The S.B. Questionnaire: Hilary Nagler

Talking Vintage Design and Personal Rebirth with Owner and Mastermind of Flea Market Rx

Hilary Nagler outside her workshop in the Funk Zone. (December 19 2019) | Credit: Paul Wellman

“I’m feeling optimistic and excited,” says Hilary Nagler, whose exuberance is contagious. “Last year was a great year and this one promises to be even better. I just turned 50 and it’s true what they say, that this is the best time in a woman’s life. I don’t know if it’s the same for men, but I feel like I have shed so much emotional baggage that I feel unencumbered and free and empowered in a way I never have before. I’m feeling rather unstoppable. Bring it on! Good things are coming! Let’s do this!”  

Hilary is the owner, designer, and mastermind behind Flea Market Rx. The boutique design studio specializes in the fabrication of vintage-inspired lighting and decorative hardware for residential, retail, interior design, and commercial/hospitality clients worldwide.  

“Business has changed so much, and it’s me only doing things that I’m passionate about,” she rapidly tells me about her business. “What I have now is hard-won. You’re constantly making mistakes and adjusting, but it’s about figuring out how to do what you love and make money while doing it.”

As we sit down for lunch, she quickly confides, “I’m a lot. I’m pretty intense and boisterous. People can hear me a mile away. I have a strong personality.”    

These admissions do not come as a surprise to me. I’ve known and loved Hilary for more than a decade — my own home features a few of her fixtures — and she is a refreshing force of nature. “I’m honest, and self-aware,” she admits with a big, self-deprecating laugh. “I come from a long line of narcissists.”

Hilary was born in London, but moved to New York City with her family in 1975 when she was five years old. She attended the boarding school Pomfret in Connecticut, and hated it. But Cornell University was completely different. “I loved it,” she exclaims. “I finally found my tribe.”  

After graduating with a degree in communications in 1991, Hilary began working on TV commercials for RSA Films, the production company owned by Ridley Scott that engages top directors to shoot ads. “It was an amazing job,” she says. “Super cool.”  

In 1993, she became an assistant to David Dinerstein, the director of marketing at Miramax Films. “I thought I wanted to be a producer,” she reveals. “I couldn’t stand it. It wasn’t a good fit.”  

Hilary faced a quarter-life crisis in her twenties, so went dog-sledding in Minnesota with Outward Bound. When she returned in 1994, she enrolled at Parsons Design School in New York City. A friend of her father’s gave her a couple of interior design gigs, and she was “off to the races.”  

Hilary started her own business called H & Co that focused on high-end residential interior design, and ran it for several years. She also started an online retail store, which led to the creation of a consulting firm that helped luxury brands build their ecommerce presence. “I was a socialite and a bohemian and then it was time to go,” she says about her time in Manhattan. “I did it well.”

In 2003, Hilary moved to Santa Barbara, where her mother and brother lived. “Santa Barbara seemed like a good choice for a kinder and gentler life,” she explains. She got a job at Design Within Reach on State Street, which is where I met her. She was laid off during the recession of 2009, so started hocking her vintage furnishings at Punch.  

“I read this blog post on how to make a pendant lamp out of found objects,” she recalls. “I made one and someone bought it for a lot of money. An interior designer saw it and asked me to make three and then things took off.” Flea Market Rx was born, which she now runs out of a shipping container in the Funk Zone.

“I’m a gregarious hermit,” she avows. “I kill at a cocktail party but love being alone.”

Hilary Nagler answers the Proust Questionnaire.

Who do you most admire?
Right now it’s a tie between the writer Elizabeth Gilbert and Sarah Blakely (founder of Spanx), but the reason I admire them is the same. They both live their lives unapologetically out loud. They had the courage and perseverance and grit and humor and creativity to break through a whole lot of fear and doubt, both internal and from the external world, to get after it everyday with an unwavering authenticity. I am in awe and continually inspired by them both. As the kids say: #goals.

What is your greatest fear?
Homelessness and poverty. Having followed a very untraditional career trajectory, and not having family to fall back on, I have spent way too much time alarmingly close to both and it’s scary. I know what it is to work three jobs and still not be able to pay rent. I know what it is to not have health insurance and lose my life savings to medical bills. I don’t wish that on anyone, but I wish more people understood how close so many amazing and hard working people are to that fine line. I think they would approach certain decisions differently. Anyway, it haunts me.

What do you most like about your job? 
Surprisingly, the business side: designing and programming the website, the selling (I love closing deals), accounting, optimizing financial processes and efficiencies. The stuff that scares most people or makes their eyes glaze over. 

People assume because I’m an artisan that I love the creative process or the hours spent in the studio making. What they don’t realize is that I am an accidental artisan. I started making things out of necessity after the financial crisis and I lost my design job. I made a lamp from an old rusty funnel (following a blog DIY post) and then someone bought it for a lot of money, so I made another one, and another one, and so on. It just snowballed from there. 

