The warmth and comfort in Bunny Williams’ home is obviously a reflection of the warmth and comfort that was inherent in her childhood home in Virginia with her eccentric, horsy family. No matter where we turned in our conversation, the roads led back to her mother and her father and their lasting influence upon her. It was one of the easiest interviews, surrounded as we were by the mongrel mutts whom she rescues, the chipped sugar bowl on the coffee tray, and, for some reason, an illusion of a log fire burning that never was. Her home is not kitsch or cute though, and neither is she. She is not afraid of having strong opinions, and, we imagine, a strong drink every now and then.
You are so well-known for making rooms comfortable. What do you make of the trade-off between aesthetics and comfort? Does one have to be sacrificed to the other?
I don’t really think you have to sacrifice anything if you work at it. I mean here’s a room that’s completely functional, eight people can sit in it, my husband’s TV is over there so he can sit there and watch the Yankees game. I haven’t sacrificed one thing in this room for aesthetics. I didn’t choose one thing over another. It’s funny I was thinking the other day … I was thinking about you coming this morning and I was thinking ‘Well, what is important to me in life?’ and, I was thinking, as we get older, my friends become more important than knowing a million people. When we’re very young we want to know everything, do everything and go everywhere. Now you shed and you concentrate.
What have you shed?
Oh! A lot of events I don’t have to go to anymore. People that I know but didn’t know.
Do you fear losing your curiosity though?
No, no! I think you’re more curious. I think it expands when you can concentrate more because when you can have more interesting conversation with somebody and get into a real debate, your curiosity is expanded versus going into a room of people and kissing them on the cheek. What have you said? Nothing. You’ve had your picture taken and you’ve done nothing. It’s like eating a box of chocolates. You’ve gained a lot of weight and you’re not really satisfied. I think my ability to concentrate now is stronger than it’s ever been.
In the living room an 18th century lacquer tea table sits in front of a Regency sofa.
Right: ‘Ancient’ photographs.
Below:Bunny’s desk stacked with mail and ‘notes that need answering.’
A French Empire desk sits in the corner of the living room.
Bunny added antiqued mirrors on the long wall of the living room to reflect the available light.
Right: A television is unobtrusively tucked into a bookcase in the corner of the living room.
Below: John Rosselli in the living room.
Faux leopard fabric protects the living room sofa from dog paws.
Did you used to care quite a lot what people thought of you?
Oh, I think we all do. You wanted approval. I can’t imagine not caring because that’s a weird thing. I certainly strived hard for approval and that was a good thing…and it paid off. I do care what people say about me … I don’t want to have the reputation that a lot of designers have ‘God they’re a nightmare!’
Were you a good girl at school?
No. I was a renegade. My parents would come to get me to take me home for vacation and I was walking off the demerits. I remember my father sitting there for about four hours while I walked around the hockey field.
What were you doing that earned the demerits?
Oh, you know! Skipping a class, showing up late, reading in my closet … it was all dumb stuff but I was breaking the rules.
Are you skeptical of authority?
No …I’ve worked for very authoritarian people. I just want to be free. I don’t like confinement really. I went to a very strict boarding school [in Virginia]. We had to wear hats and gloves …so, you know. But it was that time, that’s what everybody did. But I have to say, I look back on a lot of things and the biggest gift my parents gave me were manners and sociability.
Left:The needlepoint pillow was a gift to Bunny from her husband, John Rosselli.
Below: Home for the dogs is under an Italian Neo-classical table in the front hall.
Right: Custom-made bookcases line the entrance hall walls.
Below: Lucy, Elizabeth, and Charlie hang out by the front door, waiting for Bunny and John to arrive home.
A birthday sculpture from artist friend Christopher Hewat sits in the corner of the front hall.
In the front hall, a 17th century painting hangs above a red Chinese table. One of the household dog beds is tucked underneath.
Do you think those things are the bedrock of confidence?
Oh, totally! It gives you a security walking in the room if you know how to behave. You know growing up in the south, I had a big family and my family was very horsy … on weekends we’d go to the hunt club and there would be children and there would be adults but I had to speak to the adults. I had to go in the room.
Children today can’t do that so well.
They can’t do anything! They come for a job interview and I can’t believe it. They’re fidgeting, they don’t know how to present themselves, they don’t know how to really speak. And I can tell you that [manners and sociability] is the biggest plus to my career.
I mean I may have a talent for design but I’ve know a lot of talented designers who have not done well because they couldn’t sell themselves. Social confidence helps, I don’t care what your field is.
How do you go about figuring out what your clients really want?
You obviously go to the house and you ask them ‘Why did you buy this house?’, ‘Why live here?’, ‘What’s your family like?’ … I can’t help you until I know ‘What do you do when you come home? Or how do you want to live?
Are these questions easily answered?
Well it’s interesting because the women designers all say this [about asking lots of questions] but the men don’t.
The men come in and they [say] ‘How do we design it?’ I mean I’m not going to be sexist here and there are certainly many talented male designers but I don’t think their rooms look ready for somebody to live in. They’re a great picture, they’re graphically interesting but, um … and yet I have to say, there are people who are happy living like that. But what I have to say is that most of those people have some little room someplace that they live in. It’s got the computer and the TV. Why do they have this big apartment and then this …little hole?!
A Vuillard-style painting hangs above the sofa in the book-filled library/dining room.
The dining room/library is Elizabeth’s favorite play area.
An ivory-inlaid Art Deco chair faces the 18th century lacquer coffee table.
Below: Charlie’s toy.
