A Conversation With Samuel Hilliard Of Hilliard Lamps

Philpotts interiors with tusk sconces and Nile pendant.

Walk us through your design process from inception to production. What’s it like?
Samuel Hilliard: My design process is shaped by two questions: What is the element of interest in the design? And what function does the design need to provide? These questions form a lens that I use when looking for inspiration. When I come to an idea that answers these two questions beautifully, I dive into it with my sketchbook. On paper, I formulate the design and can mull over how this fixture will be perceived in our current market and if I believe people will love it, I start the modeling process. Depending on the project, I may begin with clay, wood, or with CAD. At this stage I often see clearly what the finished product could be and get energized to bring it into the world.

Each design has a unique story depending on the materials used and the complexity of its form. Sometimes the process flows easily, sometimes it’s a learning experience. The process ends with a sample that we will ship to one of our showrooms for display. With each sale of a new design, we sharpen the production process and then pass on manufacturing to the team.

Bronze patina process.

When purchasing one of your lighting fixtures what are some important things to consider?
SH: The first thing to consider is the space the lamp will occupy and from there, you can consider how much you’d like it to illuminate, and if it’s a chandelier, the height and length preferences of the suspension. Length is completely customized, so we often spend some extra time with designers to make sure it works with the space. A good trick is hanging a cardboard cutout in place of the lamp!

What questions do you recommend the client ask themselves?
SH: Most clients are experienced interior designers, so the main question is: What do I need to know in order to perfect functionality? I always ask for details about the installation area so I can advise them on size, height, wattage, finish options, and any other details to ensure harmony with the space.

Bronze casting.

What are some things about lights that many people do not know that they should?
SH: I think it’s something we all intuit but is rarely discussed. Exposed bulbs are unpleasant to look at unless dimmed to their lowest settings. If you want a light source to deliver, and be pleasant, never buy a fixture with exposed bulbs. If you are installing in a location where the top of a lamp is in view, say in a staircase, request a diffuser.

Top interior designers know that a room is like a little universe and thus, that the lamp in the center is the Sun. It is the focal point that sets the theme and the warmth of the room, and should be considered and specified at the beginning of the project. Designers with less experience start from the ground and work their way up. This lack of foresight can lead to a budget or timeline constraints that leaves you with a fixture from Ikea.

What themes are you seeing in the fashion industry that inspire your lighting?
SH: I’m very inspired by watch culture at the moment. In particular, we are seeing Men’s watches as an investment that continues to gain value. A Casio tells the same time as a Rolex and a bare bulb can illuminate a room. Both watches and lamps can provide function, however one appreciates in value, to become a family heirloom, whilst the other does not. A luxury watch offers refined textures and patinas, lasting metals and glass, each piece dated and numbered. There is a special value when dedicated craftsmanship, style, and function meet. I feel it on my wrist and the watch market of today reinforces it; I am inspired to bring this value to a home with my lighting.

Avenue sconce.

What are the differences you find when you design for residential vs commercial?
SH: I look at all designs with the presumption that they are for a residential space because of our art forward approach to create a personal experience that is true to a homeowner’s personality or a brands’ ethos. The biggest difference for commercial spaces is ADA requirements. For example, sconces can only protrude so far from the wall. We’ve often customized thinner fixtures to work in those spaces.

Who are some of your favorite menswear designers?
SH: I’m a fan of Thom Browne’s ability to create a playful yet professional wardrobe and his eyewear designs are exceptional. My favorite menswear brands are Golden Bear Sportswear and Shipley Halmos, each company makes exceeding fashionable and well-made jackets which are essential for the San Francisco weather!

Sophia chandelier.

We read that you used to design eye-wear, has that crossed over into lighting?
SH: It definitely has. With eyewear, there is no tolerance for weak design. It has to be engineered with precision to house the hinges and lenses, and it must also fit a unique individual comfortably. The precision needed to make a pair of glasses forced me to learn computer-aided design and new machining techniques. The skills I learned while crafting eyewear enabled me to create models faster and expand my ability to design more complex objects.

With everything I make, I’m inspired by art, nature, fashion, texture. I always strive to create designs that people love whether they’re wearing it on their faces or cherishing it in their home.

Favorite project and why?
SH: Right now, I’m very excited about our new Seraph series. It’s so dynamic and customizable It could be a pendant, floor, or table lamp. The encased LED light source allows for crisp, even lighting and a shade that can rotate 360 degrees. The adjust-ability can add drama to certain parts of the room or make for an organic grouping in a hallway or over a table.

Shortly after meeting in an art class at Humboldt State University in 1974, Noel Hilliard and Janene Anderson Hilliard discovered that they had both previously designed custom lamps. Their shared passion for design led to the development of the iconic lighting line. The founders retired in 2015 and their legacy continues on with their son Samuel Hilliard as principal designer and president. In addition to being raised alongside the studio of Hilliard lamps, Samuel Hilliard is trained in studio art and industrial design. With a background in luxury eyewear design, he brings a fashion forward approach to the unique lighting firm.

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