Into the Wood

With more than 30 years professional experience as a designer-builder, Nancy R. Hiller, BA’93, MA’96, has run her own custom furniture and cabinetry business in Bloomington, Ind., since the mid-1990s.

Hiller trained as a furniture maker in England, where she lived for 16 years from age 12. After earning a City and Guilds of London certificate, she worked for Roy Griffiths, a Slade School of Art-trained designer, building old pine kitchens at his Crosskeys Joinery in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire. She later worked in the carpentry shop of the Imperial War Museum at Duxford Airbase, north of London, before returning to the U.S.

Back in the States, she worked for several custom furniture companies before opening NR Hiller Design, Inc. in 1995. She has taught cabinetmaking, furniture, and finishing courses at the Kelly Mehler School of Woodworking in Berea, Ky., and Marc Adams School of Woodworking in Franklin, Ind.

Inspired by architecture and furnishings from the late-19th through the mid-20th century, her work has been published in Fine Woodworking, Popular Woodworking, Fine Homebuilding, Old-House Interiors, Old-House Journal, American Bungalow, Arts & Crafts Homes and the Revival, and Style: 1900, among other magazines and special-interest publications.

Hiller is also the author of The Hoosier Cabinet In Kitchen History (IU Press, 2009); A Home Of Her Own (IU Press, 2011); Making Things Work: Tales From a Cabinetmaker’s Life (Putchamin Press, 2017); and English Arts & Crafts Furniture: Projects & Techniques for the Modern Maker, published by Popular Woodworking Books in June, 2018. She also edited Historic Preservation in Indiana: Essays from the Field (IU Press, 2013).

We spoke with her about her craft, her diverse career path, and about the impact of her studies at IU.

Can you say a little about yourself, your background, your training as a furniture maker, and your studies at IU?

I trained as a furniture maker early on in life. I was living in England, where my mother took my sister and me to live in 1971. We went to high school there and I began my college studies at Cambridge University. You had to specialize early back then. I specialized in classical languages for my A-Level exams—roughly equivalent to the last two years of high school in the U.S.—and went to Cambridge to study Hebrew and Aramaic.

I threw myself wholeheartedly into my studies and did very well but wondered what I would ever do with that degree. Contributing to my sense of being out of place was my awareness that so many of my fellow undergraduates came from very privileged families and seemed to regard their university experience as an opportunity to party.

So, I dropped out and went to work in a factory. Shortly after that I signed up for the City & Guilds furniture training at the nearest vocational college because I wanted to build things and really had no idea how to do so properly.

After graduating, I took a job with a cabinetmaker. I learned invaluable lessons about the realities of making furniture and cabinetry for a living, as distinct from a hobby. It was a harsh education, revealing just how much of daily work in the field is repetitious. The workshop was freezing cold. I realized that I would not be able to put so many of the fine skills I had learned in my training into practice. On top of this, I was introduced to the phenomenon of clients who change their mind after the job has started. There is something painful about having to discard work you have carefully done and start over.

These and other frustrations in this first job—and then my next cabinetmaking job—made me feel that woodworking was not for me. My big chance at escaping that line of work was my return to college at the age of 30. By then I had returned to the States and was living near Bloomington, Ind. I was fortunate to get a Metz Scholarship to study at IU through [what was then known as] the Honors Division, thanks to an astute advisor, Kathy Ruesink. I did a bachelor’s degree in religious studies with a second major through the Individualized Major Program while working in the custom furniture business I ran with my then-husband.

I thought I would go on to do a doctorate and teach, but in graduate school I realized that I was not cut out for the professional academic life. After completing my master’s degree, I applied for office jobs at the university and around town but wasn’t hired for any of them. It’s soul-destroying to be rejected repeatedly, so I just went back to doing what I knew how to do: building things. I still had many of my old tools. I set up a crude shop in my basement and just started trying to get local people to hire me. It was a crazy way to start a business, but I desperately needed some income.

So, you worked as a cabinetmaker both before and after you were enrolled in the religious studies program at IU. How did each pursuit inform or influence the other?

What I loved about the Department of Religious Studies at IUB was the excellent instruction and the humanities-based perspective on religion, both as a fundamental human expression and in terms of particular modes of religious thought and expression. The very first course I took, “Religion, Medicine and Suffering in the West,” which was taught by Robert Orsi, completely blew my mind.

Many people think, “Oh, you were educated in England and went to Cambridge? Nothing in America can compete with that!” but they’re so wrong. The English system—at least, in the 1970s—focused in depth on a limited range of subjects. I’m embarrassed to say that I managed to graduate from an outstanding high school in London without even knowing about the Reformation.

My education at IU—not just in religious studies, but in other departments as well—was incredibly stimulating because of its breadth and because of the connections I made between the various subjects. My mind was bursting at how relevant everything I learned was to my everyday life. Even in religious studies, every class was informed by other disciplines: history, sociology, anthropology, literature, psychology, and of course philosophy. I learned to think more systematically and constructively, in addition to learning how to articulate my thoughts more effectively.

Many people think of furniture making as a manual trade. Of course, it is a manual trade. But in designing, I am interpreting my clients’ desires, as well as how they inhabit their homes. My work as a designer is hugely enriched by what I learned about history and culture in the religious studies department.