Cuttings from magazines waiting to be pasted into a scrapbook.
The antique Knole sofa is upholstered in its original green velvet fabric.
L. to r.: A favorite pair of camels stand on either side of a painting by Charles Masson; A collection of Orientalist art hangs on the wall of the library/dining room.
Do you sometimes worry that the world of your work is an extravagant, superficial one?
It is! It is! What do I do? I’m helping people that have everything in the world. There are times when I ask myself ‘Is this what I really want to be doing for the rest of my life?’ There are times when I’m very interested in social issues.
Are you politically engaged?
I’m really trying to figure out how I can become more politically engaged. I think we are in a horrible situation. I’m against an administration that has almost become a dictatorship … and the ramifications and what he [George Bush] is going to leave our children. The debt … how people in the rest of the world see us … this is the most arrogant administration I have ever seen.
John purchased the 1930s mirrored bed at Sothebys.
The bed was originally made by French designer Serge Roche for Dorothy Hart Hearst Paley Hirshon.
Right: The embroidery on the headboard was done in India.
Below: A view through the mirrored canopy bed in the master bedroom.
The round mirror was purchased by Bunny 35 years ago at a store on Second Avenue.
Below: An English painted dressing table with a silver Spanish mirror that Bunny uses everyday.
A favorite picture of John.
Bunny’s perfume collection on a silver tray.
At some point even Bunny runs out of shelves.
Charlie’s sheepskin bed sits beneath a collection of needlepoint pictures.
In your book An Affair with a House you talk about the importance of the stories that came with the house … that it once might have been a safe house for slaves. How do you incorporate that essence of ‘story’ into your own design?
Well, you hope that you can get to somebody’s soul to say what is it that they would love or do they have something from their family. I mean you have to realize that most people today have a lot of money, they bought a big apartment and they have no connection to it and they come with nothing. So, you try to find out something about them … it’s amazing what will come out. You’re trying to find a chord that makes it ‘them’. It’s not that hard.
I’ll even say ‘How d’you make your money?’ I want them to walk into that house and not to think about me but to think ‘I love living here.’
What do you like about modernity, not necessarily to do with design, but just life in modern times?
I think the nicest thing is that everybody wants to live a more relaxed life. We live a more casual life. People like to be in the kitchen.
A collection of paintings of interiors.
John’s dressing room stuffed with more books. The bookcases were made by John Rosselli.
A grouping of 19th century architectural watercolors hang on the rear wall.
Right and below: An English canopy bed stands tall in the guest bedroom.
Did you ever feel, when you were younger, hemmed in my social convention?
No, I came from a very amusing family.
How were they amusing?
Oh, my God! They were wild …I mean in a conventional way. I grew up in a road called the Garth Road and my family was the Garth family and I had a great-aunt Bertha, who was sort of the matriarch of the family who was a true liberated woman. She ran the show. She believed in buying land, she trained racehorses, all the food came off the farm. She was up at five o’clock in the morning training her racehorses, running the farm and then at five o’clock in the afternoon she was bathed and dressed and sitting in her parlor, waiting for people to drop in for a drink. It was just a way of life. People were characters [then], I mean people came in and had too much to drink, they were funny … there just seemed to be a lot of eccentric people in our life.
A companion to John’s shoes.
Late night reading.
Family pictures hang above the pantry bar.
Do you think there are fewer eccentric people around now?
Why is that?
I don’t know. Everyone’s trying to conform so much … non-conformity … everybody’s so afraid of it. It’s why everybody looks like and why their apartments look alike. They’re selling five million Hermès bags and Blahnik shoes. Nobody has the imagination to go off and find something on their own. I’d rather go to someplace nobody has ever heard of to buy something to wear … and people don’t drink anymore! [laughs] I shouldn’t be encouraging drinking …
What did your [childhood] house look like?
It was a kind of modest Georgian brick house painted yellow. The hall had an Oriental rug, which I have to this day. My mother had this [other] rug made which was woven cotton which was tomato soup red and off-white, which was pretty avant-garde for that day and everything was slip-covered in this wonderful reddish and cream cotton print, and the walls were sort of painted in a taupey … it was very chic. All her friends would kind of ask her to come and help them with her house. She had a great flair. My mother loved her house.
I notice your little sugar bowl there [on the coffee tray] is chipped. To me that’s very English. You’re obviously unbothered by imperfection.
I’m always trying to do things to tone a room down. Mummy always bought only chipped. She loved porcelain but the chip was always to the back or someplace. I’ve always done that [too]. I don’t mind a chip or a wear or a tear.
Leashes are always by the door.
What did your father do?
He was head of the American Horse Shows Association. I grew up riding … the problem was for me [that] I was not a great rider and I grew up in a family of total extraordinary riders. I needed to find my place and that wasn’t it. It was sort of like being Tiger Woods child [laughs] … it’s not an easy thing when your whole life is based around horses and your father is very well known, a beautiful rider … I could ride but I’m not an athlete. I remember saying once to my mother ‘Is there anything in life besides horses?’ She encouraged me in going to art school.
But you seem like fun!
[chuckles] Oh I like to have fun.
What is fun for you?
Fun … what is fun? I think that I approach life with a sense of humor. I can find fun in almost anything. It came from my father. And I had a family with a fabulous sense of humor. When I was little I used to be teased and I would be crying because I took everything so seriously and my mother said to me ‘You don’t tease anybody you don’t love’ and I’m like [in little girl voice] ‘Well, I wish they didn’t love me so much.’
• by Sian Ballen and Lesley Hauge • photographs by Jeffrey Hirsch