Designer Spotlight

From San Francisco to Hawaii, the Interiors of Nicole Hollis Are Calm, Curated and Super Cool

In her new monograph, NICOLEHOLLIS: Curated Interiors (Rizzoli), the San Francisco–based designer highlights her crisp, edited spaces, like this living area of a house in Hawaii’s Kua Bay. Top: The home’s pool area features Paola Lenti Shell poufs. Photos by Douglas Friedman unless otherwise noted

Phoning from her condo on the Big Island of Hawaii, Nicole Hollis sounds surprisingly relaxed. Although she often makes short trips from her home base in San Francisco to Hawaii — where she has two hotels and several houses in the works — this time she is cocooned there with her husband, Lewis Heathcote, and their two young children.

“I have a team of architects and furniture designers. The main reason I can be so relaxed is that they’re so talented,” explains Hollis, who started her firm, NICOLEHOLLIS, in 2002. (She went upper case and dropped the space, she says, to distinguish the brand from the person.) 

Many of her clients are tech moguls who expect nothing short of perfection. And Hollis satisfies them with crisp interiors in which rich materials — bronze, marble, dark woods and leathers — substitute for color or pattern, creating soothing environments without much overt “decoration.”

Hawaii kitchen by Nicole Hollis
In the kitchen, a quintet of Thomas Hayes Studio leather cord stools is pulled up
to the waterfall-edge island, which is topped with a pair of Atollo table lamps
by Vico Magistretti for Oluce

Hollis has partnered with some of the best architects in the world, including Tom Kundig, Snøhetta and Lake|Flato. And they’re happy to work with her, because she is the kind of interior designer who doesn’t undermine, but rather underlines, their architectural intentions.

One way she does that is with careful symmetry. “There’s not much symmetry in nature,” says Hollis. “But at home, people seem to feel comfortable with symmetry. It creates a sense of calm.” She adds, “Though I might throw in a zinger or a curve, it’s one of my starting principles.”

People who look at interiors professionally admire the discipline that characterizes Hollis’s work. Douglas Friedman, who shot many of the photos for the new book NICOLEHOLLIS: Curated Interiors (Rizzoli), says that “her rooms require me to be precise. Everything lines up, and I have to honor that.” 

“I don’t know her process, but she must be making some tough calls — some hard-core editing — because the result always looks intentional, confident and edgy,” says lighting designer Lindsey Adelman, who has worked with Hollis on a number of residential projects. “She’s got an amazing mix of smart passion and cool restraint, and she is very fun to work with.” 

Hawaii lounge area by Nicole Hollis
In the lounge area, a custom Cherry Bomb chandelier by Lindsey Adelman hangs over an Afritamu coffee table by Christian Astuguevieille surrounded by a set of Vladimir Kagan Barrel chairs. The dining area features Christian Liaigre Arctique armchairs and AKMD Wave candlesticks.

Hollis’s approach is on full display in a house in Kua Bay on the Big Island. Architect Greg Warner, of the San Francisco firm Walker Warner, designed a central pavilion that welcomes the outdoors in. Indeed, with its glass doors open, the house would practically disappear if it weren’t for materials that give it gravitas, such as cedar for walls and ceilings, basalt for floors and marble for kitchens and bathrooms.

Hollis had artist Michele Oka Doner create bronze door handles based on branches, and she collaborated with furniture designer John Houshmand on a large “multi-material” coffee table for the living room. Other living room furnishings include a Groundpiece sofa by Flexform with shelf arms wrapped in gray leather and a Web chair by Hans Wegner bought on 1stDibs. Nearby are five slate-gray Vladimir Kagan barrel chairs beneath a large, globe-shaped chandelier by Adelman, one of the largest she has ever made.

Hawaii bedroom by Nicole Hollis
A guest room features a custom bed designed by NICOLEHOLLIS and fabricated by Julian Giuntoli Custom Furniture, which is flanked by a pair of Serge Mouille Antony sconces. The fiber artwork above the bed is by Lauren Williams. A custom NICOLEHOLLIS desk is paired with a woven-leather dining chair by Smilow Design

For Hollis, nearly every job involves collaborating with artists and artisans; her standbys include Oka Doner, Adelman, Bec Brittain, Michael Anastassiades, David Wiseman, Jeff Zimmerman, Joseph Dirand and Christian Astuguevieille.

