By Donna Cornelius
When Jeffrey Bilhuber visits Birmingham for the first time next month, he’ll be packing some preconceived notions about the city – all of them positive.
The nationally known interior designer will be in town for this year’s Antiques at The Gardens as one of the Red Diamond Lecture Series’ featured speakers.
“I am so looking forward to my trip,” he said. “I’ve never been to Birmingham, but now it seems as if I have thousands of friends who have lived there. Richard Keith Langham, who is a great friend of mine and whom I’ve known in the design industry for about 30 years, is from Brewton.”
Bilhuber said he has “such a fondness” for his many friends from the South.
“I have always thought Southerners represent a great sense of American history and continuity,” said the designer, who owns New York City-based Bilhuber and Associates. “They have a kind of joy in everything that surrounds them. They have memories they can call up that are profoundly important and are a key to a sort of allure that I find attractive.”
Bilhuber’s talk at Antiques at The Garden will be at 11 a.m. on Oct. 7. He said he plans to feature a dozen of his current projects, some of which are in his fourth and newest book, “Jeffrey Bilhuber: American Master.” He’s also the author of “Jeffrey Bilhuber’s Design Basics,” “Defining Luxury: The Qualities of Life at Home” and “The Way Home: Reflections of American Beauty.”
“I’m one of the few interior designers today who has four books in the market now,” Bilhuber said. “I write a book about every three years, and they always launch at No. 1 in their market.”
The designer said he’ll tell his Birmingham audience “what is on my mind now and how my perspective on what’s important has evolved.”
“We’ll also talk about what I’m looking forward to in the next year,” he said.
Bilhuber will take questions from those who attend his lecture.
“People always want to know how to get started with design projects,” he said. “It’s a terrifying thought. People say, how can I choose a dining room table if I don’t know what the chairs will look like, and how can I choose the chairs until I have a sideboard?
“But once you make that first decision, the next one is easier. You’re building confidence and clarity. You eliminate half of the options once you make the first decision.”
Bilhuber grew up in New York on the North Shore of Long Island
“I traveled a lot with my family, including my three brothers,” he said. “We had moved five times by the time I was 14. I think that had a lot to do with my sense of place.”
In an interview with New York Social Diary a few years ago, Bilhuber talked about his first – and funny – experience in interior design. He said that when he was a child, his mother asked him to choose the colors for his room. He picked “mustard, guacamole and Snickers bar brown,” he said in the interview.
“They were hideous color combinations, but I’d been asked a question no one had ever asked me: Tell me something about what it is you love,” he said. “It empowered me, and I’m still proud of what I put together then.”
Despite that experience, Bilhuber’s first career was in hotel management. Working in that field showed him that creativity and business could go “hand in glove,” he said.
“When you think about a hotel, you think about visual beauty in the rooms, the lobby, the restaurant,” he said. “But you have to back it up with service, quality and good business advice.
The hotel industry was the best trigger, the best stage for me. After four years in hotel management, I decided to get into design.”
Since changing careers, Bilhuber has built a client list that includes celebrities such as Mariska Hargitay and Peter Hermann as well as Vogue, 70 Park Avenue Hotel, City Club Hotel, the Ariel Sands Resort for Michael Douglas, and Condé Nast Publications. Hargitay, the star of NBC’s “Law and Order: SVU,” wrote the foreword for Bilhuber’s newest book.
“All projects for me are opportunities and not obstacles,” he said. “To find the personality of the owner is a rare opportunity. Seldom does someone scare me off.”
For Bilhuber, a project’s first step isn’t drawing up plans but drawing out his clients.
“We ask a client to trust us, to understand that we’re here to help them make enlightened decisions,” he said. “Then they begin to open up. We ask them to go into our vast resource library and pull out things they like, such as fabric or tile. We build on that. Their choices may not end up in the final project, but they give us subtle, telltale hints.”
Most of the time, this process works well, Bilhuber said.
‘But I had a client who just couldn’t articulate what they wanted,” he said. “Finally, they blurted out ‘red!’ That told me they were confident by nature. That was the trigger.”
Tickets to the Red Diamond Lecture Series featuring Jeffrey Bilhuber are $40. The lecture is at 11 a.m. on Oct. 7 at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. A book signing follows at noon. For tickets to the lecture and to other Antiques at The Gardens events, visit bbgardens.org.
Follow the link for our Antiques at the Gardens overview and schedule.