A native Nashvillian, Donna Gilliam of Donna Gilliam Interiors began her successful design business in Seattle, Washington, in 2004. Inspired by architecture she viewed while traveling with her husband, she parlayed her affinity for stunning interiors into a client roster filled with top executives from some of the world’s largest companies. Returning to her Nashville roots in 2014, she brought her warm, thoughtful style and a keen eye for detail back to Music City. Already well-versed in residential design, Donna was tapped by Harold Thompson Architects to lead the design efforts at Nashville’s prestigious, recently opened National Museum of African American Music. That engagement opened the door to several other recent commercial projects, including the newest Slim & Husky’s location in downtown Nashville — the first Black-owned business on Broadway. Passionate about art, Donna was selected for the Metro Nashville Public Arts Commission and currently chairs its Arts Relief Fund. She was also named a Top 20 African American Designer by the Black Interior Designers Network in 2017. Please welcome the founder of Donna Gilliam Interiors, design powerhouse Donna Gilliam.
When did you begin pursuing interior design, and what led you down this incredible career path?
I started my design career in Seattle, Washington. I was living in Seattle with my husband — it was the early 2000s. We didn’t have children and traveled a lot, and the more we traveled abroad, the more my interest in design and architecture continued to grow. At the time, I was in non-profit management, where I had been successful in a decade-long career. And then, I just decided to take the risk and pursue my passion, so I went back to school to get a degree in interior design. That was nearly 20 years ago, and I’ve never looked back.
Can you describe your overall design aesthetic?
I like to call it classically current. To me, that consists of clean lines, timeless designs, and the use of quality materials along with a touch of what’s relevant at the moment without feeling trendy. When they see my spaces, I’d like for people to have no idea what year they were designed. I like to keep it clean and fresh.
Where do you typically find your inspiration?
From just about everywhere! When I’m searching for color inspiration, nature is my go-to source because I love to garden. I’ll even go up to Cheekwood just to walk through and see the colors — how the flowers and plants play off each other. And then there’s something about traveling for me. That gets my wheels turning, whether it’s walking through the streets of New York, driving to the beach, or traveling abroad. It’s also hotels! Hotels, hotels, hotels. Manele Bay in Lanai, Hawaii, is where it all started for me. My husband took me there over 20 years ago when we first met, and our hotel there changed my life. I couldn’t get enough of looking at the interiors and architecture. I’m usually inspired that way.
Tell us about your motto and practice of “doing it right the first time.”
That may sound a little nebulous when you read it, but I like to think that it’s easier to plan your work and then work your plan. The more you prepare upfront and honor the design process from concept to construction, the more successful the project will be. A lot of people think that we can jump in and start picking fabrics and calling the contractor before anything has even been drawn, but I feel that when you skip that process, you discount your project. I believe that the design and planning stage is the most important part of any project, large or small. When we spend that time upfront, my clients save money, and they have fewer headaches. It’s not to say that they won’t have any surprises because that’s inherent in construction. I have a 15-step process, and when you skip a step, you can pay for it at the end. That’s pretty much what I mean when I talk about doing it right the first time.
What design project tops your list of favorites?
It’s usually the latest project that I’m working on. I’m currently working on a fabulous reimagine for clients in Murfreesboro. They want to age in place, but they don’t want to sacrifice anything. They want beautiful, luxurious and highly functional, and that’s what I do. But given that I’ve been working on the museum for the past two-and-a-half years, it’s probably always going to be top of mind as one of my favorites — not only for me as a designer but for the city of Nashville.
How did you get involved with designing the National Museum of African American Music, and what is your role in the project?
Harold Thompson Architects is the architect of record, and Harold approached me and engaged me to lead the project’s interior design efforts. I was essentially responsible for the 26,000 square feet of public spaces — some are back of house spaces that a lot of people won’t see. Primarily, the grand foyer in the lower lobby area was under my purview. Also, the Education Center, the administrative suites, the back of the house, the multipurpose rooms, the hospitality suite, the administrative and public bathrooms, and the Broadway corridor, which will be a secondary entrance for the museum. Pretty much all of the spaces outside of the exhibit area and the gift shop.
How is the museum different from past projects you’ve done, and what was it like to tackle such a large space?
It was actually my first commercial project. Since then, I’ve taken on two others. The museum has been a two-and-a-half-year engagement, and I’ve learned a lot! It has been like an MBA course; it’s been life-changing. Hopefully, it won’t be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Tell us about designing the new Slim & Husky’s project.
They’re opening a new flagship store within the Fifth + Broad project. I think March is when they’re slated to open. I worked with Harold Thompson Architects on that, and I did their interior design. With the layout of the space, it’s really going to be sharp. We tried to stay true to Slim & Husky’s aesthetic but elevate it a little bit. The whole complex is going to be pretty hot.
What’s one piece of design advice you can offer us to elevate our homes?
I’d say invest in quality lighting — pretty much on every level, from your general lighting overhead and being sensitive to any artwork (having the right specialty lighting for that) to your mood lighting, and then down to your general task lighting. When you have proper lighting levels, you enhance the beauty of your home and improve your quality of life. I’m a firm believer that if you can’t see the space, what’s the point of having it decorated? Lighting plays a big part in all of that.
If you could work with anyone in the world, either as a client or co-collaborator, who would it be?
I would love to collaborate with Bunny Williams. She has a way of creating these really sophisticated interiors. They’re pretty traditional in style, but she always finds a way to make them feel current. They’re very relevant and to the moment, and you can’t tell when the room was designed. She loves using flowers in her interiors because she’s a huge gardener. I think that’s why I’m attracted to her work.
What’s one design secret you can share with us?
My secret is regarding art. Don’t worry about matching your art to your interiors. If you buy what you love, it’ll always work.
Can you describe your design philosophy in five words?
Beautiful, livable, personal, functional, refined. That’s me.
Thank you, Donna, for sharing your work, and thanks to Laura Rockett Photography for the images.
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