r
Real Estate / Houses

Woman on the Edge

This Eccentric Designer is a Fearless Iconoclast

BY Rebecca Sherman // 07.14.15
photography Jenny Antill Clifton

Tdescribe Barbara Hill as an interior designer is missing the point. Don’t get me wrong — she has all the hallmarks of being an extremely talented, successful one. With clients in Houston, Mexico, Atlanta and Minneapolis, she has most recently finished a home in Bayou Bend Towers on Westcott at Memorial Drive. She’s been published with enviable frequency, including The New York Times, Taschen’s Interiors Now and Dwell magazine, which has included her work in 11 issues. Celebrity designer Nate Berkus was so enamored with one of Hill’s Marfa houses — converted from a former 1930s dance hall — that he flew her out to New York City four years ago to talk about it on his show. Twenty-four pages in Berkus’ 2012 book, The Things That Matter, are devoted to Hill and the one-room Marfa house, which he describes as “beautifully organized” and “poetic.”

With flaming red hair and a penchant for expensive, flamboyant shoes, the 78-year-old Hill is as much performance artist as decorator, more iconoclast than trendsetter. The recently updated 860-square-foot Upper Kirby studio in the ’60s-era Regency House high-rise where she’s lived for the past 10 years typifies her unconventional style. There’s an Italian Ingo Maurer chandelier in the bath and, in the main living area, a Burton snowboard with Andy Warhol’s “The Last Supper” painted on it, from a Marfa art gallery. A madcap photograph of a Marfa resident dressed in a suit and boots while wielding a pair of comically oversized pistols hangs over her Ligne Roset platform bed.

Here, the rough underbelly is preferred to the polished surface. The bathtub and sink, designed to be set into finished enclosures, were left unfinished, exposing their bare exteriors. Walls of zinc sheeting traditionally used for roofing surround the tub area. As for square footage, the more contained, the better.

Screen shot 2015-07-14 at 4.34.09 PM

“It’s perfect. I could even go smaller,” Hill says. “I can hop around inside here pretty easily. It’s wonderful, easy living.” The space was a typical ’60s condo with Sheetrock walls and eight-foot ceilings when Hill bought it. She took everything down to the bones, revealing ductwork and concrete. The ceilings suddenly became tall, and the room opened up. “Once I ripped everything out, and I saw the beauty of the natural materials, I wanted to leave it,” she says. “I just love looking at these imperfect ceilings, which are perfect in their own way.”

She has filled the rustic, industrial sheath with beautifully crafted furnishings, both modern and antique, such as a pair of Italianate gilt chairs from Antiques on Dunlavy (now Antiques & Interiors at the Pavilion); original Platner and Bertoia chairs she’s owned for years; a new Ligne Roset sofa; and a rare, old metal French postal sorting table that was cut down for use as a coffee table, from Kuhl-Linscomb. The contrasts produce an almost spartan aesthetic that is elegant in its simplicity and use of space.

In Hill’s bedroom, a rack holds clothes and shoes. Rolled woven mat set on its side serves as a space divider between the bath area. Sugar pillows from Urban Outfitters.
In Hill’s bedroom, a rack holds clothes and shoes. A rolled woven mat set on its side serves as a space divider between the bath area. Sugar pillows from Urban Outfitters.

“My rooms are minimal, but there’s a romance to them,” she says. “I like rooms to have something sexy, surprising and humorous about them. I like to play things against each other.”

Like her interiors, Hill’s life is full of contrasts. She grew up in East Texas and entered the Miss Texas pageant in 1956 as a way to escape what she describes as a culturally repressed childhood. “I was way too cutting-edge, even back then,” she says. She wooed the pageant judges with a rendition of the 1947 French song “C’est Si Bon,” sung in the manner of sultry cabaret star Eartha Kitt (of “Santa Baby” fame), and the Miss Texas title. A University of Houston literature dropout — she left school to get married and start a family — the former beauty queen taught herself how to pull together the minimal, chic rooms she’s now known for.

“It was intuitive. I didn’t study with anyone. The closest thing to a mentor I ever had was Dominique de Menil. Just being around her was inspiring,” says Hill, who worked for de Menil at the Rice Museum during the ’60s and ’70s, helping to organize exhibitions and docent tours. In 1971, Hill — whose surname was Cusack at that time — opened Cusack Gallery, at which she represented New York and European minimalist and conceptual artists such as Robert Mangold, Sol LeWitt, Daniel Buren and Carl Andre. These were “artists that no one in Houston was showing at the time,” she says. “By then, I had four kids and was divorced. But it was an exciting time.”

