A Sky-Inspired Renovation

Virginia designer Sara Hillery set her creative sights on her own family home renovation, with an eye toward a light and airy space with a palette of blue, white, and neutral colors.

What is your background when it comes to design? I majored in art as an undergrad at the University of Virginia and worked for a local design firm in Richmond. I enjoyed the work that I did there enough to go back to school and get my master of fine arts in interior environments from Virginia Commonwealth University. I worked for Lucas/Eilers in Houston for seven years doing large-scale residential projects and then started my own business after having my first child.

Where did you grow up? How does that experience inform the way you design? I grew up largely in Richmond, but I spent time in Pennsylvania and Texas. The East Coast’s love of English and Early American history taught me to love brown furniture, especially antiques and classics, like Duncan Phyfe and Sheraton. Texas loves a little more French influence and a more casual environment, so I possess a deep appreciation for a crusty old paint finish and an atelier style. Texas doesn’t have the same history as the East Coast, and there’s a much more modern philosophy of building new history. I think this melting pot of locations forged my love of eclectic environments that aren’t all one style and that tell the story of the clients’ varied interests.

What is your earliest memory of looking at a room and wanting to redesign it? My mom always let me have input in my room; she even let me choose a cat theme at one point. She has always been crafty and enjoyed a love of homemaking, so design was encouraged in our house.

What traits make you well-suited to be a designer? What have you had to adjust about yourself in this business? I love being creative, and I look at design as a fun form of problem-solving. I like the challenge of taking a space and making it better. I also really enjoy getting to know people. I’ve had to learn how to be organized so that I can be creative and still run a business.

What types of design feed your creativity on a daily basis? I am definitely inspired by fashion. I also love seeing other designers’ work, especially designers who are working on projects that are very different than my own. There’s always something to learn from seeing how others design a space.

If you could have a design superpower, what would it be? The ability to read people’s minds about what they really would like their space to be and look like.

How would you describe your design style? No matter how modern, casual, or formal my designs are, I always incorporate an element of elegance. At the same time, my style is also practical and flexible.

Tell us about this project. What were you looking to accomplish? I wanted the design to be affordable and incorporate much of our existing furniture, be child-friendly for our three kids, and have open sight lines for windows and doors so that the house would feel more spacious and flowing and be a place where we could entertain both kids and adults formally and more casually.

What were your first steps in conceptualizing the design of the house? The first thing we did was line up all the sight lines for natural light. We let that determine the arrangement of the furniture and cabinetry.

Will you talk about the reorientation of the furniture in the family room? We wanted the cooking fireplace, which is such a unique piece, to serve as the nucleus of the room. We made it into a conversation area and gathering space that purposely doesn’t include a television. I wanted to encourage the art of conversation in this tech-obsessed age.

Where did the inspiration for your color palette originate? The whole house incorporates a lot of blue, white, and neutral colors so that the design flows from one room to the next. I was inspired by the Texas sky: big, blue, light, airy, and sunny.

What was the biggest challenge? Light is really important to me, so the low ceiling height, boxy architecture, and small windows were a challenge. We opened up walls to get more light in. I often tend toward light fixtures that incorporate a lot of height, but the ceilings aren’t high enough, so I had to get creative.

The original space had wood paneling in the family room and bedroom. Why did you decide to keep it? How do you feel about the trend of painting over it? Originally, I thought I was going to paint over it, but I realized that reversing it would be timely and costly. On top of that, the paneling is old heart pine—you can’t get that particular grain anymore, so I felt like there was no going back. I’ve found that stains are more forgiving than paint and are lower maintenance. The paneling is warm and inviting, plus it’s brown, so it acts as a neutral.

What wasn’t working for you in the kitchen, and what were you able to salvage? We ended up gutting the kitchen: we ripped out all the cabinets, took down walls, and completely changed the layout. The original kitchen had an old, peninsula-style counter and didn’t really work—there was no circular flow. We designed the kitchen with the idea that multiple hands, including little ones, are often preparing meals these days. The modern island design with multizone cooking suits us much better and is more welcoming when we are entertaining. We did salvage the white dishwasher. And we put in pine floors to make the room match with the others and not appear disjointed from the rest of the house.

Is it easier or harder to design your own space versus someone else’s? Harder! When I work on someone else’s space, I am setting aside the time and really devoting myself to the design process because it’s my job. For my own space, it’s more of an experimental playground. I’m grabbing fifteen minutes here or there and trying to make the design come together.

What is your biggest design pet peeve that you see out in the world or in other people’s houses? Overscale furniture, because it messes up the balance of the space. There’s a certain zen quality when everything is well-proportioned in a room, even if the colors don’t match perfectly. Sometimes people will have me come and look at a space because it feels “off” and they can’t pinpoint why. It’s often an issue of scale. But I truly welcome and am inspired by all types of design.

What is your philosophy on design and life? You only have one life. Design (and life) should make you feel good, it should be livable, and it should inspire you to be your better self. That being said, be yourself!

What are some hobbies or passions you pursue other than design? I love to travel and explore new cultures. I’m also passionate about getting involved with and supporting local parks. And anytime I can support arts causes or other artisans, I’m in.

If you weren’t an interior designer, what would you be? I used to want to be a doctor, so I would have continued to pursue medicine to improve people’s health. Instead, I get to improve their environment.

A Baltimore Design Odyssey

Laura Hodges is a Baltimore-based interior designer whose worldwide travels and passion for design from an early age have given her a keen eye, making her projects truly tailored to the client. Laura discusses her signature aesthetic, the importance of practicing sustainability, and what has impacted her work the most.

