Adventures in Eclectica
A Detroit-based designer provides a glimpse of her treasure-filled home
Artifacts from the Native American Yurok and Hoopa tribes punctuate Pilling’s intriguing home.
Photos by Hayden Stinebaugh
Leslie Ann Pilling is very particular about who she lets into her home. If you’re lucky enough to get a tour of her 2,500-plus-square-foot Garden Court apartment in Detroit’s East RiverWalk District, you’ll experience a highly curated, multisensory journey that begins when you’re greeted by giant 300-year-old wooden sugar grinders from the Philippines that flank a Pillings Design (the homeowner’s company) 7-foot hall mirror of reclaimed wood and continues with a massive book-matched birdseye maple partner’s desk in the foyer. In the living room, there’s a Chickering baby grand piano that Pilling’s friends like to jam on when they drop by.
Everywhere you look there are interesting artifacts to behold: vintage pedigreed rugs; a trio of leather medicine balls; a giant redwood stump/coffee table her family spotted, along with its artisan maker, along a roadside in California; and collections of Native American baskets, South African wedding aprons, hand-beaded lampshades, and miniature chairs from around the world. In her studio there are large tables for laying out design projects.
keys to beauty
Top: In the foyer, one is immediately greeted by intriguing sugar grinders. Above: South African tribal aprons and dolls complement the baby grand piano in the living room; in the dining room beyond, an Asian screen and a vintage dressmaker’s form add to the ambiance.
“The view at night is beyond magical,” Pilling says, looking out to Detroit, with Belle Isle’s MacArthur Bridge just beyond. On the building’s ninth-floor rooftop terrace, residents and guests enjoy what seems like a 360-degree view of the Detroit River and the city — both particularly smashing from this perspective — making guests wish they could linger here forever. “Up here you can watch parades and hear jazz concerts at Chene Park,” Pilling says. “I love to watch the barges go by the bridge and Belle Isle.”
A native of Detroit, Pilling moved to Birmingham at age 7. She grew up with a collector’s eye and a reverence for the sociocultural riches of the world, thanks to her anthropologist parents, the late Drs. Arnold R. and Patricia L. Pilling. “My mother was raised to be a socialite but became a BoHo archaeologist. (That’s) where I get (my) rogue pioneer ways,” she says, recalling the days when she accompanied her parents as they studied the Yurok and Hoopa Native American tribes along the Klamath River in Northern California. That early exposure to the larger world led Pilling to pursue a background in art education; open a retail store inside the Claymoore Apartments in Southfield, a shop in Birmingham, and an office and gallery in Detroit; and, more recently, establish her own design, production, and public relations company, Presence II Productions (presenceiiproductions.com).
In 2011, she founded the Michigan F.A.S.H. Fest. Two years later, under the theme, “LOOK! Design is Everywhere,” she gave birth to the Metro Museum of Design Detroit (mm-o-dd.org), a mobile venue for design, science, and arts programming, and more. Pilling hopes to announce the museum’s permanent home before January 2018.
curator of curiosities
Clockwise from top: Exquisite baskets from the Klamath River tribes adorn the homeowner’s shelves. Pilling’s collection of miniature chairs from around the world is one of her favorite groupings. A bar cart features an old elevator wheel. “This display morphs and changes,” Pilling says of how she showcases her collections.
In what one might use as a dining room, Pilling showcases a casually curated assortment of curiosities. “I always have collectibles and items of interest on display here,” she says, pointing to a long table holding pieces from what she calls “eras gone by.”
“This display morphs and changes,” she says, gesturing toward a bar cart that includes a wheel from an old elevator. “There are no rules here; it’s just about balance and shape.” With so many eclectic objects in her possession, it’s no wonder that Pilling, who “had stores forever” still hears from designers who want to purchase various pieces. Often dubbed a design activist, Pilling is not only an interior designer, but also a fashion designer (her collection, called BLANKiTTiBLANK, is at Orleans + Winder in Detroit) and a ghost designer for a variety of clothing labels. Her home and studio are one and the same — it’s where she creates sophisticated (and often simple) clothing featuring architectural shapes with “intriguing surprise details,” such as the unique and hidden pockets in her Opera Coat — which, come to think of it, are not unlike the treasures found amid her home’s décor.
Sip on This
Garden Court was designed for whiskey giant Hiram Walker’s son
The Garden Court Condominiums, which have been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, are significant because the original building was designed by renowned architect Albert Kahn, and was associated with the family of whiskey giant Hiram Walker (of Hiram Walker & Sons Distillery). Kahn designed Garden Court (on East Jefferson Avenue) in 1915 for Hiram Walker’s son, J. Harrington Walker, and it’s rumored that the red brick and limestone building was constructed so he could keep an eye on traffic along the Detroit River, near his deceased father’s distilleries.