Bunny Williams is a designer with a modern vision, a sense of history, and the confidence to take the unexpected path. Both a trailblazer and a tastemaker, Williams’ style is classic, but never predictable.
How has your approach to design evolved over the years? My basic approach has stayed the same, but it has evolved as I’ve become aware of new textures, artisans, and finishes. It evolves, maybe you use a modern rug or new fabrics, but you always come back to what works. The type of furniture may be different, the chair may updated, but there are always things that work—scale, proportion, balance. Those things don’t change. You always have to be aware of what’s new. For me, I want to design rooms that are warm, and it’s how you put those things together. The things may change, but the philosophy doesn’t really.
What design advice did you learn that you think about daily, when it comes to how you approach designing a room? We all learned from Albert about scale proportion—the discipline of balance in design. Sister had a much more relaxed approach to her rooms. It was that magic that came from when you put the two designers together. It’s the melding of these two principles that I think about every day.
You opened the doors of your design firm in 1988. Since then, what about design has changed? From process to shopping. The whole thing has changed completely. Back then, there was no Internet, no online shopping, no Restoration Hardware. There were many more unusual shops. We hunted for antiques and trained our eye; we had this sense of discovery that we learned from. Today, there is no conversation with the dealer, and you used to learn from those conversations about what makes an antique special as compared to something from another period. That is what is sad. The dialogue has changed, therefore, it has changed the business. Today, you still need to get out and see things. You can educate your eye by traveling and going to house museums and seeing things. You can’t do it on a computer.
What are the constant elements always present in your rooms? A feeling of comfort. And always a sense of surprise. If I have something grand, I like to put a basket on it. I want there to be a sense of surprise and that the room looks timeless, not dated. Good design should last like a great coat; you should always want to wear it.
Mixing design periods and historical styles comes naturally to you. What advice do you have on how to effectively combine the old and new? It could be about shapes—if you have something busy like a carved chest, complement it with its opposite. Make it look new by combining it with something fresh. For example, a special intricately carved Portuguese chair looks great next to a square upholstered chair with modern lines. It will stand out.
How do you approach color? Color and pattern can compensate for many things. Things are different than when I had my first apartment to decorate; I now have better things to look at, like antiques and artwork, a muted coloration, and simpler background supports that. Art, furniture, and the things you surround yourself with are evolved from a lifetime of collecting.
Your design style has been referred to as “relaxed traditional.” What is the secret to designing a layered, collected interior? Time. Interest. It is about how you arrange the space; the functionality of the room is the same.
What material, finish, or color will never go out of style? I don’t think Chinese painted wallpaper, Venetian plaster walls, and lacquered rooms will ever go out of style if they are well done.
Her view on the state of the antique market today: Eighteenth-century furniture will swing back into popularity because, if it’s one of a kind, an appreciation for those one-of-a-kind pieces will return. All of one thing gets to be a cliché. Doing a room in all one style is less interesting. Mix nineteenth-century Duncan Phyfe American antiques with a streamlined table, and then it’s kind of fascinating.
What advice do you have for people when they undertake designing for themselves? Good design comes from observation. You need to experience, see, and observe. Absorb what you are looking at. It’s got to be your taste, but as a designer you represent somebody’s personality. Good design is good design. The scale has to be right—these are things you learn with time. If there is a subtlety to a design scheme, it will have a longer life span. If it’s too strong, you get tired of it.
What are the three items/elements/etc. every room needs? Good lighting, a comfortable place to sit… you need to have thought about who is going to be occupying that room. It isn’t just for a photograph. You need a table to put a drink on. The room should be as inviting to the person that is not as interested in design as one who is fascinated. With great rooms, anyone that walks into them, you get a “this is so welcoming” feeling. For me, that’s very important.
You love dogs and have rescued six mutts. What is the best way to live with them, yet maintain an air of elegance in the home? Number one, you have to keep your dogs clean. I am always aware of that. It’s a part of being fair to your dogs. I add throws or fake fur throws over the cushions so they can sit there. I make sure there are lots of dog beds around, and they get in them.
When designing signature Bunny Williams Home Collection pieces, what do you keep in mind? First of all, I started it because of how hard it was to find the perfect end tables that were high enough to hold a lamp, and bedside tables that have a shelf, a drawer. We need tons of lamps in our projects, so the collection came out of that. I don’t do a “suite” of furniture or anything. Every piece is designed with its own unique finish; it doesn’t necessarily go together. I want the furniture to be not reproduction, to have wonderful finishes, and to be a bit modern with some detail and character.
Tell us about the process of designing your collection. Where do you begin? I begin with inspiration. I am always looking for something that intrigues me. An auction catalog, a picture, I see something that catches my eye and I put it in a folder. Perhaps it’s a glaze on a piece of ancient pottery I like at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. I go back to my inspiration and then do my own thing. I change the proportion. I begin with a sketch, and then it is put into a CAD drawing. What’s fun is you can print it out in full size and see all the detail. It’s a really interesting process.
How has your approach to designing your collection evolved? You have to look at the collection as a whole when you design, and then look for what’s missing. Twenty-five percent of your inventory is eighty percent of your sales. We can introduce four or five pieces at a time, and use small manufacturers; so it’s fun to introduce new things when I like.
What is your favorite piece? How do you like to see it incorporated into a living space? The Tray Chic Ottoman is a best seller that evolved out of necessity. The Hourglass Table has become a classic. The Brush Stroke Lamp came from a piece of pottery at the Met.
What is your favorite part of designing these pieces for your collection? It is probably the inception. I come up with a plan and an image, but I never know exactly what I am going to find until I start looking. It’s still about the hunt, the excitement of buying a beautiful piece of furniture. It affects your next decision. I begin with a palette of a room, which is the essence of a room. I really care about how well made things are. I want the bottom to look as good as the top. I want these pieces to stand the test of time and last. It has quality. I like when people buy for the future; these pieces can easily transition.
You are known for creating cozy rooms. How do you create a comfortable environment in every room of your home? I know what the colors may be, but I don’t know what the art is going to be. If the art is stronger, the room can handle stronger color. It’s a feeling.
What constitutes over-decorating? It starts with the plan. If everything is paired and perfect, there is no spontaneity to it. The decoration comes in fabric and things; you can get suffocated with too much decoration. People learn it’s like getting dressed: Do you take off an accessory if you have too many on? You should. Sometimes less is more.
What is your all-time favorite room? I guess, for me, as the development of my career as a designer at Parish Hadley, it was going to the Paley apartment on 5th Ave., delivering a shopping bag. That was an experience. It was perfection. There were rooms that people lived in with extraordinary taste. And Nancy Lancaster’s yellow room on Brook Street at Colefax and Fowler. Typical English feel-faded chintz and huge 7-foot-tall portraits broke up the yellow walls. The yellow becomes a great accent. Totally different, but both rooms you wanted to be in.
Legacy you hope to leave? Well, I hope in the next couple of years, is that I can teach. I’m thinking about it. I would like to be around people that understand me and the sensibility of residential interior design.