Woman on the Edge: This Eccentric Designer is a Fearless Iconoclast
describe 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 o?
enviable frequency, including?The?New York Times, Taschen?s?Interiors Now?and?Dwellmagazine,?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.
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.
?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. 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.?
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.”
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-defunctMetropolitan 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.?
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.?
SHE DECORATES AND LIVES LIFE ON HER OWN TERMS, AND PEOPLE GRAVITATE TO HER UNIQUE BLEND OF ECCENTRICITY.
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.?
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