I was truly looking forward to my interview with Bunny Williams, one of our country’s most enduring designers and the doyenne of gracious living. I have always found her interiors inviting and timeless, while still offering fresh ideas. Bunny learned from the best! When somebody asked her why she put the red egg chair into the living room she designed for this year’s Kips Bay Decorator Showhouse she replied, “because I just felt like it”, something her mentor Sister Parish might have said.
We met at Roots Restaurant in the eco Orchard Garden Hotel. From the moment we shook hands Bunny could not have been more gracious and down to earth. While I was truly honored that she made time for me during her short visit, somehow she gave me the feeling as if I might be the all important guest, southern charm at its very best! She apparently had gotten up at 5:00am ET to come to San Francisco, flew across the country, gave a long presentation followed by a book signing, and then came to meet with me right before dinner with colleagues. That is a busy day for anyone; but my guest was light-spirited and engaging. We enjoyed Rare Cargo organic English Breakfast tea, as well as mini grilled cheddar cheese sandwiches and crostini with goat cheese laced with a touch of Blackberry puree and Kalamata olive tapenade, all organic and specially prepared for us by the Chef de Cuisine. Simply delicious!
Claudia Juestel: You are back in San Francisco for a lecture at Design San Francisco 2010 at the San Francisco Design Center. What sorts of subjects did you cover in your presentation?
Bunny Williams: I talked about my philosophy on design and interiors. But because I was speaking to a group of professionals I also tried to add some of the experience I have had on the business side and in working with clients, because I think other professionals are always interested in that.
CJ: Oh absolutely. I am certainly one of them, and I very much appreciated your candor.
BW: And so I tried to include that in the presentation, as well as talking about what I like in the way of color, furniture and fabrics, and how I approach a project. So it was a little bit of the way I would approach a design project, as well as sharing with them my some of my business knowledge and stories about client relationships.
CJ: I understand you are also meeting with clients here. Do you do a lot of work here in the Bay Area.
BW: I currently have one client here. I have actually worked on this house for a while; but it is the only project I have had here.
CJ: Do you see a difference between clients here in the Bay Area and California and those in New York?
BW: No. I think a client who would hire a New York designer is pretty sophisticated and goes anywhere. It is sort of what I call an international philosophy’. They are intelligent, they have good taste, and they love art. I think San Francisco is much closer to a lot of this feeling of New York, more so than L.A.
CJ: I agree with you on that. What are some of the most memorable places you have designed homes in?
BW: Well, the South of France! We were doing a wonderful early farmhouse, a very a large farmhouse. That was very exciting! I also loved designing a ranch in Texas on 60,000 acres in the middle of nowhere. That was exciting because we were actually in a place where there wasn’t anything, and so everything we did was difficult and challenging, but it was still exciting because it was so unusual.
CJ: You mentioned in your speech that there was no hardware store. So if you didn’t have enough picture hooks you were in trouble.
BW: We had to take absolutely everything. We had to think ahead of time of needing everything that we would possibly need to fix something for problems. We had a toolkit, we had picture hooks, we had everything that we would possibly need. We had to make sure we took it all with us.
CJ: How rewarding it must have been when you realized you were well prepared. I wanted to go back in time a little bit. I learned that you grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia, and you were actually named Bruce Boxley Blackwell. What an amazing name! What was it like growing up in a small town in Virginia, and how do feel your upbringing and perhaps your unusual name have influenced you as a person and as a designer?
BW: I think that the great thing about growing up the way I did was that Charlottesville in those days was much smaller than it is now. It has grown a lot. We lived in the country out on a road where also a lot of my relatives lived. Everyone went to other people’s houses. My father’s great aunt was sort of the doyenne of the family. We had Sunday lunches with her every Sunday. There would be 25, 28 people from somebody 70 years old to a little baby. I think that I grew up in a place where there were a lot of family and friends, and they were always doing things together. I loved being in people’s homes.
