Nancy Hiller, Who Broke a Glass Ceiling in Woodworking, Dies at 63
Nancy Hiller never planned on becoming one of America’s most renowned cabinetmakers and among just a handful of women in the male-dominated trade. She just needed a decent chair.
After leaving the University of Cambridge in 1978, she moved with her boyfriend to a small town in central England in search of work. She toiled in a metal-casting factory, but all they could afford was an unfurnished apartment. To save money, she decided to fill it herself, building her first tables and chairs from scavenged wood and scraps.
Her D.I.Y. period led her to trade school and later to a series of jobs with bespoke furniture workshops around England. After returning to the United States, she took similar positions in Vermont and Montana before settling down in Bloomington, Ind., where she opened her one-woman workshop, NR Hiller Design, in 1995.
From there, she steadily built a quiet but forceful reputation as one of the best woodworkers in the country, turning out custom, precisely built cabinets, side tables and whole kitchens for clients as far as New York and Chicago. The actor Nick Offerman, himself an accomplished woodworker and a member of Ms. Hiller’s legion of admirers, called her an “Obi-Wan Kenobi level master.”
Ms. Hiller died on Aug. 29 at her home in Bloomington. She was 63. Her husband, Mark Longacre, said the cause was pancreatic cancer.
Inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Ms. Hiller specialized in clean lines, minimal ornament and a truth in materials and construction. She made things whose beauty lay in their function and durability.
There was nothing fancy about her work. She resisted the label “artist,” though people tried to pin it on her. And she deliberately charged less than her peers, not to undercut them, but to make her work affordable to middle-class clients who appreciated good design and hard work.
“She didn’t want to do work that was only accessible to a few people,” Megan Fitzgerald, a woodworker and editor, said in an interview. “She wanted work that was accessible to everybody.”
Nancy Rebecca Hiller was born on July 2, 1959, in Miami Beach, Fla., where her father, Herbert Hiller, worked in advertising and her mother, Mary Lee Adler, was a homemaker.
Later in her life, she would credit her craft prowess to her mother, who was handy herself, fixing things around their home and building a playhouse in their backyard.
Then there were the hippies: When she was 9, her parents invited a group of bohemians to live on their suburban Miami property. For shelter, they built a cottage in a corner of the lot, using recycled wood planks.
“It was a revelation to see these guys with a saw and sawhorses building a house,” she said in an interview in 2020 with Lost Art Press, her publisher. “It was just so direct. It was amazing to see that you could take tools and simple materials and build a dwelling in which you could live, however crude. That was wonderful for me to see.”
After Nancy’s parents separated in 1971 (they later reconnected), her mother took her and her sister to London, where they attended a school operating under the philosophy of the Austrian social reformer Rudolf Steiner, which emphasized hands-on education such as classes in sewing and woodworking. By graduation, she was crafting passable toys and tchotchkes.
Nancy studied classics at Cambridge, but grew tired of its class pretensions and dropped out after a few semesters. She later received a certificate from City & Guilds, a trade school where she was not just the only woman, butolder than the 16- and 17-year-old boys studying to be carpenters.
The experience, and her later workshop jobs, instilled in her a proletarian ethos very different from the aesthetic high-mindedness taught in England’s art schools. Along the way, she found herself drawn to the writing of John Ruskin and William Morris, two pioneers of the Arts and Crafts movement.
“Building this table,” she wrote of a project for Popular Woodworking magazine in 2018, “was just the kind of ‘ennobling labor’ that Ruskin urged for all: work that stretches us and results in things that promise to stretch others.”
Ms. Hiller’s work was not just about Arts and Crafts as a style, but as a philosophy. The movement emerged as a response to the mass-produced commodities of the late 19th century, in which superficial ornamentation obscured a decline in quality. Critics like Ruskin believed it was better to use simple products in an honest, solid way, building to last, not to impress.
“She took the ordinary and made it valuable,” Johnny Grey, a leading kitchen designer in Britain, said in a phone interview.
Besides her husband and her parents, Ms. Hiller is survived by her sister, Magda Marakovits.
Ms. Hiller was equally regarded for her writing. She was prodigious, producing not just how-to guides in magazines such as Fine Woodworking and Old House Journal, but sprightly, genre-bending books like “Kitchen Think: A Guide to Design and Construction, From Refurbishing to Renovation” (2020), a book as much about history and philosophy as it is about crafting a sideboard.
A significant portion of her writing was scholarly: Her book “The Hoosier Cabinet in Kitchen History” (2009) is considered a landmark history of the American branch of Arts and Crafts. She had intended to earn a doctorate, but after receiving a bachelor’s degree in 1993 and a master’s in 1996, both in religious studies from Indiana University, she decided her heart was in her workshop.
The title of one of her books, “Making Things Work: Tales From a Cabinetmaker’s Life” (2017), has a double meaning that got to the heart of her career and what she wanted people to take from it. The book is indeed about producing useful objects. But it is just as much about the hard work of making things for a living — how to please clients or to use materials efficiently.
She frequently talked about passion, in the sense of its original Latin root, “passio,” or “suffering,” and how the true experience of craftsmanship involves an immense amount of pain and difficulty. She wanted to strip woodworking of its romance and persuade those attracted by that to find another outlet.
“Grappling with this work in the most existential ways has not resulted in me losing my passion, but in learning what a deeper form of passion entails,” she wrote in Fine Woodworking in 2020. “So go ahead and do what you love. But please make sure you open your eyes before diving in.”