Popular Woodworking In America: An Interview with Nancy Hiller
Nancy R. Hiller earned a City & Guilds of London certificate in furniture making in 1980. She’s been a professional designer and cabinetmaker ever since and specializes in period-authentic work. Her work has appeared in Fine Woodworking, Fine Homebuilding, Popular Woodworking Magazine, Old-House Journal, American Bungalow and many other publications. Hiller took few moments to speak to us about her work and her upcoming appearance at Woodworking in America.
You’ve been a professional designer and cabinetmaker for more than 30 years. How has your woodworking approach evolved during that time?
Being a professional woodworker is radically different from woodworking as a hobby or after retirement. When your livelihood depends on designing and building furniture or cabinetry for paying clients, you’re faced with economic, interpersonal and existential realities that require you to develop discipline and skills beyond those typically associated with the workshop. For the overwhelming majority of professional furniture makers I know, this is a massively humbling exercise. The honeymoon period, as my first employer called it, comes to an end; as you launch into your tenth bureau or your sixteenth dining table, you’re hit with the realization that even in the world of genuinely custom, one-off work, most commissions involve the same basic techniques, arranged in what you come to recognize as a routine sequence. At first I found this dimension of professional woodworking soul-crushingly monotonous. I attempted escape—ultimately, three times over the years. But each time I came back. I have learned to approach the repetitious aspects of my work, which in some jobs can last for days at a time, as opportunities to cultivate patience. And at the end of every job, there’s an object of beauty that came out of my mind and hands.
You obviously have a passion for period-authentic work. What are you currently working on?
My current commission has me building an audio booth for a mid-century church designed by the Yale-trained liturgical architect Edward Anders Sövik. The nine-by-five-foot screen around the audio equipment is made from solid cherry frames with sequence-matched cherry-veneered panels that echo the rhythm of the sanctuary’s original architectural elements.
What are your favorite kinds of projects?
I thrive on the variety that custom work provides. Some woodworkers consider it the pits because it so often involves subjugating your own preferences to those of your clients. But I love the interaction with clients, as well as the opportunity to design work for different architectural contexts. My favorite projects are those in which I get to work with clients who really appreciate the architectural character of their place, whether it’s a house, church or former fire station. I pay attention to the building’s history, as well as to how my clients need the space to work for them. Then I create functional pieces, whether freestanding or built-in, that are a joy to use.
You’ve also authored a few books including “A Home of Her Own” and “Historic Preservation in Indiana.” I’m excited to say that you have something new in the works for PW Books – would you mind telling readers a little bit about it?
I’m just starting work on a book about English Arts and Crafts furniture that will combine history and chapters on decorative hardware, inlay and other techniques with three substantial builds. It’s a very exciting project because it gives me a chance to immerse myself in work from a place and era that have been hugely influential on my perspective and aesthetic. The three builds will represent different stages of the Movement, different styles, different furniture forms (a table, a sideboard and a piece of bedroom furniture), and different approaches to designing period-style work.
What are you looking forward to most at WIA?
Meeting Raney Nelson and seeing his planes in person.
Don’t miss Nancy Hiller at Woodworking in America, September 16-18. Click to learn more about WIA.