Sunday Opinion: Remembering Brian Killian

I met the late interior designer Brian Killian every bit of 30 years ago through a client of his-Priscilla whose last name I can no longer remember. I do graphically remember refinishing all of her hardwood floors in her house.  I went on to do more work for him-and not the kind of work you would think. I was not even dreaming of doing landscape design then.  I supported myself, via a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, I sold my art work here and there.  I painted little abstract watercolors, limed cabinets, did finishes-I did odd jobs for him.   I even persuaded my Mom to have him redo her living room for her.  He was opinionated, bossy, and delightful.  I knew the moment I met him he was a designer with an extraordinary, truly extraordinary gift.  Everyone who met him knew this-not just me.

There were a good many years when I lost track of him.  I was a local landscape designer-he was an interior designer who was well on his way to becoming nationally known.  He walked into Detroit Garden Works for the first time one day, not having any idea it belonged to me.  I came around the corner, we both held our breath.  He recovered immediately; “Did we not know each other when we were young?”.  I burst out laughing-of course we had.  We went on to do some business, and become friends. We were friends of a different sort.  I did not travel in his circle, nor did he in mine.  But we would meet not often, but regularly for dinner, and talk. Somehow we had common ground.   He was one of those people one meets only rarely-wicked talented.  His work, should you have ever seen it, was breathtakingly beautiful- truly original. 

We had a running conversation on the following topic.  He believed there would be one project that would come his way that would be the defining moment, the epitome of his career. Everything he had done would build to this defining project.  I understand this thinking.  The entire summer season long I photograph projects over and over again, in the hope I will record with my camera that one defining moment. Every year I finally realize that there is not the one defining moment as much as there is that one photograph that perfectly captures the process of that season.  In any event, I do not really subscribe to that notion that any one project defines a design life.  I so much more stand on the side of a body of work, a lifetime of work, a series of moments. 

We contested this topic vigorously-no kidding, for years.  One night at the shop, before we went to dinner, he had me so steamed about this, I accidentally backed my Suburban into the rear end of his Mercedes coupe. His manners were perfect.  He waved off all of my next day plans to get his car fixed-he would not think of, nor permit, burdening me with that. He was like that.   His staff and contractors both loved and endured him.  He had a vision-God help anyone who did not get in line behind that.  But I am here to say he was a perfect gentleman in the important sense of those words.  He practiced his faith.  He was full of praise for anything he felt deserved that.  But even gentlemen can be dead wrong;  I told him so frequently.  I had seen some projects of his in their entirety, and glimpses of others.  Walking into a room that he had designed and installed was an experience that is very hard to describe. It was as if that room was not a room, but an entire world with its own visual language and laws. Anything else that might have been on your mind either vanished, or was vanquished. His work made me gasp.  I scolded him for not seeing that- in what he had already created.      

Brian’s idea of that defining project had much to do with Bobby McAlpine.  Should you not know him, he is an architect who lives and practices in Alabama.  Brian was very clear that should he ever be drafted by Bobby McAlpine to do the interiors for a home Bobby designed and built, it could be a seminal and defining project.  I looked up his website.  What I could see there of his work, or in an occasional magazine article-astonishing.   

I had not thought so much about Brian or Bobby recently until a few weeks ago.  When I read that Rizzoli had recently published a monograph on the work of Bobby McAlpine, I ordered it. It is called “The Home Within Us”.   I have been reading and looking at the pictures on and off ever since.  The architecture and interiors are extraordinary. Should you have a compelling interest in design, I highly recommend this book.  What is written is every bit as interesting as what has been photographed.   One never knows how exposure to beautiful work might change the way you see things.  I know when I see work of this caliber, I am energized.  I have been thinking even more these last few days about Brian.  How he influenced me, and my work.  I am sure he is so busy redesigning the Pearly Gates that he scarcely has time to review what he accomplished while he was here, but I can attest- the beauty of his work was considerable.  I doubt it matters if you never had the chance to see his work. One can’t possibly see all the great work that is out there to be seen. There are brilliant designers all over this planet.   Maybe there is just such a moment just down the street, waiting for you.  For certain,  there is a very long list of those people whose beautiful work greatly enriches the lives of others.  Those truly extraordinary lives, their gorgeous work-they make my life better.

Brian Killian made my life better.


  1. I remember going into show houses and knowing instantly when I walked into a room he had designed…it was sublime. Thank you for bringing him to mind.


    Another beautiful post.

    You may already be aware of this. If not, the above link (if it works) will take you to more on Bobby McAlpine — found on Joni Webb’s “Cote de Texas” blog. (If the link doesn’t work, simply google her blog).

    At the very end of her post you will find a link to a recent hour-long podcast interview with Bobby, hosted by Joni and two fellow designer/bloggers. It’s the link for the “Skirted Roundtable”, a monthly feature of their own invention conducted with various notables in the design industry. He was their most recent guest.

    As a fan of his work, you will enjoy hearing the “voice” behind the talent.

  3. When we meet one of the real ones, we always know, and the heat never fades. What’s the line? “Mediocrity knows only itself, but talent instantly recognizes genius.”

  4. I was going to pass along the link above to Cote de Texas also. It is another blog I read daily. McAlpine is an architect that I admire and hearing him speak was inspiring.Here is the link for the podcast.

  5. What a beautifully written post!

  6. Virginia T Mathews says

    I was searching for some help on landscaping my home. Much to my surprise I came across this post. Did you know my son, Duane Mathews? Duane worked for Brian the last three or four years of Duane’s life. He passed away at Brian’s house in April He is the one who went to Europe with Brian in 1998 or thereabouts. It was such a shock for us to then loose Brian so soon afterwards. He was very kind to us, he loved our son too & helped him grow in his artistic life. Sorry for your loss as well. God bless you.

    • Deborah Silver says

      Dear Virginia, I did not know your son. But I do know Brian was a good person, who brought good things into the lives of many people. So sorry for your loss. best regards, Deborah

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