One of the first things someone might notice about Susan Nilsson is that she likes to “go first class. ” Not in a super extravagant way, but in the small things of life. I noticed this once at the Brevard Music Center. Usually, before a summer concert, a picnic with friends consists of a couple of baskets of basic picnic items, – paper plates, paper napkins, plastic forks and knives, plastic glasses, maybe potato chips, fried chicken, and possibly some fruit. It may include some wine and cheese but not much more than that. In total contrast, when Susan invites you to a picnic in Brevard, she goes the whole nine yards. She provides a real linen tablecloth with linen napkins for the picnic table, has a centerpiece with real flowers surrounded by candles in a candelabra, brings fine china, a charger, silverware, and of course a delicious gourmet meal. Yes, indeed, Susan likes to go first class. She makes the evening a special occasion for everyone. It is just her way. This is her style.
Susan is an interior designer, who has a reputation for having an eye for color. Another feature of her abilities is that she is able to design in different styles extremely well, be it traditional, contemporary, Arts & Crafts, Asian-inspired or Country French. If you go to her website (www.susannilsson.com) and look at the Portfolio section, this talent is made clear. Not many designers have this versatility and talent. Most have only one distinctive look, their particular look or style, for which they are recognized and appreciated. Susan’s clients say, “Working with Susan is an enjoyable experience, not something to dread or worry about. If something goes wrong, she will be there to fix it–even years later.”
Susan Nilsson is a native of Hendersonville, NC and is a professional ASID designer with solid credentials. She has received many design awards over the years. In fact in 2008 she took top honors from the Carolina Chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers for her design of the Ramble Preview Center in the category of corporate project under 7,000 square feet. The judges declared her design, “A seamless connection between the interior and exterior with a wonderful use of materials.” Susan said, “that over the years I have had some amazing projects. I worked with Jim Samsel updating the cottages and house of the Richmond Hill Inn, the historic Queen Anne house, when it was moved to its new site. That in itself was a major project. Nilsson Construction (my husband Jon’s firm) built the foundation. I was in Panama, where my husband Jon and I have a vacation home, when in 2009 I got a text message ‘Richmond Hill…burning’– so sad.
Jon and I purchased the Cotton Mill in the River Arts District after a fire destroyed the building, some years ago, which we renovated and turned into artists studios and living spaces. Recently, working with architect George Stowe, Nilsson Construction has taken the old 1923 Flat Rock high school gymnasium and turned it into six private residential units. The original gym flooring is on the ground floor condos, and upstairs, Stowe used antique hard pine flooring taken from the Sayles Bleachery Building which was torn down to build the WalMart supercenter. These boards are amazingly huge and quite beautiful. There are six condos, three of which have been sold, and the others are currently being leased. Of course, my office selected colors for the interior units of these Charleston Gardens at Flat Rock.”
Another fascinating project Susan got involved with was the amazing stone, glass, stucco and wood Ramble Preview Center designed by architect James Cutler (who was the architect for retired Microsoft chairman Bill Gates’ 66,000 square foot house outside of Seattle). The Ramble Preview Center brings the “outdoors inside” and is furnished with some unique furniture – Frank Gehry’s ribbon chairs, Herman Miller’s office chairs and a Saarinen base and table amongst others.
Susan also got involved in the HandMade In America House, which was a collaboration with Biltmore Farms and HandMade in America. This beautifully crafted house demonstrated how a well thought-out integration of regional crafts can raise the bar of a custom home to a new level. Regional craftsmen contributed to the construction of this house (often using fine old fashioned construction methods). Throughout the house one found extraordinary North Carolina pottery, art quilts by textile artists, stunning custom rugs, solid wood tables and benches, and many distinctive details, such as pottery drawer pulls, all created by local craftsmen.
Susan’s clients report that they are assured of her full attention She spends time looking for just the right piece for the setting – sometimes over a period of years. She will research and convince the home owners how important it is to choose the right fabric to go with the other pieces, the right flooring or windows for the room, the lighting fixture in the perfect spot, or the appropriate furniture style of the home. No detail is considered to be too small. At times the client may be downsizing from a much larger home to a smaller home, so choices need to be made. What should I do with this wonderful antique from my grandfather? Or perhaps it may mean getting rid of all the Queen Anne and Chippendale furniture they own and replacing it with simple hand crafted furniture of Stickley to suit the Arts & Crafts style of the house. Or it may mean traveling to markets or even to Europe to look for the perfect piece. Lots of decisions need to be made.
Susan said she prefers for, “Nilsson Interior Design to be called in early on a project to be considered a part, a percentage, of the total budget, including all the furnishings. That is the ideal way to work. That way you become a part of the big picture and take responsibility for the whole interior, possibly drawing a fee on a monthly basis. Not everyone can work that way. Therefore she tailors her designing fees to suit the situation. However, she does advise ‘Never work for your friends for free!’ ” Her clients say, “She is very thorough, very professional, when presenting them with ideas. She has an incredible and loyal staff who follow through. She has many resources. She gives us a wide selection both in price and style–not just the expensive fabric or the most expensive sofa. We can explore all the possibilities available before making a choice.”
So how did Susan get into this business? Early on, as a child, she used to decorate for fun. She could turn a dorm room into something lively and exciting, just with towels or sheets, or an art piece. She says, “It was easy for me, and I liked doing it I never really thought much about it. Then, in my twenties I started working in Asheville with Rondesics Leisure Homes Corporation. Some people may remember Dr. Logan Robertson, who had brought so many Rondettes to this area? It was more or less a novelty idea then. It was his firm, the original Rondette, he sold to a group of investors in Washington, D.C. and New York City. My job was interesting, but I could not take that experience and leverage it into a career without formal studies. One man in particular, the plant manager, had a lot of ingenuity about coming up with an idea when you needed to fix something, or change something. He could get the job done. I learned about ingenuity and how important it is.”
“After that, I decided to take some courses at Western Carolina University to get a BS degree in interior design. The interior design program at WCU was fabulous.
Davis Harrison, my professor, really took an interest in his students. He made a huge effort to expose the students to everything, taking us to the Winterthur Museum, traveling to New York City, taking us to Italy on a budget, just exposing us to all kinds of things. He taught his students to think creatively, to solve problems. It was great.”
“Then Jon Nilsson came back into my life, and we got married in 1982. At that time I was working with architects like Larry Traber, or Fireside Antiques and Robert Griffin, then Jim Samsel. But my husband Jon, and Jim Samsel too, really encouraged me to go out on my own, to start my own business. It was such a huge step to take. In 1987 Jon co-signed a loan with me for $10,000 at the Northwestern Bank. I was pretty nervous and pretty excited. I decided to move from an office in downtown Asheville to a rustic cabin at 1000 Hendersonville Road with a lovely garden and parking. It has been a lot of work, but I have to say that since the beginning my business has always managed to make a profit. We are profitable now – just, but it hasn’t been easy! In 2008 I luckily called the recession and really laid people off. I just cut, cut, cut. Like everyone else, we are hanging in there, doing what needs to be done. As for the future, I think we are moving forward, little by little. I have a great team to call on who have been with me for a long time, which in the future is even more important.”