What I really love spending hours with my head buried in a spreadsheet analyzing business data. Weird, right?

What is your idea of perfect happiness? 
Skinny dipping in a pool under the warm sun while sipping a cup of coffee. Immersed in water is my happy place. I might have been a mermaid in a former life. I love the ocean too, but it’s hard to drink coffee in the ocean! Also not many places you can skinny dip in the ocean, so the pool it is!

What is your greatest extravagance?
Indulging my outsized need for alone time. We travel to Bali each summer where my boyfriend does surf photography. This year I tacked on a week for myself at the end after he leaves. I rented myself a tiny villa with a pool. I will eat fruit and skinny dip and read and be alone in my thoughts and that, as I have described above, is my idea of perfect happiness. So perhaps the answer is perfect happiness is my biggest extravagance.

What quality do you most like in people?
Curiosity and humor. I think in order to be interesting, you have to be interested. Interested in the world around you, in ideas, in other people. I find the world around me infinitely fascinating and I am educating myself and learning a hundred new things everyday. 

I can’t imagine what it’s like to not seek knowledge, whether it’s listening to a podcast or watching a YouTube video or getting lost googling how to electroplate metal or searching Wikipedia about Virginia Woolf’s sister Vanessa Bell who was one of the Bloomsbury artists (who knew?!). A curious mind is one that is engaged in life and thus attractive to me.
And I think it’s very important to genuinely engage and be curious about other people. It’s very obvious to me when people are too self-absorbed. 

Humor is huge too. I come from a very smartass, wisecracking, funny family, and I spend most of my time quipping and cracking jokes. So if my humor doesn’t register with someone, it’s rather hard to connect!

What is the quality you most dislike in people? 
Narcissism and a sense of entitlement. 

What do you most value in friends?
Honesty and empathy. 

What is your most marked characteristic?
I turn everything into a song, usually with a big dramatic Broadway finish. And there are often spontaneous and spazzy dance routines, jazzy hands, high kicks. Lots of goofy singing and dancing.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Probably OMG (online), Jesus, Oy Vey.  OMG is just a big happy exclamation point and the perfect emphatic positive response to so many things. It just works. In the third grade I was told by a friend’s mother that I couldn’t play at their house anymore if I continued to use the Lord’s name in vain. I must have stopped for a number of years as we continued to play together, but Jesus, it’s returned with a vengeance lately. I’ll have to work on that.  And Oy Vey — if you don’t have some Yiddish in your linguistic quiver, you are missing out!

Which talent would you most like to have? 
I wish I were better at math. I did well in math at school, but book smart and real world application are very different things. I just don’t “see” numbers the way I see other things. Sometimes I have trouble wrapping my head around simple mathematical concepts I need for business. I’m frustrated that I don’t have the degree of fluency I want and always need to put “pen to paper” to work it out.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? 
I would be a person who loves to exercise. I just have never gotten that rush or satisfaction from it that other people get, and I’ve really got to change that now that I am getting older but I can’t seem to prioritize it.

What do you consider your greatest achievement? 
I quit drinking alcohol a couple of years ago, so that’s a pretty epic achievement in my book. I also got zero parking tickets this year, which, considering that the lovely parking officer at the police station knows me by name, is an equally substantial achievement!

Where would you most like to live? 
I’m here! Does anyone who lives in Santa Barbara answer differently? I can’t imagine wanting to live anywhere else. Optimally, I’d be in Bali a few months of the year (I’m currently working on that), and spend a month in Paris, sitting in cafes and going to the flea market on Sundays. Bliss.

What is your most treasured possession? 
I don’t really have any. Is that strange? I don’t “own” much. I have a car and that’s about it. I’m sentimental about my family pictures and I love having my dad’s Navy dog tags to remember him by. But I’ve moved so much that the hassle of “stuff” has turned me into a minimalist. I treasure people and experiences much more than things.

Who makes you laugh the most? 
My boyfriend, Robert. Sometimes I think we share a brain — nobody is the world has ever gotten me the way he does. He understands and shares my goofy twisted smartass sense of humor and we laugh constantly. Big, boisterous, belly laughter that makes me snort. It’s wonderful!

What is your motto? 
“A rising tide lifts all boats,” which I think is the secular equivalent of, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I’ve never understood why people think others have to fail in order for them to succeed. I do believe that if you do it right, everyone wins and prospers together. I think of it as compounding interest, except for karma. The more you give, the more you get.

Which historical figure do you most identify with?
Does Kermit the Frog count as a historical figure? According to Wikipedia, “He’s kind and loyal, goofy and a natural comedian. He relishes a good joke, his own or others, with a hearty, head-tilting, body-shaking laugh.” Sounds about right!

On what occasion for you lie? 
When the truth serves no purpose other than to unnecessarily hurt someone’s feelings. However, I do not believe in lying to avoid conflict. In the end, communication always wins over avoidance. I believe in ripping off the band-aid, getting whatever it is out in the open, and moving forward.

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