Mark Twain famously said, “History doesn’t repeat itself… but it does rhyme.” So it is with the evolution of design, where we respect and maintain work from the past while also growing, adjusting, and tweaking it to match the taste of the modern eye. Heather Chadduck Hillegas recently found herself with this enviable—and enormous—task as Designer in Residence at Colonial Williamsburg, where she was asked to refresh the Nelson-Galt House, the oldest residential home on the grounds. She worked to meticulously update the home’s traditional style with antiques, vintage pieces, and a selection of wallpapers, fabrics, and paints from Williamsburg’s licensed lines with such industry mega-brands as Schumacher, Benjamin Moore, and Ferguson.
We spoke with Heather about her detailed process, the things she learned in decorating such an old home, and why sustainability matters in a project like this. See what she had to say, and be sure to shop a selection of her Chairish favorites, including several Williamsburg products. And if you’d like to see the end result in person, tours of the Nelson-Galt House are available in Williamsburg over the next few months, on April 18th, May 14th, July 4th, September 3rd, and October 8th.
Shop Heather’s Chairish Favorites >>>
Your designs are known for embodying elements of Southern style. Tell us how you developed your personal aesthetic as a designer.
I grew up in Southern homes designed and decorated by parents who appreciated great style and history, particularly Colonial Williamsburg, which my father loved. I was surrounded by patterns, wallpaper, and antiques. I’ve always loved design, so much so that for my ninth birthday, my mother gave me the chance to work with our decorator to redo my bedroom, and I promptly put wallpaper on my ceiling and requested a pair of twin canopy beds (made from bamboo, of course). Part of it is just baked into who I am. Other big influences include studying in Paris and then working for many design mentors early in my career, picking up invaluable lessons from each one. All those tidbits were solidified by my years as a magazine editor and stylist, where I had incredible access to notable designers and seeing beautiful homes firsthand.
You are working with Colonial Williamsburg as a Designer in Residence. Tell us about this opportunity and what it means to you.
I am entirely flattered and blown away, really, to have received the invitation. This is the coolest thing I’ve ever been asked to do, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to honor this architectural and historical gem and to be able to infuse parts of my own style with the nation’s largest living history museum.
The Williamsburg Designer in Residence project gives you the task of redecorating The Nelson-Galt House, the oldest residential home on the grounds of Colonial Williamsburg. What has this experience been like for you?
Humbling, exhilarating, challenging, and action-packed! And I’ve loved every minute of it. Part of the fun is that it’s truly been a family affair, from my father loaning us just the right antique for a certain spot, to my brother who made the walnut butcher block from a tree on his property in Virginia. My sister turned out the drapery and slipcovers just in time for the photo shoot. Living here over the past year with my husband and dog has been a dream. I’ve also loved getting to know my neighbors in Williamsburg—this community is amazing, and it’s a delight to absorb design inspiration and lessons at every turn.
What was your favorite part about redecorating this home? What have you learned throughout the process?
This experience has taught me the beauty of embracing imperfection. When you’re dealing with a house that’s been around for 328 years, there are lots of imperfections (and some off-kilteredness) and that is part of its charm. This house is far from a blank slate. There were restrictions on what could be changed and what couldn’t, and though not everything is going to line up perfectly, the patina from all those years, all those stories of people living and loving this space, makes it perfectly imperfect.
How did you incorporate vintage and antique pieces into the home?
I started by doing lots and lots of research. I chose pieces that would have been in a home like this in the late 18th century. For example, the secretary in the living room and the corner cupboard are authentic pieces that would have been found here in early America. So I started with that base in history and with truly authentic pieces, but then I threw in one or two new things in each room—a custom lamp with shade, a modern coffee table, updated upholstery (such as the new Williamsburg collection with Schumacher)—to freshen it up.
Do you have any advice for those who are redecorating older homes?
Do your homework, and don’t try to overpower the house with decorating flashiness, but instead celebrate its inherent beauty—there’s nothing more lovely than old floors, for example, so don’t cover all of them with rugs! If you have wainscoting or traditional woodworking, paint it a beautiful color so it doesn’t recede but stands out instead.
How does sustainability factor into your design choices and love of vintage?
