Someone should nominate Nancy Hiller for a MacArthur Genius Award. Not only is she a superb furniture maker developing a unique style of her own, but she is also a brilliant and funny writer who has published several books. She lectures and writes on furniture making and Arts & Crafts history. Did I mention that Nancy can teach you how to build a 1903 Harris Lebus desk in a week?
Hiller did not have a lifelong longing to work with her hands. After dropping out of university in England, where she spent her teens and twenties, she was short of money and needed furniture. She signed up for a year-long City & Guilds furniture training course at a vocational college.
There she acquired traditional handcraft skills: joinery, finishing, veneering. That led to a job with a small kitchen-cabinet maker, and next a small furniture and cabinetmaker in rural England: “We got to cut dovetails by hand, which I loved.”
After years at various furniture-making jobs, all minimally paid, Hiller returned to the U.S. She finished a university degree (in religious studies, where her research exposed her to Ruskin and the Utopian movements), then opened her own furniture-making business, NR Hiller Design, in 1995.
Hiller considers herself a furniture maker, not a cabinetmaker in the 18th-century sense. “The term ‘furniture maker’ covers all the bases because it encompasses freestanding furniture and built-ins. Adding a layer to that description, I would call what I make ‘vernacular’.”
Her work is mostly custom and personalized, starting with a meeting in the client’s home, where she is comfortable talking about the budget. It’s important to Hiller that clients understand what goes into making furniture by hand: skills, labor, and the time it takes to build and finish a high-quality piece. “It is a sort of miraculous thing to take a piece of raw material and make it into a useful object.”
NR Hiller Design, Inc.