Her firm also designs custom pieces, like the two sofas she did for a glass-and-steel house in Larkspur, California. The client, an ad executive, had hired Jensen Architects to design what Hollis describes in the book as “a series of floating planes that opens to the landscape and blurs the lines between indoors and out.”

Hawaii main bathroom by Nicole Hollis
Applique Anneau 295 sconces by Hervé Van der Straeten flank a KGBL Starling mirror in the main bathroom.

Indeed, the site is so windy that only a few weeks after Hollis installed a paper lantern by Ingo Maurer over the dining table, it was torn to shreds. She replaced it with a steel fixture by Kevin Reilly (what look like candles are indeed made of wax, but they’ve been hollowed out and filled with LEDs).

This illuminates a white Balfour dining table by James Perse, a pair of bentwood chairs by Frank Gehry, purchased on 1stDibs, and three linen-covered director’s chairs. Opposite the director’s chairs is a NICOLEHOLLIS high-back sofa. The firm designed a different custom sofa for the living area, of solid white oak with linen cushions; it faces a coffee table made in Morocco of recycled tire treads.  

Another house in the book, commissioned from Walker Warner by a family that had recently moved from Hong Kong to Marin County, occupies a dramatic site overlooking San Francisco Bay. There, Hollis had Oka Doner design a lacy bronze screen for the dining room. Weighing two tons, the screen had to be installed while the house was under construction, Hollis says.

In front of a wall of Aegean limestone, a new sofa from a Jean-Michael Frank design, covered in a Holland & Sherry velvet, meets a John Pomp Rondelle credenza of handblown glass, oxidized brass, oil-rubbed blackened steel and walnut. “It’s a materials study,” Hollis says of the room. And while neutrals prevail, when it comes to texture and tone, “there’s a lot of contrast,” Hollis says.

Hawaii fire pit by Nicole Hollis
This outdoor space features a trio of drums by Fernando Mastrangelo Studio.

Not all her projects involve new construction. One client bought a 1915 house on San Francisco’s Russian Hill designed by Julia Morgan (best-known as the architect of William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon; Hollis lives in a black-painted Victorian, in Pacific Heights, that was Morgan’s last home). Hollis’s interventions included turning what had been the house’s ballroom into her client’s bedroom. “It didn’t have closets, so I added two brass cabinets floating in the room,” she says.

As design writer Pilar Viladas observes in the introduction to the book, the brass “creates warm reflections while accentuating the dialogue between the historic architecture and its contemporary contents.” Those contents include a pair of Pill wall lamps by Autoban for De La Espada, which bracket the ornate fireplace, and an angular ceiling fixture by Brittain over the bed. “It’s a pretty mix of modern and antique,” says Hollis.


Russian Hill dining room by Nicole Hollis

In the dining room of a home in San Francisco’s Russian Hill, Bec Brittain’s Shy 18 light is mounted over a custom NICOLEHOLLIS table surrounded by Hans Wegner Wishbone dining chairs. Hanging over the fireplace is Tetragonn Construction, by Christopher Badger, which is flanked by Serge Mouille sconces. The mirror-polish-brass bar cabinet is another custom design by NICOLEHOLLIS, fabricated by Custom Furniture Design.



Russian Hill bedroom by Bec Brittain

The floating polished-brass wardrobe in the main bedroom is a custom design by NICOLEHOLLIS; the Niguel nightstands flanking the bed are by Lawsen-Fenning. Bec Brittain’s Maxhedron ceiling light illuminates the space.

Russian Hill living room by Nicole Hollis

The living room includes a pair of Vladimir Kagan Contour low-back lounge chairs, a cabinet by NICOLEHOLLIS and a Joe Colombo 4801 armchair.

Larkspur dining room by Nicole Hollis

The dining room of a Larkspur, California, home features a pair of Frank Gehry High Sticking chairs at either end of a James Perse table. The Sundance folding chairs are by Paolo Golinelli. Photo by Laure Joliet

The Larkspur home’s living room contains a custom sofa by NICOLEHOLLIS, produced by Julian Giuntoli Custom Furniture. Photo by Laure Joliet

Lightning Fields 227, 2009, by Hiroshi Sugimoto, hangs in this Tiburon, California, sitting room, which also includes a Monika pendant light by Naomi Paul.

