shaped and then seeing the buildings come in and being able to be on site more often. So, it’s been really beneficial.
SSR: You said you had a house there in Hawaii?
NH: We have a small condo, which is not really meant to be living in full-time, but I sort of–
SSR: But why not?
NH: We’re making it work. We all live in it. The kids are in their bedrooms. My husband’s sitting outside. I’m sitting in my bedroom. We’re all working remote. Wi-Fi is not always great.
SSR: I’m surprised a child has not run in yet here.
NH: I actually lock the door. I was like, “I’m locking the door, everyone. Don’t come in.” So, the kids know, but they are literally here 10 minutes before my call with you, and they’re like, “What are you doing?” And my son’s pressing buttons and changing my Zoom. So, I have big eyebrows or a mustache. And I’m like, “I don’t know how to turn that off.”
SSR: Please don’t touch.
NH: Don’t do that to me.
SSR: Are you looking at hospitality and your projects through a different lens now post COVID? I feel like this is the greatest debate that I have with people. Will things change or will things go back to normal?
NH: Of course, they’ll change. No, I mean, they will change. I think my kids are like, “Gosh, when I watch a TV show and I see no one wearing masks I have anxiety.” We’re all scarred from this. So there’s no way that we’re not going to interact differently. It’s easy to fall back and get in comfort, but I mean there’s so many benefits to having fresh air in a conference room. If you can have it, why wouldn’t you have it? Why wouldn’t you have windows that are operable, and to be able to get that cross ventilation? Why wouldn’t you?
So, some of these things, I think are just forcing us to look at them in a different way. I think there’s so many positives from that. So, I don’t think it’s changing the industry. I think it’s just another thing, just like adapting technology in the industry. It’s just something that we have to consider and really think about and bake into the design.
SSR: Yeah, that makes sense. And we always end this podcast with the title of the podcast. So, what has been or what is your greatest lesson learned along the way?
NH: My greatest lesson learned is in design you have to be flexible, humble, and committed. So I think flexibility is important. If the design needs to change, it needs to change. Don’t get so locked into your ideas that you cannot see where you need to go from there. And then listening is so important. Make sure you hear your client, especially in residential. Make sure that you are delivering what they need, and it’s not always about what you need.
Commitment and loyalty, if you commit to an idea see it through. And for me, I’m just like, if we’re going to do it, we’re going to kill it. We really need to nail it and don’t half ass it, please. Don’t do it if you can’t do it right.
SSR: Love it.
NH: And then loyalty just to yourself and to others and really be a great friend, a great partner, a great boss. I think everyone respects that sense of loyalty that you feel. It’s almost like a security blanket.
SSR: Amazing. Well, Nicole, it was so good to see you over Zoom. I hope I get to see you in real life soon.
NH: I do too.
SSR: I might have to come to Hawaii to see you because that looks better than Brooklyn in the winter, but thank you for taking the time. It was so good to catch up with you.
NH: My pleasure. Thank you so much for inviting me today. It’s been such a pleasure catching up with you.
SSR: Of course.