On top of this, precisely because there is so much hand- and machine-work and so much repetitive work in my daily life, I have a lot of time to think. This is how I started writing for publication; I have now written four published books and edited a volume of essays. I would spend hours mentally responding to some dismissive remark from a prospective client—for example, an expression of outrage at a quote for a kitchen or a dining table—but the only person benefiting from my analysis of the situation was me.

At one point, I gave a talk at a national conference in the architectural restoration field and the editor of one of my favorite magazines came up to me afterwards and invited me to dinner, mentioning that she’d attended my talk because she was intrigued to see in my bio that I’d majored in religious studies. I took the liberty of sending her an essay I had written about why my work costs what it does, and she said she wanted to publish it—and paid me handsomely (that was before the Great Recession, when print was still king).

As a returning student, I had more than ten years of work experience when I began my studies at IU. That work experience became a focus of my studies—for example, my BA honors thesis took one of the most intriguing ideas to which I’d been exposed, Elaine Scarry’s argument that culture, both intellectual and material, provides us a kind of freedom by “disembodying” us, i.e. relieving us in various ways of many burdens of being physical creatures, and applied it to the increasingly widespread use of computer numerically controlled (CNC) machinery in furniture factories. I interviewed workers in a variety of workplaces, from those who used CNC machinery alone to those who combined CNC with more traditional machinery to those who worked primarily by hand, with a view to seeing how each mode of work might influence the workers’ perspective on other aspects of life, specifically with respect to environmental issues.

How would you describe your philosophy as a craftsperson and an artist?

I do what I do primarily to make a living. The need to make a living turns out to be a rich motivating force for me; I’m afraid that were I left to my own devices—if I were independently wealthy—I would not have had anywhere near as fulfilling a life as I have. I am one of those people for whom constraints provide a kind of freedom: freedom “to,” not freedom “from.”

Again, I return to the first course I took at IU, which introduced me to the idea of the dialectic—the idea that we do not only make things; the things that we (and others) make in turn make us. I will never stop being excited by that idea, which is so obviously true and yet so underappreciated by people in general. In this case, responding to financial necessity has massively shaped my life. And the pieces I make for clients literally color and shape their daily life. That is a big responsibility and honor for me.

I like to think of my clients less as customers in a transaction and more as partners in a creative endeavor; their patronage allows me to earn a living doing work I love. Many of my clients have become dear friends.

Where do you find inspiration for your work?

Everywhere. I’m inspired by natural forms, not least in the wood itself. I’m inspired by the human body and often work abstracted elements of the human form into my furniture. But, as someone with a deep appreciation of old buildings, my greatest design inspiration comes from architectural elements. I pay close attention to the context of the rooms for which I’m designing. It really comes down to a kind of respect, in contrast with the attitude of some designers who feel compelled to impose their ego on their clients’ spaces.

Can you say a little about your creative process, from conception to finished product?

Because I depend on my work for my livelihood and don’t have a chunk of capital to work with, the overwhelming majority of my work is custom designed and built. Many people use the word “custom” in their marketing when what they really mean is that they offer several options from which the client may choose. I do genuine custom design, which is to say, I start from scratch on every job, discussing my clients’ ideas and looking at their space, then responding with ideas and suggestions of my own. As a designer, I want feedback from my clients at each step of the job—not because I’m incapable of coming up with a fully thought through design, but because I am working for my clients, not myself; they are the ones who need to be happy with the result.

So, there’s a lot of back and forth. Some people may think this is inefficient, but in fact it’s just the opposite. By getting feedback at each step of the way, I save my clients the expense of paying me to design something from start to finish that doesn’t end up meeting their expectations. A big part of my job as a designer is to educate my clients about materials and elements of their job’s design that will affect how they interact with the chair, table, or kitchen on a daily basis. I give them pros and cons, then let them make the final decision, because ultimately the work is for them, not for me.

What are you currently working on?

At this point in my career I am fortunate to have a variety of work, so at any given time there are several jobs underway. I am working on a book about kitchen design for Lost Art Press, an internationally respected publisher of woodworking-related titles. I just finished editing the proof of a forthcoming article for Fine Woodworking magazine. My article about Wooton Desks will be published in the next issue of the British publication Furniture & Cabinetmaking. I’m putting together a series of talks about my newly published book, English Arts & Crafts Furniture; those will take me to Baltimore, Washington D.C., New York, and Philadelphia.

This afternoon, I will be working on a pair of urns for the ashes of a client’s beloved partner who recently died. This week I will be installing a set of kitchen cabinets for an architect-designed home south of Bloomington. I’m working with other clients on designs for a sideboard and two dining tables, as well as a kitchen for a 1906 house near the campus in Bloomington.

To find out more about Nancy Hiller, and to see more of her work, visit her website.

Hiller appeared in the Original section of the Fall 2018 issue of the Indiana University Alumni Magazine.


Original shines a spotlight on the works, talents, and interests of IU alumni across the globe. Have something unique worth sharing? Let us know at iueditor@iu.edu

Written By
Bill Elliott
Bill Elliott, MA’84, PhD’99, is a content specialist at the IU Alumni Association. He edits the class notes section of the IU Alumni Magazine and enjoys sharing amazing stories about IU alums from all around the world.