I always laugh because there weren’t a lot of restaurants in Charlottesville at the time. You couldn’t buy liquor by the drink. Alcohol was not sold in a public place. It was a dry county; so people didn’t start restaurants because people didn’t go to them. You would go to a club, but entertained at home. And I think that having the memories of that life and the fun of it. There is nothing more fun then when you are a little child going to a lunch and all these older people are doting on you, and knowing what you want to do. And it just made the whole of art of living something that I obviously didn’t understand when I was a little child; but I just knew it meant something to me. So when I began to contemplate a career I kept thinking, “well this is what I would like to do”. I was artistic and I went to art school. I loved playing house with my mother and setting the table; so I had a feel for the domestic environment.
It is funny having a name like that. A lot of my cousins had funny names, because in the South you often got a last name as a first name. But it made us all to be very outgoing and social. I had to talk to adults from the time I was young, and I think that it helps me in my business, because in parts so much about decorating is the relationship that you have with your clients.
BW: You can be a genius, but if you can’t express yourself and you can’t make people feel comfortable, you are not going to go any place. So much of what we do is getting people to trust us, and learning to observe people, imagining what they are thinking, and trying to help them make the decisions for their house. So I think growing up with a kind of kooky family and having a social life as a child was very instrumental in helping me to be able to deal with a lot of people.
CJ: Well, I think it comes through in your work. Earlier today you talked about conversation groups. It seems like something so simple and so straightforward, but some people don’t fully understand that. But you really know how people can best utilize a room, which is so important. We leave when the work is done, but our clients live in the spaces we create for them. When they are frustrated about the lack of comfort or insufficient seating, awkward arrangements etc. they will remember that more than the aesthetics of the room. So your history and your sense of hospitality surely make a huge difference.
BW: Oh absolutely, absolutely, and seeing how people entertain, just seeing how they can have a cocktail buffet for 100 people, and how they can handle that in a house. I saw all that as a child. And we had fun! So those things I want to try to recreate to help other people.
CJ: And a career was born.
CJ: Please let our readers know how you become a designer.
BW: I actually wanted to go to Parsons in New York. But my parents did not understand my going to a school in New York City that didn’t have a dormitory and wasn’t a women’s college in Virginia. So they were not for that, and I went to a junior college in Boston that had an interior design program. But I was very restless, and I wanted to go to work. So I left after one year and came to New York and got an apartment. The first job I had was as a receptionist in a very high-end English antique shop, which I loved. I learned a lot about furniture and the antique world, and it was fantastic. Then about 2 years later I went to Sister Parish and Albert Hadley one day and asked if there was an opening. I was very fortunate that there was, and I was hired. I was there for more than twenty years, and so I say that was my real education.
CJ: What made you go to interview with Parish Hadley specifically? How did you seek them out?
BW: Because I knew and loved their work. Mrs. Parish had done a house for some friends of my family, and their projects were in all the magazines. I think any young person should try to work for somebody whose work they admire. If somebody wants to do modern cinderblock furniture rooms they wouldn’t come to me; nor should they. They should try to find someone they are inspired by. It is like being an art student and you go work for Michelangelo in his studio. You go and find the person whom you most relate to and try to get some kind of job there.
CJ: I could not agree more. I say that to my interns all the time.
BW: I think the one of the big differences today is that young designers want to be on their own immediately, and I think it shows up in the lack of professionalism in their work. Until you know how a job is put together, until you really know the mechanics of it, until you know the organizational part of it, until you have done it over and over and over again, I don’t think that you have the right to go and have someone give you money to do it, if you don’t know how to do it.
CJ: Many of my interns have told me about some of their teachers impressing on them that they will be professional designers once they graduate. I on the other hand believe that that is just the start, and they will have a long way to go. I always tell students to get as many internships as possible while still in school, as they are classes they don’t have to pay for.
BW: That’s what I said today to some girls. I said that I have interns in my office, and everyday they take fabrics back and begin to see how an office works, and they can ask questions. If somebody has free time they show them how we do purchase orders and how we do the business part of it, because all of that is very different from what they learn. To me the most important thing that is coming out of schools today, which I don’t know how to do and I think its absolutely going to be essential, is CAD work and the computer. So if they can learn that skill it will be fantastic.
CJ: So after working for Parish-Hadley for 22 years you opened your own business in 1988. Sister Parish and Albert Hadley are legendary, and you really did it the old fashioned way I would say; starting out a very young age and working your way up in the company. You mentioned a little bit how it has shaped you working for them, but please elaborate on what that was like.