My brother is on this huge reduce, reuse, recycle kick, so sustainability has been top of mind for me. I’m proud to say that for this project, we only have two new pieces of upholstery in the entire house, and everything else is “recycled”—which is a great way to think of antiques. Part of that sustainability factor was also predetermined, as this project came together on the tails of the pandemic when we simply couldn’t get new items. In addition to Chairish, many vintage pieces came from my house, my family home, and my storage units.
What do you find most compelling about Chairish?
Oh, this is both the most compelling and the most dangerous thing—the ease of shopping! Whether I’m in my office on the computer or in the airport and I need the perfect wing chair, I can find it easily. The site is so well categorized, and I really like how items are silhouetted against a white background—I can visualize how it’ll look in whatever room I’m working on.
Some Design Favorites…
Favorite way to create a statement-making moment in a room:
I love a gallery wall—it always makes a great focal point in a space, whether using a series of images, displaying a collection, or if juxtaposing 20 different pieces in a hodgepodge way. There’s immediate impact, plus I love that it’s dynamic—you can add or subtract to it over time and swap out pieces if you get tired of them.
Favorite decorating “cheap thrill:”
Well, everything’s so expensive right now, so even the cheap thrills may not be that cheap, but painting floors is a fun, easy way to get a lot of bang for your buck, especially if you’re game to do it yourself (which I am not!). A painted floor, either in a pattern or all one color, can be a lot less expensive than a rug, and be more durable.
Favorite iconic piece of vintage design:
Anything bamboo or rattan! While there are great new pieces being made, there’s something about the richness of old bamboo or rattan furniture. Chairish is great for finding these old woven wonders.
Favorite paint color:
In this project, I loved Nelson Blue from the Williamsburg Paint Color Collection by Benjamin Moore, which I used in the lovely sunroom of the Nelson-Galt House.
Favorite piece of decor in your home:
For sentimental value, it has to be my dad’s case clock from the 1820s. But it’s a close call with the vintage Baker four-poster Historic Charleston Rice bed that I found on Chairish and swaddled in a lush Schumacher fabric.
Favorite designer or artist from the past you most often turn to for inspiration:
Design destination every creative should visit at least once:
That’s a hard one, but Rajasthan, India, is definitely up there. The colors of the pink city are sumptuous, and the palaces, the textiles, the rugs, the hand-blocking of the fabrics… it’s all wonderfully overwhelming to the senses.
Best piece of career advice you’ve ever received:
Nothing is worth it unless a risk is taken. And also, embrace the fact that you’re always evolving, which means don’t get complacent—look for inspiration everywhere. And this, I hope, goes without saying: make every project different so it’s a representation of the client, not of yourself.
Some Lifestyle Favorites…
Favorite vacation destination:
Round Hill Hotel & Villas in Jamaica. It was designed by Ralph Lauren, and is incredibly stylish and entirely timeless. I just love that the whole place is an ode to blue and white. My husband and I were married here and love going back each year.
Favorite hotel that’s inspired your work while traveling:
That’s easy: Round Hill again.
There cannot be just one, but we love Le Colonial in Atlanta, Helen in Birmingham, Alabama, and Cochon on 2nd in Williamsburg.
Favorite small museum:
Birmingham Art Museum. It’s got this incredible collection of Wedgewood, among many other delights and treasures.
Jason Bateman’s Smartless and Crime Junkie—we used to listen to it in the studio all the time but got too distracted.
Favorite Instagram accounts to follow:
Prior, Ina Garten, Old House Life, Reschio… and any German Shorthaired Pointer account
Favorite hostess (or thank you) gift:
A hand-written note on beautiful letterpress stationery
I do love a peony, and of course hydrangeas. Branches of dogwood in the spring are a showstopper, too—plus it’s Virginia’s state flower and tree.
Favorite adult beverage:
Dirty martini. Cheers!
Favorite way to unwind at home:
Nothing beats building a fire. Except maybe a fire and a dirty martini.
Favorite entertaining essential:
I always have freshly pressed linens so you can whip them out. Then just add flowers from the yard, good music, and be sure you have dimmers on every light.
Photos by Annie Schlechter, Courtesy of Heather Chadduck Hillegas