Bunny Williams was born in 1944 and was raised in Virginia where houses are a very big deal. From an early age she knew that she wanted to be an interior designer. After college in Boston and working briefly in an antique shop she got her foot in the door at the venerable New York City design firm, Parish-Hadley , where she worked her way up from secretary to designer and there she remained for 20 years.
Bunny is a trailblazer—an early adopter, one of the most revered interior designers in the world and in 2018 was named to Architectural Digest’s Hall of Fame. I got to catch up with her to talk about everything from social media to having a great dinner party. What follows is only a bit of our conversation as we could have gone on for days….
So you worked at Parish-Hadley for 20 years? How’d you get the courage and guts to strike out on your own?
I adored and respected both of them but at that point I was doing half the business at the firm. You ask yourself, “what’s the future?” I tried to establish some type of partnership but what was offered was ridiculous, so I just had to go. I sat up in the middle of the night, I bolted upright and said: “I’m leaving.” I just knew. My father had died suddenly and when you have a shock like that in your life and know you can go on, it changes you. So my father died, I left Parrish Hadley, started Bunny Williams Interior Design and got a divorce–all in about three years. I made major life changes and I’m not a big change person, but the shock in my life made me evaluate other things.
Change. That’s a great place to talk about design. In the last ten years that I’ve known you, design is changing and continues to change so fast. You must’ve seen such a difference in how people approach their homes and even how you approach clients.
What’s so interesting to me about design is years and years ago, all that we saw were magazines. We didn’t have the internet. Magazines often had a great editor with an eye and design was more varied. Jean Michel Franc and Chippendale had been around for a long time. There were opulent rooms but at the same time, people were doing contemporary rooms. We had to reach out for information then because it wasn’t so readily available. Now we have the internet, everyone looks at everything. Decorating is more available to people. When I started out you couldn’t buy a decent sofa retail. You had to have it made or you had to get into the D&D building. You had to go to a design source. Now it’s available. People can go on 1st dibs and get anything they want – sometimes it’s too much information. Companies like Restoration Hardware have changed people’s vision because they have spent a fortune on catalogs and people look at that and think “that’s what design looks like.” The kind of design I do is not like that – it’s complicated and it’s not cookie cutter. I like mixing Modern Art with Old Masters. It’s very complicated to make it work and you have to spend a lot of time. I think design has gotten more homogenized. I’m always surprised when I open a magazine and can identify every piece of furniture in that room because it’s commercial. I want something in a room you can’t order online, I want to find the one of a kind, something with a story. I want to shop with my clients and find these things and get excited and have a memory. I think your home should have a memory of putting it together.
Has your aesthetic changed? Your firm has been around now since 1989.
Oh sure. I do more contemporary work now. I just finished a job where there is not one antique. But I was hell-bent on finding interesting modern things– really beautiful things that come back to my philosophy of design. Having and maintaining a house is an effort. I don’t care what you think about it – you live in a house for 10 years and you have to repaint. I love that. I love doing flowers and fluffing the pillows. I think people don’t want to do that as much. They want it to be easy.
So when you start working with a new client, how do you begin? How do you think about a project when you start?
You have to get to know your clients, the location. Is it an apartment in New York? I’m doing a house in Jackson Hole, just finished one in Canada. All of these houses are different. And you need to get to know the clients. There should be a good harmony between client and designer. What do they want? You have to spend a lot of time together. And of course now they come with Pinterest pictures and you have to ask “do you like this traditional room or the modern one?” You have to get a sense of how they live, what their budget is. A lot of people come to my firm because we do a fairly lived-in, rich aesthetic. That’s why they come here. I don’t do rooms with two pieces of furniture and one modern painting.
Are there three tips for people when they’re redoing the room?
Well, first you have to ask yourself why am I redoing this room? What’s wrong with it? And you have to be very honest about what you can save? Don’t throw everything out. Can you repurpose something or add something to it to make it fresh? John and I bought a new apartment and here we are, we have a lot of good furniture but I’m adding some modern furniture to it because I want it to be fresh. People ask, are you doing a new look? And I say, I’m not throwing away my good furniture and the painting’s I’ve collected all my life! I just need to give these things new purpose and put them in a new light.
We talk a lot about reinvention at In The Groove. You’re the queen of that – not only do you have your firm but you’ve written books and have product lines. What are you doing next?
Well, I’m finishing a book that will come out in the Spring. I’m fascinated by the whole connection of the internet and design. I have kind of crazy ideas that every time I talk about them people are like “oh I hope you have a big budget for that”. You have to look ahead, you have to see what’s happening in the world. When I started there were no cell phones no internet but now you have to stay abreast of that. And how you use technology and make your business more exciting. You have to explore that.