BW: Well, first of all you learn the discipline of a job. Mrs. Parish used to say to me, “you know you can lose a client over a lampshade. You can do the most beautiful work, but if you don’t fix the carpet that was badly installed or take special care, that is what they are going to remember.” And you see what a difference that makes. This amazing thing I have done, how beautiful this is, that isn’t important to them. What is important to remember is that it is a service business. To us it is creative, we look at it as an artistic thing, it is, but to the client it is a service. They have hired someone to design their house, and they want everything perfect, and if there is a problem it has to be fixed immediately. Somebody has to pay attention to it, and although it is not the part you want to do the most it is the most important thing that you need to do, so the clients know that you are working for them, and that they are not going to accept anything but the best. It is very easy for me to do a floor plan for a room, but it is because I spent years seeing how those rooms evolved and how they are put together. There isn’t a formula to teach you that, like learning about scale and proportion. I see so many things in magazines where the scale is all wrong. I am thinking, “Why is there this dinky little chair trying to balance a side of a fireplace; that’s just bad design”.
BW: But you know, when you work for somebody like Albert Hadley who is a trained, you have to understand these things, and you are learning without making the mistake because you have to go be a designer. It was a just a phenomenal education. You not only had to learn it, but you had to do it, you had to finish a job, be on the installation, understand the height of the lamp to the sofa, all the minute details. Even today, I will look at a picture somebody brings to my office and say, “that table is the wrong height.” And they will agree. This is the kind of thing that hopefully by teaching them the next time they will see what is correct. It is like learning to ice skate. It is called practice; and I do think it is better to practice with people who are really serious, who are good at it, and they will develop. After more than ten years with Parish-Hadley I had my own clients, but I stayed another ten years. I was working on some projects with them, but I also was working independently. I had more than a decade of practice with them, and seeing how it happened, and helping on the jobs as the assistant designer until such point, I knew what I was doing.
CJ: Well they had a lot of faith in you clearly from the start. I also learned that ten years ago opened the high-style garden shop Treillage with your husband, famed antique dealer John Rosselli. How was that idea born?
BW: John and I decided on it on the spur of the moment. I was in his shop one day, and we were good friends, and we were talking. Every Spring I would go in his shop, and he would order daffodil bulbs for our garden. He had a garden in New Jersey, and I had a house in Connecticut. We would go and place the daffodil bulbs, and I said, “you know John the Chelsea Flower Show is coming up, and I have never been”, and John said, “well I have never been either, let’s go”. So while we were there I noticed all these wonderful booths that sold great garden items and statues, and there was nothing like that in New York. So I said, “I wish there was a great garden shop in New York”, and John replied, “well let’s open one”. So it was just literally a complete spur of the moment idea. And so we started buying for the shop, and he called New York and rented the space, which he knew was an old blacksmith’s shop on East 75th Street. And that was the beginning. I always say that John and I had the baby first, and then we got married. We opened the shop, and we had such fun doing it, and we still do. It is a great pleasure!
CJ: I can imagine. What is it like for a designer to be married to an antique dealer? Are your aesthetics similar? Does every vacation tempt you to go antiquing?
BW: Our tastes are very similar. I met John because I would buy in his shop for years. His shop was always a source for every project I worked on. Even when I was at Parish-Hadley I used to go into his shop. Our tastes are very similar. That is what we love to do, and it is not just antiques. If we are in India we are looking for textile manufacturers or people who can make things. John does a lot of reproductions and designs items he has then made. We love going around the world finding artisans. So it has made a life that is so wonderful because we share the same interests, and usually on a given day we want to do the same thing.
CJ: Clearly for both of you your work is your passion.
BW: Yes, yes, and its not. John has never made me choose. He understands that I have to get up at four o’clock in the morning or be gone for three days, because he understands my world. I think that it is often hard for women who have careers and are torn between those obligations and a husband, children and a home life. And the bigger you get, or the larger your design practice becomes, the more you travel. And you have to travel; you can’t just stay in one place. You are never going to grow if you don’t. You have to go look at things. I talked about inspiration. You have to be inspired, you have to be kind of shocked or you won’t grow. Otherwise your design will stay the same, very staid, and you won’t take chances.
CJ: And you are lucky to have someone to do that with.
