As a child growing up in the then-small town of Jupiter, Florida, designer Nicole Hollis had to search for creative inspiration beyond the berry farms that surrounded her home. “I lived in the pages of Vogue,” Hollis says. “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.”
She found an early muse in her mother’s friend — a Palm Beach socialite — who lived in a 1920s-era mansion along the Intracoastal Waterway. “Her home was impeccably designed. The wall coverings matched the curtains, which matched the bedspread,” Hollis says. “It was all chintz, but it was perfect.”
The San Francisco-based designer, who launched her eponymous firm, NICOLEHOLLIS, in 2002, doesn’t use much chintz in her projects these days. But her work evinces the same deliberate styling that she admired in that Palm Beach mansion — albeit in a more restrained, minimalist manner. Over the course of her career, which has included both residential and hospitality interior design projects, Hollis has carved out a niche by focusing on the indoor-outdoor California lifestyle, natural materials and rare, custom furnishings commissioned from artisans.
Case in point: For a recent project, a 4,400-square-foot home in Marin County, Hollis created a fresh space within a minimalist, glass-walled structure built by San Francisco-based Jensen Architects. She used white oak for built-in shelving, cabinetry and furnishings such as the master bed, and concrete flooring throughout the home, materials that look sleek yet will withstand the years of wear and tear its residents, a young family, will inevitably put on it. In the main living room, a cobalt-blue rope chair by Christian Astuguevieille holds court near an oversize coffee table created from recycled rubber tire treads by artisans in Morocco. “It’s really about sculpture meeting function,” Hollis says. “The effect is one of simultaneous ease and artfulness.”
Hollis began her career in Manhattan. While studying interior design at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, she worked for architectural firm James D’Auria Associates, assisting with the design for the showrooms of such fashion houses as Armani, Ellen Tracy and Valentino. After five years, she moved west to San Francisco in 1997 with her boyfriend at the time. Says Hollis, “I needed more sky.”
Here, she caught a big break: Starting in 1998, she joined W Design Group, the team responsible for creating the look of the then-new hip line of W Hotels (which today has outposts in some 24 countries). For her first project, Hollis and a squad of fellow product and interior designers took on the task of endowing the San Francisco hotel with a home-like atmosphere. “None of us had any hotel experience,” Hollis says. “But we came to the table with what we thought was the comfort of home away from home. The duvet covers, the soap dishes, the music — we designed everything that you touched and smelled.”
“It’s really about sculpture meeting function. The effect is one of simultaneous ease and artfulness.”
Hollis next jumped at the chance to work with Bay Area architecture firm Backen, Gillam & Kroeger, legendary for defining the rustic-refined aesthetic of Napa Valley’s most exclusive wineries. By the time she left, she occupied the role of senior designer, working directly alongside architect Howard Backen. Of Backen, Hollis says, “He was such a strong influencer in how to approach a project holistically. Great interiors begin with great architecture, and you need to work with your natural surroundings to make sure the interiors and architecture speak to each other.”
That philosophy is at the foundation of every project Hollis takes on today, and it is perhaps best exemplified in the Kona, Hawaii, vacation home that her firm recently completed. Over three years, she worked closely with San Francisco architectural firm Zak Architecture, incorporating local elements into the interior of the expansive, open-air structure, for example placing Kiawe trees in an interior courtyard and using black puka lava stone for the home’s foundation, lanai and pool surround. In keeping with her penchant for one-of-a-kind pieces, she hung a cast-bronze light sculpture in the shape of a tree branch by artist Michele Oka Doner over the dining table.
She favors local craftsmen for creating custom furnishings when possible and frequently turns to her favorite artists for a project’s wow factor. At the top of her list are Christian Astuguevieille for his sculptural furnishings in rope; Bec Brittain for her modernist modular lighting; and Lindsey Adelman, whose hand-blown lighting designs in organic shapes are practically de rigueur in today’s stylish homes.
Hollis continues to take on commercial projects in addition to residential. In 2013, she teamed up with the Napa firm Signum Architecture to create a new 10,000-square-foot visitor’s center for Hall Wines in St. Helena. Oversized custom furnishings, such as a modern steel table embedded with the cross-section of a giant felled tree, dominate a space that feels raw and organic, thanks to the cast-concrete floors, plaster walls and silver dome lights.
Around this time, Hollis founded NICOLEHOLLIS Hospitality Studio, a new branch of her firm dedicated to hospitality design. One of Studio’s first complete project is the Palladian, a 97-room Seattle boutique hotel that just opened in February. It’s Hollis’s largest project yet. The guest rooms are a genteel mix of masculine features — such as wall-to-wall wood headboards meant to evoke the city’s one-time timber industry — and modern detailing like pillowcases printed with images of David Bowie. She’s currently at work on hotels in San Francisco and Miami’s South Beach, another Napa winery and a slew of high-end residences in Hawaii, Beverly Hills, Lake Tahoe and throughout the Bay Area.
Hollis manages to balance her firm’s ever-increasing project roster with the demands of raising a young family — she has two kids under the age of four with her husband Lewis Heathcote, who is also CEO of NICOLEHOLLIS. Combining work with family translates to a never-ending push and pull between the professional and the personal. But, like her interiors, Hollis is at her best while straddling the sweet spot between opposing forces — artful versus easy, refined versus rustic, indoor versus outdoor and control versus chaos. So as her company takes off, she finds creative freedom in the chaos of her busy schedule. Says Hollis, “I thrive in it.”