The founder of revered interior design company Sims Hilditch talks scale, lighting, quality – and working for Ridley Scott.

Emma Sims Hilditch founded her eponymous company Sims Hilditch in 2009. Since then, it has become a byword for elegance and timeless modern British design, her style as at home in contemporary apartments as it is in historic country estates. Named as one of House & Garden’s Top 100, as well as Andrew Martin World 100 Design Review, here Emma tells us how working for Ridley Scott taught her about large scale projects; why George Clooney would be her ideal dinner party guest (and client); and how lighting has the power to make or break a design.

Can you tell us a little about your route into interior design – how did you get started?

My career started in film production for Ridley Scott. Not conventional, I know, but I learnt a lot about managing large-scale projects, which has stood me in incredibly good stead for the kind of interior projects I do now. When I married, I left London and moved to Wiltshire, where I did a course to learn how to sew curtains. I learnt so much about fabric, which of course can be applied to other items like upholstery and soft furnishings. From there, it was quite a natural process because I would make curtains for people and inevitably, they would then ask my opinion on other design decisions. Word spread and people began asking me to design entire rooms. My ‘big break’ came when I was recommended to do the interior for a manor house.

You have your own eponymous interior design company. What were the challenges and triumphs when it came to setting up on your own?

One of the most important things that I have learnt since starting Sims Hilditch is how to delegate. As the founder of a business, it is very easy to try to do it all, but as the business grows, it soon becomes apparent that this is just not possible! I am very lucky to have a dedicated team of talented individuals working across the design, procurement, marketing and finance sectors of Sims Hilditch. We are like a well-oiled machine, each performing different functions but working in harmony together to achieve fantastic results.

Yours is a kind of modern country aesthetic. What are the central tenets that make a signature Sims-Hilditch design?

We aim to create timeless English interiors for our clients, reimagined with a fresh eye. This means that we celebrate English style in our designs, while making them suitable for modern living. This often entails designing intelligent storage solutions and sympathetically reconfiguring the spatial planning of a home to make it better and meet our clients’ needs.

Our versatile aesthetic can be applied to homes in both the city and the country. For example, we have worked on Victorian townhouses in London, country manors in the Cotswolds, and even a Shooting Lodge in the Scottish Highlands. Wherever the home is located, if it has historic value then we will use this as a source of inspiration for our designs, retaining as much of its original architecture as possible.

We also work closely with our clients to incorporate a selection of antiques into our designs, adding character and gravitas to an interior. This approach helps us to reduce waste and adds a lovely personality to the home. A selection of antiques paired with a fresh and fun colour palette and pattern creates a nice contrast and is something that we like to play with in our designs.

Nature is a great source of inspiration for us and we always look at a property’s natural surroundings to help determine the colour, texture and the materials that will be used. We often use tongue and grove panelling on the walls and ceilings of our projects and sisal carpet, stone or timber for the floor.

You balance the bucolic with contemporary touches so beautifully – is achieving that balance an instinctive thing for you?

Interior design is all about achieving the right balance of classic to contemporary, old to new, function to form. This is certainly something that I have always had an instinct for, coming from a family of creatives. However, I am always looking for new inspiration. This comes from my natural surroundings, beautiful buildings, hotels that I have stayed at, museums and art galleries, and much more.

When faced with a blank canvas, how do you get to work? What is the first thing you start to consider in the design of a room?

The first things we consider is the bones of the property. If these are sound then this is a great place to start and can provide an endless source of inspiration. Our Cotswold studio started life as an old coaching house. It is a Grade II-listed building which was in a derelict state when we first acquired it. We sympathetically conducted a complete renovation of the property, transforming it into our lovely studio and retaining the existing Cotswold stone and beams.

What aspects of designing a house do you find people need the most coaxing with?

Scale. I tend to encourage clients to be brave with scale, opting for statement pendant lighting in a hallway or an oversize mirror in a bathroom. Large low hanging lighting works really well in Victorian homes with high ceilings, filling the space and adding an element of drama.

Do the people/ families you work with get very involved in the process?

We work very closely with our clients to create a beautiful and homely interior that works well for their lifestyle. This begins by gaining a deep understanding of our clients’ requirements, likes and dislikes, and incorporating this into our design scheme. We encourage our client’s input at every stage, but are also on hand to offer expert guidance and advice when needed.

What are the design mistakes that you think people most commonly make?

I think that people often underestimate the importance of lighting. The right or wrong lighting can make or break the atmosphere in a room. Layered lighting is a great approach and incorporates a mixture of overhead, wall and floor lighting. These layers can all be connected to a 5-amp circuit which dims all of the lights accordingly, depending on the mood required.

If it isn’t insensitive, is there an all-time favourite scheme you’ve worked on?

It is rather difficult to choose a favourite. I am very fond of a recently completed project, our English Country Estate. I always love to work on properties steeped in British history, and this 500-year-old home which has been passed down through many generations of the same family was the embodiment of this. It was a privilege to work on, and a very rare undertaking.

Do you adhere to any design rules?

We tend to avoid trends and ‘rules’ perse, but we have certain principles which we adhere to unwaveringly. Quality is one of them. We pride ourselves on creating high quality interiors which are built to last, which starts with the materials we source form our suppliers and continues right the way through to final installation.

What would be your dream project?

We have been fortunate to work on many listed buildings with an abundance of character and charm. In the future, I’d love to work on a boutique hotel or beach house in the Hamptons.

Which other designers do you most admire?

I love the understated and elegant aesthetic of Axel Vervoordt’s work.

What have been the most memorable moments of your career to date?

There have been so many, but the first time I was recognised in the House & Garden Top 100 springs to mind.

When you’re not at home, where is your favourite all-time escape?

We love Provence, in particular a hotel called La Bastide de Marie which is full of design inspiration.

Who are your dream dinner party guests?

George Clooney. I would also love to design an interior for him one day!

Do you have a favourite all-time building?

Musée de l'Orangerie.

What books are currently on your nightstand?

Ikigai. It is a book that speaks to me and follows the Japanese's guide to leading a happy and long life.

Finally, how would you describe yourself in three words?

Mother, wife, designer.

By Nancy Alsop
August 2021

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Nancy Alsop


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