Screen shot 2015-07-14 at 4.46.48 PM

Hill lived in the attic of the gallery, a 1920s bungalow behind the Contemporary Arts Museum. Hill’s daughters lived in the gallery’s back rooms, and her sons were installed above the garage. “You could smell spaghetti cooking when you were in the gallery,” she says. Her cadre of artists was unknown in Houston at the time, but they were destined for acclaim. “Daniel Buren painted stripes on my windows,” she recalls, noting that the French conceptual artist went on to have a prestigious one-man show at the Guggenheim, as did Andre, whose early word-based works now fill a warehouse at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa. LeWitt, considered a founder of the conceptual and minimalist movements, became a prolific artist with hundreds of exhibitions in museums and galleries across the world. Mangold’s large circular canvases, which went for only a few thousand dollars at her gallery, now fetch hundreds of thousands at auction, she says.

“It was high-energy, but not many people in Houston got it at the time,” Hill says. “The only person who bought from me was Mrs. de Menil.” The gallery closed in 1974. Afterwards, Hill moved to Rio de Janeiro for four years, later marrying a commercial deep-sea diver. “I decorated our apartment there on a shoestring — it was fabulous,” she remembers. When they moved back to Houston, she entered the townhouse in which they were living into a contest sponsored by the now-defunct Metropolitan Home. She won, and the magazine published her work. Later, when the couple sold their house in Santa Fe’s historical district, along with a backyard casita converted from an old shepherd’s shack, the new owners purchased all of the furniture, too. People were willing to pay to get her look, and it was the start of Hill’s career as an interior designer for hire. “The people who bought one of my houses in Marfa also bought it furnished, down to the smallest accessories and details,” she says, noting that the house has exchanged hands again and the new owners have kept everything. “People seem to like to leave the spaces I design just as they were. I do feel the character of the space, and that has a lot of influence on what I do with it in terms of the design.”

011_e_0615

She decorates and lives life on her own terms, and people gravitate to her unique brand of eccentricity. A punk rocker pushing 80 — she looks to be in her 50s — Hill’s hair was ash blonde before she dyed it, 25 years ago, an Italian red tint that imparts a slight halo of purple around her head. While entertaining at home these days is more about having her grown children and seven grandchildren over, Hill’s expansive farmhouse table frequently brims with tapas and wine for a diverse group of friends.

“It comes in waves, depending on how busy I am with work,” she says. “The people who come over are artists [daughter Claire Cusack is a well known artist in Houston], but a lot of times it’ll be people from the building. There’s a pretty cool group who live here, with a lawyer thrown in every now and then.”

Hill reads voraciously. “I have four times as many books at my Marfa house as I do here,” she says. “Fiction, biographies … I read a lot of the Japanese authors, the great Russian and Latin American writers. I just finished All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. It was delicious — a blind girl’s description of the natural world. So beautifully written.”

Screen shot 2015-07-14 at 4.41.44 PM

A mid-century chair that needed a bit of oomph launched Hill in a new direction a few years ago — one that fuses her love of writing with art and design. “I had these two Lucite chairs in the dance hall in Marfa,” she says. “I got the idea to write a quick thing on the backs. Then I bought other mid-century chairs and wrote on them.” The endeavor has turned into a cottage industry. Hill’s compositions, which are now typeset and silkscreened onto cotton canvas and upholstered onto chairs or made into pillows, read like passages from a pulp fiction novella. A chair in her Houston condo pays homage to the Texas cowboy: “He rode in on a dust storm — from somewhere on the Rio Grande — spurs jingling — hell in his holster.” Another from her collection of stories pokes fun at the New York art cognoscenti occasionally seen on the streets of Marfa: “He flew in from somewhere on the east coast — a black leather-clad art collector — cool and crisp as a dry martini.” She’s currently busy working on site-specific stories for the W Hotel, which has asked her to create custom pillows for some of their properties outside of Texas. Her wordworks on fabric — as unserious as she attempts to make them — take us back to the early days of conceptualism, when the graphic beauty of words lined up on a page was as much a part of the art as what was said.

Art, interior design, writing … In many ways, Hill has come full circle. “I’m not an artist, but I work more like an artist,” she says. “I create as I go. I don’t have a plan; things just evolve, and one thing leads to another. Sometimes I go back and make changes, or get a great idea right in the middle of things. Each project has a personality that starts to come through when you open it up.”

Featured Properties

X