In the world of interior design, Bunny Williams is, unquestionably, a legend. One need only mention her name, and the accolades begin. The epitome of classic and refined elegance, Bunny’s designs are beloved, and her gardens are world-renowned. In fact, she’s the honorary chairman of the upcoming Antiques and Garden Show at Nashville’s Music City Center, taking place February 11-13. Not to mention, she has authored seven books on her approach to decor style and design narratives, including An Affair with a House, which sold more than 50,000 copies.
The Charlottesville, Virginia native began honing her skills over four decades ago as the secretary at famed New York firm Parish-Hadley, later launching her own firm, Bunny Williams, Inc. In the early 1990s, she also opened the successful Treillage on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, which she owned with her husband, antiques dealer John Rosselli. Bunny and John now split their time between homes in Connecticut and Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, where Bunny continues to cultivate her gardens and her incredible legacy. Did we mention many of our past interior designer crushes name her as their inspiration? Please welcome our newest interior designer crush, the inimitable Bunny Williams.
You’ve been in the design industry for over four decades. How did it all begin?
My parents took me to visit The Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia when I was about 15 years old. It had just been decorated by Dorothy Draper and was unlike anything I’d ever seen. That experience opened my eyes to the possibility of decorating as a career, and I decided I wanted to pursue it. After I finished junior college, I moved to New York and got a job working at an antique shop called Stair and Co., where I learned a great deal about furniture, quality, scale, and patina. After Stair and Co., I worked as a secretary at the design firm Parish-Hadley. I worked there for over 20 years and held many different positions. Eventually, I decided it was time to go out on my own, and I started my firm in 1988.
Are there elements of your design that are influenced and inspired by your Southern upbringing?
For a long time in the South, things were passed down. When designing, I often look at clients’ existing furniture and objects — including things that may have been given to them by a parent or grandparent — as a starting point. Along with the antiques we source, these pieces have character and a long history. I still believe the most interesting rooms mix old and new.
Where I grew up, everyone entertained. People were always coming and going from the house. I have fond memories of my parents, godmother, and great aunt happy just being at home together. I’m always thinking about how a room will be used in decorating and how seating arrangements can accommodate varying size groups.
The annual Antiques and Garden Show is taking place in Nashville in February, and you are hosting a lecture on the making of a garden over 30 years. Without giving too much of your speech away, can you tell us about your Connecticut gardens and how they’ve transformed?
A garden is constantly evolving, and in my lecture, I do my best to illustrate that. For each garden room, I show photos of it in the very early, partially planted, and most recent iterations. I’ve made my fair share of mistakes over the years — all gardeners do — but I’ve found that the land teaches you so many important lessons, and most of all, how to be patient.
What garden or landscape design trends can we anticipate for 2022, and what can we look forward to when it comes to interior design? Are there any new influences that might surprise us?
As you might expect, many of our clients continue to carve out workspaces in their homes, and we anticipate that the desire to have thoughtfully designed, multi-functional spaces will be an ongoing need in our projects. Beyond that, I think the last few years have reminded people of the importance of nature in our daily lives. I can say that personally, my gardens have been a huge source of comfort. I expect more people to focus on outdoor spaces that add beauty and benefit the natural environment.
What are your favorite design elements that are uniquely Southern?
When I was deciding where to live, I was drawn to the Northwest corner of Connecticut because the Litchfield Hills reminded me of the landscape of Charlottesville, where I’d grown up. Growing up in Virginia, we spent a lot of time on the porch. It was hot, and the porch was a place to stay cool and out of the sun. I’m always drawn to a house with a porch, and that connection between indoor and outdoor living is a big part of how I approach design.
Other Southern interior designers frequently talk about how much you’ve inspired their careers. How does it feel to mentor and influence another generation of designers?
I’m honored that so many seem to be inspired by me. Nowadays, especially with social media and the internet, designers have the tools to get out on their own and make a name for themselves from the get-go instead of working for someone else. Still, mentorship was such an important part of my design education. I think it is incredibly important to put in the time to learn the fundamentals of design to build a successful career.
My business partner, Elizabeth Lawrence, has worked alongside me for 15 years. We’re grateful to share what we know with all of the designers who work in our office. We’re all part of a greater legacy that branches out from Parish-Hadley, and it’s exciting to be a part of that.
Given that you inspire so many, who or what inspires you?
Interior designers like Renzo Mongiardino, Henri Samuel, and Frances Elkins are always a source of inspiration for me. Some elements of my gardens were influenced by those I’ve visited over the years while traveling: Russell Page’s gardens in Normandy and the Wirtz Gardens in Belgium were big influences.
I find that inspiration can come from anywhere, which is why it’s so important to get outside, shop, and visit antique stores in person, visit museums, and travel.
What piece of design advice can you offer us to elevate our homes?
Buy the best you can afford, and put your money into the things you want to have for the rest of your life. If you buy what you love, those things will travel with you from home to home.
What is your favorite space or design element in your own home, and why?
The conservatory at my house in the country is my favorite space and where my husband, John Rosselli, and I spend the most time. I spotted the arched windows leaning against an antique shop when driving to the grocery store one day. They just happened to be the perfect length for an addition to the adjoining barn, so I built the conservatory, and it has become the most wonderful space for entertaining, reading, and enjoying my favorite plants.
Can you describe your design philosophy in five words?
Buy what you love most.
Learn more about how to get the best look for your home and garden here.