BW: Exactly, exactly!
CJ: You and your husband built a home together in the Dominican Republic. It is stunning! From an article I read in Town & Country a while back it sounded like it was quite an undertaking. Please tell us more about it and how it may have changed your life to have a residence in the Caribbean?
BW: The process of building was very unusual because they don’t have great construction crews and organization like we have here. It was very funny: I went there once during construction and noticed a window in the wrong place. So I went to the man who was supposed to be the foreman on the job. I said, “this window is in the wrong place. Where are the plans, where are the drawings?”
I had a wonderful architect by the name of Ernesto Buch who had done the drawings. And the foreman looked at me and said “drawings, drawings?” Well, he finally found them wadded up in a garbage can back someplace on the job site. But they were not out on a table where they should have been, like on most jobs. But the people are very sweet and kind; they are just not as sophisticated as we are. So you have to be a little bit more patient.
The building is very simple because we do not have heating, but we have air conditioning. It really is a concrete block, and everything is hand-done; all the is plaster applied by hand. That part of is very beautiful. My husband loves warm weather and hates cold weather, so it is really a treat for him to stay there. I of course can only stay for a week; but then I have to come back to work. My husband stays, and friends and family go down. He’ll stay three weeks and then come back for a week, but I leave. I get anxious because I know there are projects, and I have an office to run, a furniture line, and Treillage. So there is a lot going on; I can’t just leave it all for a month. Maybe one day, but not now.
CJ: Hopefully one day. You mentioned a little bit about this earlier. But please elaborate more on where you find your inspiration.
BW: You just have to keep looking all the time. An inspiration can come from the color of your sweater. You have to look and open your eyes all the time, like travelling, looking at books. I buy every magazine, every book, and I spend a lot of money on European books.
I buy edgy things, things that might not be exactly what I would usually use. You have to be pushed. I think that you need to go look at new buildings and keep up with things that are going on. I think inspiration comes from wanting to do something different, wanting to not do the same room over and over again. I think a lot of designers fall into that trap. You can see their rooms a mile away, and they all look the same over a fifteen-year time period. Now that might be a signature style, and maybe that is okay, but it is not okay for me, because I don’t really want the decorating to be about me. I want it to be about good design and about the client, and I think it is more fun to evolve.
I just finished a loft penthouse in New York, which is very contemporary, yet warm at the same time. It has steel walls and a beautiful stone floor. It is very edgy with glass all around, and yet people have said, “I don’t know how she made this so comfortable”. Even when doing something edgier you do not want to loose the comfort factor.
CJ: Oh, I am right there with you.
BW: I had a client who would allow me to do this. Some of my clients want a much more traditional space, that is what they come to me for, that is what they see. So I am always excited when I have someone who will trust me to go and do something different. I think sometimes that is hard for designers because the reason somebody came to them is that they saw a room they had done, and they want one just like it. So I keep trying to get people to challenge me. But I want to challenge my clients too. I would say, “well why would you want something you have already seen? Let’s try something new”.
CJ: So you educate them, and you and the clients get to experience new things, and grow.
BW: Yes, which is so important. I am working on a job now where I need a very specific unusual light. I have it in my head, but I haven not seen it. So now we have to either design it and have it made, or find an artist to blow the glass that I want. But that is fun!
CJ: When you travel the world, like you said, you can almost have anything made, which is wonderful.
BW: Yes, but I think it is exciting that there is so much more great design on the market today than there was thirty years ago. It is astounding! Obviously you can walk into some place and find a very expensive and beautiful light fixture. But look at companies like Design Within Reach, and they have some fabulous things. I had a client who bought a condominium and wanted me to do everything from catalogues. He said that he did not want to spend a lot of money. I was pretty amazed how far we got. We ended up not being able to do everything from catalogues, and he understood that because he saw that I had made the effort. So then he let me go out and buy some more interesting things. But I was pretty amazed of what was out there if you really hunt for it.
CJ: It has certainly changed, especially in the last decade, Target, West Elm, etc. What do you feel are the most important aspects of your design?
BW: Livability, number one. I hate the word comfort’ because it is not just about being comfortable, but it really is about a house being livable. The other thing probably is my ability to put a lot of unrelated things in a room and make them look related.
