Since launching her textile and interior design business in the early 1980s, Lillian August has earned a global reputation as a trend setting designer and entrepreneur. Today, she operates five furniture showrooms, the largest interior design firm in Connecticut and develops some of the industry’s most in-demand furniture and accessory collections.
Her flagship furniture collection with Hickory White is available at Studio 882, where Lillian and her team personally designed a unique gallery. We sat down with Lillian to discuss everything from her Philly roots to her design approach.
You grew up in Merion and graduated from the University of Pennsylvania. Do you think your Pennsylvania roots influence your design approach?
I loved growing up in Philadelphia. I was raised in a pretty English Tudor home in Merion. In those days it was beginning of interior design as a profession, and my mother had a wonderful decorator named Amy Barth. She painted all of her renderings and elevations by hand in water color. She was a brilliant artist, and this was my first exposure to interior design. I was amazed by Amy’s level of commitment to her designs, and that has stuck with me.
You’re known for your courage with color. Where do you think this boldness comes from?
I’m a trained artist and studied at the Pennsylvania Academy and the Tyler School in Elkins Park. We knew Dr. Barnes, and I more or less grew up at the Barnes Foundation. Dr. Barnes would meet us at the door of his foundation, and I was mesmerized by the Matisse hanging in the foyer.
You applied your art background to a career in textile design. How did this come about?
When my husband and I divorced, I was doing a fellowship and finishing my graduate work. I was going to teach, and then I couldn’t afford it. So I started a quilt company with an American Country look - I was raising my boys in Kentucky at the time. It was successful, and this launched me as a textile and wallcovering designer in the early 1980s.
Your sons really got behind your business and helped you open your first brick and mortar store in 1987. Now, it’s grown into 5 showrooms. Tell us about those early days.
I became this entrepreneurial woman working 100 hour weeks, and my oldest son Dan wrote his college senior thesis in economics on my company. After he graduated, he went to work on Wall Street. I used to visit from Kentucky, and we’d go racing down Fifth Avenue in a cab to show my portfolio to fabric houses, and finally one day he said “mom, you’ve got to move here. My boss thinks I’m having a long affair because I’m taking these long lunches to show your portfolio.” So I moved to New York and we opened our first retail store in Westport, Connecticut. Now, I think I’m very interested in encouraging women to take the giant leap of being entrepreneurial.
Any advice for going into business with your children?
[Laughing] Teach them how to clean their rooms and empty their waste baskets. I remember when I went to work with my three sons. I used to clean their offices, and the women would say” don’t do that!” and I’d say “well, I know what’s going to happen. It’s going to pile up!”
How would you describe your designs approach?
It’s always been about storytelling. And I think customers appreciate that. We try to tell their unique and personal story through design.
I focus on what I call “personal decorating style,” which allows the customer to pick and choose furniture from different periods. This ‘collected over time’ mentality is important to people. Modern style, which is very minimal and can be cold, is not where people are at right now. They want design to be more complex.
Why did you choose Hickory White for your furniture collection?
I was familiar with Hickory White’s facilities and factories, and it really came down to their strong customization abilities. Customization has always been the mainstay for interior designers; a truly well-appointed room requires self expression with custom details, and through Hickory White we can offer unlimited customizations for the most discerning clients.
We’ve also been able to respond to some emerging market needs with our new line of quick ship options and performance fabrics.