Where does your love for design stem from, and how did you break into the business?
My family traveled a lot when I was growing up, so I was exposed to many styles of architecture and design, which expanded as I began traveling on my own as a young adult. I earned my interior design degree from the New York School of Interior Design and worked with distinguished designers such as Jamie Drake and Thomas Jayne after graduating, before starting my own firm in 2016.

You define your aesthetic as clean and classic. How do you incorporate this aesthetic into your various projects?
As much as I love seeing new trends and design styles, I always take my cues from classical architecture and design. I lean more toward a modern take on traditional shapes with an emphasis on contrast and form.

living room design

© Jennifer Hughes

What is your process like as you approach each project?
I always start with an in-depth discussion with my clients to find out not only their practical and functional needs for the space but also how they want to feel in their home and what would bring them joy and a sense of calm. From there, I look to their art collection (if they have one), travels, and interests, as well as my own intuitive take on their design style, to find inspiration for their project.

Where do you find the balance between functionality and style?
Luckily, we’re in an age when style and functionality do not need to be mutually exclusive anymore. We have access to so many beautiful fabrics and materials that are specifically designed to last. The primary function always comes first, but we consider both at the same time and happily have to make few compromises.

What’s your favorite piece in your own home?
I found a beautiful, handmade Italian Savonarola chair from the early 1900s at an estate sale, and it has remained my favorite piece.

You’ve traveled to many places in your life. How have your travels impacted your work?
I absolutely love traveling and never want to regret not having made the effort to visit historically significant or naturally beautiful places. My travels inform me every day—whether it’s the colors, culture, and style of another country or simply understanding how historically important architecture feels in person. I grew up traveling to France and England with my family, which formed my love for classical architecture. I later traveled to countries like Peru, Thailand, and Morocco, and they really opened my eyes to more extensive design styles and cultural influences.

living room with white sofa

© Jennifer Hughes

You recently opened your own boutique home-decor shop, Domain. How did that come to be?
It’s been a longtime dream of mine to have my own home-decor shop. My husband and I had the opportunity
to purchase a property in the historic district of Catonsville, Maryland, in 2017, and we were excited to explore the possibilities.

How do you balance heading Domain with your design responsibilities?
Since the shop is in the front of our design studio, I’m able to physically be in touch with the day-to-day responsibilities while leading our design projects. I love sourcing locally for the shop and incorporating design finds from our projects. The two businesses definitely feed off each other.

Sustainability is a big part of your mission. How do you go about achieving this?
I always start my sourcing of furniture and fabrics from companies with sustainable manufacturing practices and a commitment to fair trade. We also help our clients find a new home for their unwanted furnishings and commit to donating salvageable building materials from our projects.

Tell us more about the Patapsco residence you designed:
The Patapsco project is in Catonsville, near Patapsco Valley State Park. The park was a big inspiration for the general color scheme and feel of the space. The main living space is very bright and airy, with beautiful views of the park, so I used a very light ivory color on the walls to draw focus to the view. This property was the model home of a newly built neighborhood, so it was important to bring a sense of character to the home and inject the clients’ personality as much as possible. I pulled the color palette from the breakfast room rug, which was one of the first design choices I made. Once the color palette was established, I chose modern sculptural pieces that would have a significant presence in this open space. Creating more intimate gathering areas that felt more welcoming was important to me.

The clients have a very fun and quirky sense of style that I loved incorporating into the design. They love birds and other animals, so the palette for the fabrics and rugs is upbeat and colorful with a sense of humor. I wanted each element to feel as personalized as possible.

coffee table decor

© Jennifer Hughes

Describe your favorite design elements in this project:
The red cabinet with the round wood mirror in the entry is one of my favorite parts about this project. The vignette feels so striking yet inviting when you enter the home, and it instantly gives you a sense of the homeowners’ taste.
The breakfast room is a warm and bright space off the kitchen that originally was of little use to the homeowners. I brought in an oversized daybed full of comfortable plush pillows and nesting tables, as well as a colorful rug, to create a cozy reading nook that’s now one of their favorite places in the home.

As an homage to their love of birds, the dining room has an oversized art installation of watercolor paintings on silk that makes a dramatic statement in this open-concept space. Sitting in front of these paintings are a beautiful, handmade dining table and bench from a local woodworker.

In the family room, the navy Chesterfield sofa anchors the large space, defining the room and creating more intimacy. A round wood coffee table brings in more natural textures and visual interest. The black-and-white photograph above the mantel and brightly colored chartreuse chevron lumbar pillows are perfect examples of their quirky style.

Who in your life has been most influential to you?
My grandmother and mother were big influences on me. They were both amazing mothers and wives, while also pursuing their own interests and education, which included art, travel, and all kinds of crafts.

How do you define success in this industry?
My own definition of success is based simply on being able to do what I love for my clients and for them to be happy with our service and projects.

When do you feel most creative? How do you overcome times when the creativity is harder to come by?
I feel most creative when I’m able to travel and visit new cities and meet creative people. I love going to High Point, North Carolina, twice a year for the furniture market. We find great pieces to create and design with there. When I feel uninspired, I usually find ways to spark interest by visiting an art museum, a design shop, or a maker’s space.

What is your favorite part about designing a space?
My favorite part is creating a space that is beautiful and functional but still speaks to my clients’ aesthetics
and makes them feel good in their own home.