CJ: That surely comes from your years of experience, your understanding of scale, and an intuitive knowledge of how all the components and little details will work together.
BW: And it’s not easy. It could look like mishmash; it could look awful. You have to think that it perhaps could be more interesting to pair this very slick table with a beautiful carved chair. A lot of people are not comfortable doing that, but I love it. I love stretching. In this penthouse that I just finished, there is a coffee table made from Lucite with metal poured into it and floating within it, which is placed next to an absolutely exquisite 18th century French armchair in old and cracked leather. This is as yin and yang as it can be, but to me they absolutely complement each other in their uncomplimentary form.
CJ: Do you think not having had a formal design education forces you to trust your gut, and so much of it is instinctual because you have been doing for so long? You do not worry about anyone else’s opinion; you just know that it works.
BW: Yes. And nobody said, “this is what you have to do, this makes it right”. I have never had that kind of formal education. I don’t have somebody else’s formula. But I do think that there are furniture floor plans that work, and there are ones that don’t. There are certain arrangements that work. What you choose to make of that furniture plan is what you have fun with reinventing all the time.
CJ: And when it comes to trends, looking at your interiors they don’t matter. One can’t tell when they were done.
BW: You should not be able to. Someone asked me this weekend what the current trends are. I told them not to ask me that, that maybe it was fine to ask somebody what a trend in fashion is, but decorating is so expensive, and it is for a lifetime. The clients need to find their souls, they need to find where they are comfortable. And working with you that house will just get richer, but it will be added to, not thrown out. If you have done something that is faddy or for the moment you are going to be absolutely bored with it. I hope when people look at my work they cannot put a year on it, they cannot put a date on it, and hopefully that is what a classic is.
CJ: You have said it, your design is classic. You also debuted your furniture line, BeeLine Home last year. It has been very well received and garnered a lot of press. Please tell us how that came about and what your goal is for the line.
BW: I was at a point in my career when I was thinking about what to do next. Do I license my name to companies, what do I do? I love decorating, but I love other things to.
CJ: Did you want a new challenge?
BW: Yes, I wanted a new challenge. I like the idea of starting a new business, I like the idea of thinking it out and the process of it, as well as the design. So I decided that, instead of just licensing my name to companies and handing a design to them and them making and selling it, I wanted to produce it myself. Because I care so much about the control of the finished product I did not want to make compromises; I did not want somebody to tell me that we could save $10 if we change the leg this way or that way.
So I wanted to try to do it myself, and I designed pieces that I felt everyone needed. You need coffee tables, you need the perfect end table, you need a great occasional chair, you need lamps, you need a wastebasket. So in the first collection for the upholstery we started out with one sofa, a very unusual sofa, one very comfortable chair and an ottoman. There are a lot of great sofas on the market, but this one just a little different and quirky.
The other thing I wanted to do was to make it all in a limited edition. And the reason I feel so strongly about that is that with most of my work I have had the luxury of finding wonderful one-of-a-kind things. I don’t care if it is a fabulous expensive antique or something I found in a thrift shop, but it is just unique. I have never been the kind of decorator to go to the D & D Building and furnish a whole house from there. To me that becomes a little hotel-like; it is not quite eclectic enough. Even the good pieces that are available from many good furniture companies, you see them over and over again.
I opened a magazine a couple of months ago, and there was the same chair in three jobs, the same chair! Three different decorators had used the same chair. Well, my clients don’t want that. They don’t want to open a magazine and say, “oh there is my chair”. So I wanted to have products that designers or individuals could buy, and then they would not see them again. If I sell out of it I am not going to make more. I am going to come up with another table, another lamp, and I hope to build on the numbers I sell. Some of the quantities were maybe 50 or 75. I would like to build that up, but I don’t want to make 1,000 of something.
CJ: I don’t blame you. You mentioned Design Within Reach earlier, a company that produces iconic 20th century design for the masses. Personally I refrain from using those pieces since they are everywhere.
BW: There are millions of them. With Design Within Reach you have to use it sparingly. I bought some chairs for a client’s kitchen, but there is nothing else in there that is from a commercial store. Everything else in that kitchen is unique. So I kind of got away with the chairs that you will recognize in a minute; but I don’t want to do a whole house of it.
