American decorator, Bunny Williams, founded her eponymous studio in 1988, cementing her reputation as the “doyenne of cozy chic”. From her spectacular home in Connecticut, Bunny shares tales from an illustrious career in design, while revealing her guiltiest pleasures, greatest challenges, and why Dolly Parton is her dream dinner guest.
Bunny Williams at home, photographed by Ari Kellerman
The most memorable trip I've taken:
Egypt, when I traveled with my friends Michael Trapp and Michael Meller. The three of us shared a very luxurious boat ride down the Nile with an incredible staff and I was transported to a completely different time. Egypt is so overwhelming because of the scale and grandeur of each monument, each temple. There isn’t a day that you aren’t in complete awe of the history and the magnificence of what was created.
The best party you’ve ever been to:
My own 70th birthday party at the Burden Mansion. This was a year where I thought, I really want to celebrate. My incredible, creative team in my office created a magical night that was so personal, from the time you entered - through a garden walkway - to walking up the staircase, which was hung with huge pictures of me from my childhood. There were 110 people there, all of whom meant something to me in my lifetime. The beauty, the flowers, the delicious food by Glorious Food, and the intimacy of being at a party where everyone in the room means something to you is something you can only experience once in your life. The after-dinner entertainment of the entire staff coming in and doing the bunny hop around the room set the tone for the evening.
A moment that changed or defined my career:
When I was 15-years old, my parents took me to the Greenbrier Resort, which had been decorated by Dorothy Draper. It had a color palette unlike anything I had ever seen. After seeing the magic that was created, it planted the seed in my brain of what an interior designer could do. It really opened my eyes to the fact that decorating could be a career, and the lesson I learned was not to play it safe.
The greatest challenge I've overcome:
For me, that moment where I began to believe in myself as a designer. I worked for years for someone else who had a huge reputation, and it was very hard for me to ever believe that I could be that successful or that good. You doubt yourself, and then there’s this moment in your life when you have to stop doubting yourself and trust yourself. There is so much talent, so many people doing beautiful things. Some people are born with it – I wasn’t. It took me quite some time, and it was really in my early 40s that I was able to believe in myself enough to know that I could have my own business, and that it could be about me. That is true in whatever you do, you have to believe in yourself, and it comes at different stages for different people.
My proudest achievement:
I’m very proud of Trade Secrets. It started in my garden in Connecticut (which I’m doing a book on next Spring!), with this concept of a great garden fair and the idea of a plant sale to benefit a charity. We ran the event ourselves on the property for two years and now, 22 years later, it has moved to another venue. Last year, we had close to 2,000 people attend. Each year it raises a tremendous amount of money to help families through Project Sage (formerly Women’s Support Services), which addresses issues from domestic violence to bullying to drug problems. If you’ve had advantages, your life is only really well-lived if you can find a way to give back constantly.
I would describe my childhood as:
I grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia, in the country. Growing up as a child in the country, I had absolute freedom. I was outside, surrounded by dogs, horses, chickens, and gardens. Not only did my immediate family live there, but also a number of cousins, all of whom were extremely funny. We laughed and laughed, and I think of my childhood as filled with laughter. Everyone in my family was very warm, very outgoing, and very loving. It wasn’t that everyone was overly intellectual or artistic–but they really knew how to live.
An object I'll never part with:
A pair of paintings of our dogs that my husband, John, and I were given by artist, Henry Koehler, as a gift from Jonathan Gargiulo, John’s nephew, and his husband, Stiles Colwill. They are of our beloved dogs, painted in the interiors of our apartment. So, not only are they dog portraits, they are interior pictures. They are two of my favorite things. The dogs are no longer with us, nor do we have those interiors, but it’s a personal gift I’d have a very hard time parting with.
The best gift I’ve ever received:
My beautiful cherry tree that John gave me for my birthday recently. Since I’m not a child anymore, it had to look as if it had been there forever. So, an enormous, beautiful cherry tree was planted. When you come into the driveway it’s the first thing you see.
My guiltiest pleasure or greatest extravagance:
My greenhouse – no question. The expense of its maintenance and care is enormous, but the pleasure it gives back is worth every moment. The solitude of spending a winter afternoon in the greenhouse with classical music going is a gift.
My next weekend-away destination:
My favorite weekend destination is my own house in the country. I live in the city during the week and go there almost every weekend.
I feel most confident when wearing:
Fabulous earrings. My mother always told me never to leave the house without them.
My signature scent:
Jo Malone’s Pear and Freesia.
My go-to recipe:
Chicken Marbella. It’s so easy. Everybody loves it and it’s absolutely delicious.
My all-time favorite fabric:
Asking this question of me is like asking me to choose my favorite child. From hand blocked Indian prints to beautiful, faded chintzes to antique fabrics collected in Morocco – I couldn’t possibly pick a favorite.
Ideal interiors in three words:
Classic, Enveloping, Intriguing.
Distasteful interiors in three words:
Boring, Unrestrained, Excessive.
The person I call for good advice:
My very close friend, Betsy Smith. She is the head of the Central Park Conservancy and is incredibly smart. We share a lot on a personal level and have both worked and had careers, and so I find I can talk to her about anything.
The person I call for a good time:
I don’t think I can answer this question in polite company!
My dream dinner party companion:
I would love to have dinner with Dolly Parton. She would be fun, she’s a fighter, she’s been successful, she’s philanthropic. And maybe I could get some makeover tips!
An artwork or exhibition that took my breath away:
I saw a Lucian Freud exhibition that was both grotesque and brilliant. I don’t think there’s another artist that applies paint to a canvas the way that he does. Do I want a painting of a 400-pound naked man? No. But I was riveted by them. I was very lucky to go to the Hermitage and see the art collection. The first time I went, it was almost empty. It was before the Fall of Communism, and there was almost no one there. To wander many years ago through the Hermitage Museum, where I’ll never go again, when it was almost empty…from the French pictures to the Dutch paintings…it was extraordinary.
A new artist or designer whose work excites me:
At The Winter Show in New York earlier this year, I fell in love with a beautiful chandelier by Marc Bankowsky that was hanging in Mason Gerard’s booth. I love furniture and fixtures that remind me of being in the garden, and his designs often incorporate vines, leaves, branches, or twigs in gilded metal.
Just One More Thing
One Master: Renzo Mongiardino
One Muse: Pauline de Rothschild
One City: New York
One Artwork: Matisse’s paintings of women
One Book: Russell Page’s The Education of a Gardener
One Museum: The Met
One Shop: 100 Main
One Song: Anything by Marvin Gaye
One Color: Mossy green
One Flower: Tuberose
One word to describe your style: Classic
One word to describe Cabana: Stimulating