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Inner Beauty

With a keen eye and soft touch, Susan Nilsson is designing interiors with a desire for only the best

Susan Nilsson oversees her interior design business from the mountains of small-town Asheville, N.C., but the award-winning designer feels equally at home in New York and London, shopping for and researching the best furniture and fabrics in the world.

Her roster of clients includes more than a few moguls: men and women who have devoted their lives to making their enterprises run like clockwork but need a design professional's hand when it comes to creating a suitable environment at home or in the boardroom. 

"I am here at my table, in this back room, working with those clients to channel their industry into great taste," says Nilsson, looking around her own serene workspace. She founded Susan Nilsson Interior Design in 1987 and since that time has been bringing high-class luxury to her clients. "I help them treat themselves to things they wouldn't ordinarily treat themselves to."

The Hendersonville, N.C., native has always been interested in design, but in her early years, she was more focused on fashion design than home design. Nilsson attended East Carolina University, where she studied home economics (and, as she enjoys telling people today, designed her dorm room in black and white - think zebra stripes going up the walls - with orange accents).

Post-college, she ended up in Asheville, answering phones for a construction company and using the opportunity to understand home design. At night, she crossed the mountains to attend class at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, where she earned a degree in interior design.

The marriage of fashion and architecture was the perfect match for Nilsson, and after finishing her degree, she worked for a number of architectural firms until starting her own business in 1987.

Many of Nilsson's clients are architects who appreciate her ability to shape space with color and light, stone and metal and wood, and want her involvement before ground is broken. Her own background in construction gives Nilsson special insight when it comes to the finishing touches: Building them in rather than layering them on produces the most satisfying results.

Yet Nilsson's greatest contributions may lie in her versatility and her desire to form a cohesive whole no matter what style she's working in. Her globetrotting shopping expeditions unite individual pieces, which, together, increase in value and enjoyment for their new owners.

"When they finish, they have a collection," Nilsson says.

She points to a recently completed home - a five-year project - that showcases classic American style by way of iconic antiques.

Another recent commission - a designer show house at The Ramble Biltmore Forest in Asheville - brought her recognition throughout the Carolinas in October when it garnered first prize for design excellence from the Carolinas Chapter of the American Society of Interior Designers. As lead designer, Nilsson was working for The Ramble's creator, Jack Cecil, and the craft organization HandMade in America to demonstrate how handmade craft furnishings can enhance high-end living.

Nilsson finds that a home base in Asheville is no impediment to creating world-class impact. After all, Asheville has a rich architectural and decorative legacy.

"We have a smaller design community but great local talent," she says. "We're very aware of the luxury market."

As she arranges the "big picture" on every new project, Nilsson also keeps her eye on the details that make a home or office special. That could mean luxury additions such as remote control devices to close curtains or turn on a shower to warm it up, fine fabrics that don't stain, even new types of light bulbs. 

"It's not about what's new but about what's working and what's working beautifully," she says.