CJ: I hear you! So now for a little gushing: You have been inducted into the Interior Design Magazine Hall of Fame in 1995, you were awarded the prestigious design and business award by Edith Wharton Restoration 2000, and the “Giants of Design Award” by House Beautiful in 2006. Perhaps I even forgot something else. What do you think are your greatest achievement as a designer?
BW: Well, the awards are very flattering, and they are very nice. I sometimes think I have been in the business so long, but that is an interesting question. I am not sure that I feel like I have even had my greatest achievement. I am very proud of the work I have done. I look at the books and I cannot believe my body of work in a way, but I also would love to figure out a way to really design and make some fabulous things that are available to more people and which are affordable and stylish. Because I do think that is important. I can remember starting out as a young married woman, not having a lot of money and wanting to be able to go and buy something of quality and something that is special that you still have when you are sixty.
CJ: Well you got an excellent start with your collection. What I feel is nice about your line is that it is affordable, but also of quality. So you are certainly filling a niche in the market with lots of growth potential.
BW: I am trying to. It is interesting because I am doing it myself, and it would be very exciting if I really could make a very successful business out of it.
CJ: Oh, I am certain you will. One article I read called you a busy bee. You are one of America’s most successful interior designers, the co owner of an antique store, a furniture designer, a sought after lecturer, and a best selling author of three design books. I believe you are working on a fourth one now. You have a lot going on. How do you unwind?
BW: I go to my house in the country, and I have no problem unwinding. I get a lot of work done, but I go to the country, and I have my dogs I adore. I am with friends whom I love and who are not in my business. We talk about politics, we listen to music, and we go for walks. In the Summer I am always in my garden, I am always puttering with my own house. I don’t work on weekends; that is my time. I tell my clients that I will work during the week until 10 o’clock at night, but I am just not available on Saturday and Sunday. And I think you have to go and get involved in things that aren’t about decorating. I have a charity. I started a garden event in Connecticut called “Trade Secrets”. We raise money for WSS, which is Women’s Support Services. It started in my backyard, and this year it will be its 10th anniversary.
BW: And it is garden vendors, it is plants people, it is just great fun. So I like doing other things like that. I think decorators have to understand that decorating is not going to save the world. I love what I do, and I am very fortunate, but I want to be a more multi-dimensional person that that. I like to talk to people who have no interest in decorating.
CJ: We all need a full life, especially someone who works as hard as you do. You do need that balance. If you had not become an interior designer what might you have done professionally instead?
BW: Gardening. Or I would have started and animal shelter.
CJ: Are you involved in a charity with animals as well?
BW: Yes. Well, we tried to start something that we could not get funded. It was an amazing foundation called “Tails in Need”; and we put on the “Great American Mutt Show”. It was this very fancy dog show; but it was just for mixed breeds. And we had classes like the best lap dog over 50 pounds, and the dogs that most looked like their owners. It was the best thing in the whole world; it was unbelievable! But the interesting thing is that we raised money privately, and my friend Kitty Hawks and I did this.
We could never get any of the big humane societies to help fund it. I kept saying, “I am not adopting dogs, I am trying to get everybody to want to go and adopt a dog, not go get a purebred dog or go to a puppy mill”. But I needed corporate backing. We did it for 3 years; but because we could not get backing we stopped doing it.
CJ: It sounds like it was a wonderful idea; too bad you could not continue. What else might you be able share with us people may not know about you?
BW: Let’s see, people know everything about me. Well, I love to do things with my hands. For instance I love to paint a room, or paint a piece of furniture, or do some kind of project. That is a very relaxing escape. I am not very athletic, but I love to take walks, and I love to work in my garden. I am not competitive. I am very competitive with myself, but I am not at all competitive with another person. If I was playing tennis with you I would be happy if you won. But my competition is with me. I am never competitive with other designers or with my friends; I actually hate that. But I am very competitive about the best I can do, setting goals for myself, and working hard.
CJ: Well that certainly comes through in your work too. If look to other people to measure yourself against then you are not really creating your own thing.
BW: And it is hard sometimes because I think this business is very competitive. I don’t want people to say that don’t care. I always want to be nice to people, and I want success for everybody.
CJ: That’s very kind of you. Thank you so much for spending this time with me and allowing us into your world.