The Tiburon home’s formal living room features a Jean-Michel Frank sofa and Composition (Cards), 2017, by Tara Donovan.

Michele Oka Doner created the dining room’s lacy bronze screen, which weighs two tons and had to be brought in while the house was under construction.

Growing up in Jupiter, Florida, Hollis imagined herself working in the fashion world. “I lived in the pages of Vogue,” she told Introspective in 2015. “I taped the pages to my wall and would dream of the far-off locations and photo shoot sets. Imagining the styling of the photos was part of the allure.”

  When she got a job delivering clothes for a Florida boutique, she found herself more intrigued by the customers’ houses than their wardrobes. Then, while attending New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, she worked for architect James D’Auria, whose projects at the time included showrooms for Armani and Valentino.

In 1997, she moved to San Francisco, where she was employed by Starwood Hotels and then by the estimable Napa Valley architects Backen, Gillam & Kroeger. After three years there, she left to start NICOLEHOLLIS. The firm has now grown to almost 100 employees, and Heathcote is its CEO.

Although NICOLEHOLLIS takes on some modest projects — “We pick jobs that make us want to get out of bed in the mornings,” Hollis says — many are large and elaborate. Typically, three to five people will work on interior architecture (which includes such items as custom door hardware, tile layouts for kitchens and baths and veneer layouts for cabinets). Another small group will work on selecting and designing furniture, along with the accessories required to make a new house welcoming.

Counting every table, tablespoon and towel, a single residence may need 5,000 pieces, Hollis says. All of them have to get to the right place at the right time. That’s why each project also has a logistics team, Hollis says, “so the designers can focus on designing.” And working from home during these strange times hasn’t changed that. Says Hollis, “Everyone in the studio is very busy and engaged.”

Nicole Hollis’s Quick Picks

<i>Jimi Hendrix</i>, late 20th century, by Gered Mankowitz, offered by Mouche Gallery
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Jimi Hendrix, late 20th century, by Gered Mankowitz, offered by Mouche Gallery

“I love this portrait of Jimi Hendrix. His stance is powerful, but there is a softness to it as well. This photograph has so much soul — I’d love to find a place for it in one of my projects.”

Faye Toogood Maquette 031 / Box bench, 2020, offered by Friedman Benda
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Faye Toogood Maquette 031 / Box bench, 2020, offered by Friedman Benda

“The Box bench by Faye Toogood is so clever. From afar, it appears to be made of cardboard, but as you get closer, you realize it is cast in bronze. It has this handmade-yet-refined look. Toogood’s Unlearning collection is one of my favorite collections of 2020.”

Milton Glaser African-pattern hand-tufted wool area rug, 2017, offered by Nanimarquina
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Milton Glaser African-pattern hand-tufted wool area rug, 2017, offered by Nanimarquina

“This Milton Glaser rug brings a subtle texture into the room without being overpowering or distracting.”

<i>Siphe, Johannesburg</i>, 2018, by Zanele Muholi, offered by Yancey Richardson Gallery
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Siphe, Johannesburg, 2018, by Zanele Muholi, offered by Yancey Richardson Gallery

“I first saw Zanele Muholi’s enigmatic portraits at the Tate museum, in London, and was immediately drawn to her use of contrast and light. Her work beautifully melds Western high fashion and traditional South African elements, while perfectly illustrating the spectrum of race, gender, and sexuality.”

Mauro Mori Hug chair, 2018, offered by Les Ateliers Courbet
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Mauro Mori Hug chair, 2018, offered by Les Ateliers Courbet

“This chair is a work of art. The wild grain of the wood paired with the smooth finish creates the most beautiful juxtaposition.”

Niamh Barry Counterpoise suspended light sculpture, 2014, offered by Maison Gerard
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Niamh Barry Counterpoise suspended light sculpture, 2014, offered by Maison Gerard

“The form of this light fixture is so organic. I love its size, movement and reflections. It can almost look like a different fixture at every angle it’s viewed.”

Chanel J12 automatic unisex watch, 2010, offered by Monalisa Jewelry Inc.
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Chanel J12 automatic unisex watch, 2010, offered by Monalisa Jewelry Inc.

“I love how versatile this watch is — it can be worn with a sweatshirt and jeans or paired with a simple evening gown as a statement piece.”

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