I think you’ve done such a great job of that. You’ve embraced it. I saw in the beginning from One Kings Lane that wasn’t necessarily the case. People were afraid of the internet. You were always excited about it though.
You can’t look at things as threats. You have to learn them and embrace them. The only thing that upsets me and I think is a tragedy is the amount of time people spend looking at their phones and not out the window. We have to focus, particularly people who are creative and in the design world, it’s not all on the phone.
I agree! Not just that but the people connection.
Of course! Talk to them, have a meal.
I laugh because some of the default for the people I work with is – ‘oh I’ll text them’.
I never text! The only time I text is if I’m meeting you on the corner or whatever but other than that, it’s not the way I communicate. My best friend lives in California and I talked to her on the phone last night for 35 minutes and we do that once a week. One person brings up one thing which brings up another, you don’t get that over text.
Let’s talk about something new. What’s the perfect menu for the perfect dinner party?
I think you should have very simple food. People love meatloaf, and mac and cheese. I’m having a dinner party this weekend with a rack of lamb, potatoes au gratin, and roasted vegetables. It’s easy. And it’s clean. I always go for wonderful roast chicken with rosemary. Food to me should be simple and clean and fresh.
What about decorating the table?
John, who is the cook and loves food, always says, “go do one of your tablescapes!” I think setting a table is like creating a painting. I have a closet full of Indian bedding I use as tablecloths. Last week we had a dinner party and it was all white on a purple tablecloth. No flowers but ceramics and all that. It’s like doing a still life. I always tell people to go around the house and if you have porcelain birds, things that are on the tabletop, use them in the center of the table.
What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday?
I love being in the country. I go every weekend still. If it’s a pretty day I’m out in the garden, the dogs are running around, there’s no phone. I’m just outside. If it’s a rainy day I’m in the greenhouse. But I try to disconnect as much as possible.
You spend so much time in the gardens, did you teach yourself?
Yes, completely. I love digging, I love planting. It’s humbling because you can control a room – I can make a room perfect, but I can’t control the garden. The things I plant may not come back so it’s very humbling. I just taught myself through trial and error and studying. I went to France – I mean it’s like design, you have to go and see with your eyes. I promise you, people can not learn design by looking at pictures on the internet. You have to go into a room. You have to go into a garden. A lot of young people think “everything’s online I know all about it”. But you have to go into these spaces and sense the volume. When people come into the barn they say, “oh this is so much prettier than the pictures.” And that’s because they’re in the space.
When we traveled together, one thing that stuck with me was your appreciation of trees. You two were always looking at trees and pointing them out! And now I’m doing that. I mean, I don’t plant them but I notice them.
A tree that’s grown for 200 years in a great shape, I’m in awe of that. You can’t garden that, you can’t move that. I plant these apple trees and they look like toothpicks and take 20 years to become something.
You’re so amazing, you’re so busy but you also give back in a real way. Kipps Bay, the place you were talking about upstate that helps with battered women.
Trade Secrets, is an event that raises money for support services for female victims of domestic violence Fifteen years ago, it was a long winter and we had a lot of plants in the greenhouse and I said to the gardener, “why don’t we have a plant sale?” And she was on this hotline for women’s support service so we started the sale to benefit the hotline. I always think something worth doing is worth overdoing. So then I thought, “let’s get tents and sell food and make it a whole fair.” So I called people and nurseries and antique dealers and said: “I want to put together a garden fair with antique garden ornaments and rare plants.” They were all so enthusiastic and we had this on the property and had 400 people attend! We just couldn’t believe it. It was for a great cause. We decided to do it a second year, with even more garden enthusiasts. May 14th and it snowed. I have pictures of people coming up the drive with snow falling. There were 600 people! It has just grown and grown.
Let’s talk about aging. We’re talking about this and want to change the conversation around it. I don’t think you feel your age, I don’t feel my age. There are people out there who do though and it makes them feel bad. How can we change this?
The thing about aging is everyone does it. The sad thing today is there’s just this emphasis on youth – models are 15! We have a complete unreality about what’s the right age, about body size, about what we’re going to look like. I think you need to take care of yourself. I get my hair done. I could lose weight but I exercise, I feel good about myself. You have to accept yourself. You can’t look in the mirror and go “oh I have a new wrinkle”. I don’t feel old because I feel active. I’m always looking ahead, I’m curious. You can’t dwell on yourself all the time. If you’re engaged and doing things with other people, get interested in things! Get out of your own paranoia about getting old. I find that you’re invisible if you feel awkward. I never go out of my house if I don’t look nice. Even in the country, I put on a little makeup I put on my hair. It makes me feel better. People notice that. The more engaged you are with people and ideas, your community, it shows in your being.
If you had one superpower, what would it be?
An incredible memory. I have a visual memory but I’m in awe of people who can tell you every character in every book they read.
If you had a warning label what would it say?
Beware of pretention.