Twenty years ago, Jane Jilich stood in a historic home designed by Charleston architects Albert Simons and Samuel Lapham and remade it for a Charleston family in an elegant, understated, summery style that resonated with their easy approach to living.
Two decades later, new owners contacted Jilich to redesign the very same two-story brick home to reflect their own lifestyle.
“It looks like a different house now,” says the resourceful Jilich, principal of J. Jilich Design & Associates, surveying her latest transformation.
With pierced woodwork and neoclassical features, the historic structure, built in 1911, makes a statement on its own. Add the new owners’ acquired and inherited collection of antiques and personal treasures, as well as their affinity for modern art, and—heads up!—Jilich put her versatility and design philosophy to work.
“You look at the structure first, at the architecture—the bones of it,” Jilich explains. “Then you take the personality of the people who live in it, and you build on their lifestyles and collections.” It’s a layering process she likens to adding skin to a skeleton.
Her old-school adherence to design principles is what enables her team to reinvent the same house again and again. “Get the things you love,” she encourages. “We’ll put them together and make them work.” Pointedly, she adds, “And things don’t have to match.” Artwork, in particular, should reflect your taste, not necessarily the color of your sofa.
An energetic, on-the-go pair who are involved in the community, the home’s new owners “entertain a lot, and their children are grown, so this is a home for just the two of them,” Jilich says. Elevated by colorful, sometimes edgy works of contemporary art and grounded by antiques and new additions that look like family pieces, the freshly designed interiors reflect the vibrant, socially minded spirit of its current occupants.
“Jane listened to our list of ‘wants’ and immediately understood our different needs,” says the homeowner. “She artfully balanced my husband’s desire for tailored, textured and, most importantly, comfortable spaces with our eclectic collection of art and antiques. The color scheme enhances our art and beautifully coordinates the house. Jane has an artistic eye and moved large and small objects, furniture and art to create a cohesive whole—the rooms naturally flow into each other.”
“They’ve traveled and have wonderful treasures and art,” says Jilich. “My objective was to pull it all together, so that you feel their personalities. When I work with a client, I want them to hear from their friends, ‘You have lovely taste,’ not, ‘Who is your designer?’ ”
Since founding her full-service firm in 1989 (just before Hurricane Hugo hit), Jilich and her team have worked on projects that range from historic plantations and commercial buildings to Kiawah beach homes. “You name it, I’ll try it,” says Jilich. “I’ve even designed a truck stop. When you’re educated in the pure essence of design, you can apply it anywhere.”
An instructor with the Art Institute of Charleston, Jilich teaches the history of architecture and furniture, and actively promotes the professionalism of interior design. An architectural enthusiast and preservationist, her respect for the art runs deep. She’s revamped the interiors of several homes and plantations on the National Historic Register, including the McBee House at Ashley Hall School and the 1810 William Seabrook home on Edisto, which she converted from a 1930s-style hunting lodge to a modern retreat for a family of five girls.
“Working with a historic house is very different,” Jilich says. “You have to respect the original moldings and woodwork, but update it to a contemporary lifestyle.” The preservationist in her brings out a fierce meticulousness: on job sites, she works closely with HVAC and plumbing crews to protect the integrity of a structure.
“We work with them to find alternatives to cutting through the ‘historic fabric’ of a building, including joists or beams,” she explains. “It’s important to be conscientious of historical structures that were not designed for plumbing, wiring or heating.” She’s not a fan of replacing plaster walls with Sheetrock, either: the newer material is narrower and leaves a gap between trim and moldings.
One historic house, two families, two decades later, Jilich’s esteem for structure and design has resulted in refreshed living spaces that equally balance the present with the past.
“ ‘Timeless and personal,’ to quote the original grande dame of design, Dorothy Draper,” says Jilich. “Made for the people who live there.”
M.S. Lawrence is a Charleston-based writer.