Interview – Nancy Hiller

Edwardian hallstand
Hallstand in white oak by NR Hiller Design. Photo by Kendall Reeves.

Nancy Hiller keeps it real. Funny, wise and fiercely intelligent, her “Making Things Work” was one of my books of the year…so I was pretty damned chuffed when she agreed to have a chat. 

F – How did you start out making furniture?

N – I had no experience making furniture as a younger person, I really got into it by accident when I was 20. I didn’t have enough money to afford furniture so I started cobbling things together, with very crude tools borrowed from my boyfriend. My stepfather made fun of my efforts. (We had a rather bad relationship.) One day he insulted me, adding that I should take a carpentry course, so I rode my bike down to the local vocational school and signed up for a furniture making course through City & Guilds. That’s how I first got involved.

F – How did the writing of “Making Things Work” come about?

N – Let’s see…I’ve always been interested in writing, as a younger person I was very academic – did A Levels in Latin and Greek and went on to study more “dead” languages at university before dropping out. Much later on, long after I had been working professionally as a furniture maker, I went back to university and got a degree and then a Master’s degree in Religious Studies with a focus on ethics. I’ve always been interested in reasoning and logic.

I started furniture making in the 1980s – as you can imagine, back then sexism was more rampant than it is today – and I would often have people make disparaging remarks or have very low expectations of my skills because I was a woman. I didn’t, at that time, have any good way of arguing back. Part of my motivation for going back to university in my early 30s was to learn how to argue. By that I don’t mean how to have a row, but how to craft an articulate response. I don’t always come up with a perfect response on the spur of the moment!

F – There’s a great French phrase – “l’esprit de l’escalier”. It’s realising what you should have said on the way out.

N – I’ve never heard that, it’s brilliant. That’s really how “Making Things Work” started: I’m going to write a book that, in part, is responding to all the insults – which aren’t just sexist. They’re also very much misconceptions – what it costs to build things, the investment in time, the overhead costs, the materials costs and all the rest of it. So, some of the stories are responses that I wish I’d been able to make on the spur of the moment. Others are really a response to many of the romantic views that abound regarding the nature of making furniture. These days especially, in the world of Instagram and other social media, there is just a ridiculous amount of romance attached to the craft of furniture making. When I say ridiculous, is it totally ridiculous? There’s all kinds of stuff online about building anything, honing your skills – all of that is wonderful. It’s just that when you do the work for a living it becomes somewhat different from the delightful, relaxing world of building things in your workshop at the end of the day. There are real life pressures that get involved, there are real life expenses such as taxes and insurance.

The other thing that I wanted to do is – in America, there’s this sense that anything English is enormously superior to anything American. I wanted to provide some real life experience that I had, responding to that. For example, the lack of a toilet at the second workshop where I worked. Many people might think “big deal, you can just go in the woods” – but you can’t go in the woods when there are no woods! You know, you’re working with a bunch of men – it’s not a big deal to me now, but it was then. Just the sheer slog and the grinding cold.

The story about my time at Imperial War Museum – I loved my time working there, and I wrote that story out of great fondness for the people with whom I worked there – but it’s funny, some people are outraged by what went on in the tearoom! Except that it was all well-intended – I know that if some people, including myself, really want to make a feminist critique of that whole scene, I will go there with you – but, those guys were really being what they thought of as friendly to me and I wanted to take it in that way, because why wouldn’t I? I mean, you can always make yourself miserable in any situation, but why? I was miserable enough at the time through a romantic breakup and they really were a tonic.

F – There’s not much written about the day to day experience of working – why do you think writers tend to steer clear of an experience that most of us have?

N – You just answered the question yourself, in part, by saying “the day to day experience”. It’s not that it’s not interesting, it’s that it’s not exotic.

When you do furniture making for a living, and I don’t mean the first year or even the first five years necessarily, it becomes very much like any other way of making a living – there are many of the same frustrations. There is quite a bit of monotony to the work. For example, there’s a lot of sanding for many of us – hours or days of sanding. If you’re doing a kitchen full of mortise and tenon joints, you might spend a whole day cutting mortise and tenon joints. There’s the anxiety of not knowing whether you’re going to make enough money to pay your bills. There’s the occasional very difficult client, or difficult supplier or employee. In other words, it is very much like many other ways of making a living.

F – What’s your own home like? Full of your own creations?

N – It’s a smallish house, it’s very simple and in a rural area. The house itself is partly my creation as when I moved it was basically a shell. In my spare time over the following two years I did most of the finishing work myself – I put down wooden floors which are hickory, which is extremely hard so I had to predrill and hand nail every single board. I’ve built the kitchen cabinets– they’re quite simple, I don’t want anything too formal. Over the years as I’ve built speculative things that sometimes don’t sell, they’ve ended up coming into the house. So yeah, there’s quite a bit of my own work. Most of the furniture I’ve bought has been from friends who were selling things or from junk shops – nothing very expensive. It’s quite eclectic – the house is full of salvaged lighting and plumbing fixtures, I like old things and I like old houses.

F – What projects are you currently working on?

N – There’s always a variety of work going on at any given time – my primary livelihood is furniture and cabinet making but I also write for different publications. I write a weekly blog for Popular Woodworking and four times a year I do a post on the business of furniture making for Fine Woodworking…and then I write books in the background.

I just finished up a small wall cabinet for a project article that’ll be coming up in Fine Woodworking magazine soon – I’ve got to finish some drawings for that. Last week I was doing some small cabinetry and shelving for a bathroom in a local client’s home. Today I’ll be starting to rip plywood for the second phase of a kitchen in a really nice architect designed house in a rural area – that’s the next big job.

The next book I’m writing is for Lost Art Press on kitchens. This Sunday I drove to Chicago to photograph a kitchen I did in 2014 in a 1915 house for an archaeologist and her husband, an Egyptologist – they were fun clients.

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Mid-century kitchen in walnut and maple. Design by Christine Matheu, AIA. Cabinetry by NR Hiller Design. Photo by Kendall Reeves.

F – You’ve written a book on Art and Crafts furniture that’s being published soon. Is that a style you’ve always admired?

N – I became aware of it when I lived in England – it wasn’t a subject of my attention, I was just surrounded by so many pieces of furniture from the late 19th/early 20th century because my Mother furnished our flat from skips and junk shops. Many of those pieces are lovely – they weren’t made by the famous designers of the Arts and Crafts era but many were late-Victorian or Arts and Crafts in style. On the other hand, when I set out to write this book, having been asked to do so by Scott Francis and Megan Fitzpatrick at Popular Woodworking, the one thing I wanted to do is argue that we really have no business talking about Arts and Crafts as though it were a unified style because it’s actually insanely diverse. I think that’s something that we need to think about more often instead of casually tossing about “Arts and Crafts” as a style. Then, of course, the majority of the introductory chapter is concerned with what unifies Arts and Crafts furniture and that is the philosophical and aesthetic movement out of which it grew.

William Morris may be the best known exponent of the movement’s ideals but the movement grew out of social and economic critiques that were passionately written decades before Morris was even born. Certainly, Carlyle was one of those critiquing British society and economics and then, of course, Ruskin. I wanted to go back before Morris and talk about how Ruskin elaborated this fabulous foundation for the Arts and Crafts movement and its aesthetics in his essay “The Moral Elements of Gothic”. That became the foundation of the first chapter of my book. Fortunately, the editors at Popular Woodworking gave me carte blanche to inject a bit of humour into my treatment of this subject. I thought that for a readership that’ll be largely comprised of woodworkers that’ll help make it more readable. When you’re writing about Ruskin and some of the language he used, which is extremely florid and formal…the written material is incredibly rich. Ruskin had a brilliant mind in so many ways. One of the things that endear him to me most forcefully is the way he can tie himself up in knots, logically, and appear to be contradicting the very point that he made passionately earlier.

F – He writes at one point that he doesn’t think he’s properly dealt with a subject until he’s contradicted himself at least three times…

N – Right, the thing that’s brilliant is that is typical of deep and complex thought. There’s not enough of that today, especially in politics and government. This book is for furniture makers primarily, or people who love the Arts and Crafts movement, but so much of what these guys were saying was a social and economic critique and a proposal for a better society. Many of the same concerns that they had, many of us have today. The stuff they were writing and lecturing about is no less relevant today than it was then.

F – Is it possible to make a living as a woodworker without relying on rich clients?

N – I don’t primarily work for very wealthy people. Most of my clients are middle class people – the equivalent of civil servants in England, they work for the government or they work for universities. A lot of my clients find me because they live in old houses and I specialise in work for old houses.

There’s a wonderful discipline in having to make a living at a craft. There’s a humility – you have to learn, or at least I’ve had to learn this, unless you’re just going to work for wealthy people, you have to learn to sometimes do stuff that is beneath what people might feel comfortable posting on Instagram, let me put it that way. Working with sheet materials – every kitchen I do is made with very down to earth techniques using veneered plywood, screws and biscuit joinery. That is the core of the cabinetry that enables me to put the more labour intensive work into the parts that will get seen – those are the parts that incorporate more typical furniture joinery, maybe mortised butt hinges, things like that. A lot of people scoff at the way I build kitchens and some of the built in work that I do, but let them scoff – that’s how I can afford to make stuff and make a living at it. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s very strong, durable and practical…and frankly, it looks a hell of lot better than some of the preciously made stuff!

Part of my challenge as a professional woodworker is figuring out how to make those things that work with my client’s budget. For example, this kitchen that I’m just starting this afternoon, for a house in a beautiful hilly spot in Southern Indiana, those people are long term clients. All I ever made for them before was a bathroom cabinet, but it was a beautiful cabinet for an old house. They wanted me to work with them on their kitchen, come up with a design that would complement the architectural style of the house and make them happy on a daily basis – doing so using methods and materials that are affordable for their budget. That’s what I do. These are special people to me, I’ve known them for a long time and I love where they’re coming from – aesthetically and in terms of their values. So I was motivated to come up with a way of building their cabinetry that’s affordable to them. That’s part of what I mean when I called the book “Making Things Work”. I make things work by working with people.

“Making Things Work” is also available in the UK and Europe through Classic Hand Tools.

“English Arts and Crafts Furniture” will be published later this month.

You can follow me on Twitter, Instagram and sign up to the Mailing List for more interviews, opinions and shady anecdotes. I’ll be building some actual furniture soon, too.

Author: Finn Koefoed-Nielsen

I design and build furniture from sustainable hardwoods - info@finnkn.com

2 thoughts on “Interview – Nancy Hiller”

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