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Interior designer Bunny Williams shares her unique decorating vision.
By Nancy A. Ruhling

Bunny Williams with her beloved terrier-mix dogs in the courtyard of her New York apartment building.

“I don't design rooms, I design backdrops for living,”declares Bunny Williams. “Like a couture suit, each one is timeless, comfortable and a reflection of the owner's personality.”

Haute living, haute couture, it's all in the eye of the beholder. For the last three decades, Williams, she of the marvelously sparkling grey-green eyes, has been creating exquisite interiors around the world, and now she's sharing her unique decorating vision in Bunny Williams' Point of View (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, October 2007, $60).

The tome, a mix of memoir and method, is a visual feast that begins with a dress-up tea party in an 8-foot-square white clapboard playhouse behind Williams' childhood home, a modest brick Georgian with green-black shutters in Charlottesville, Virginia, and ends up on the breezy veranda of La Colina, the Southern raised cottage summer home she recently built in Punta Cana, the Dominican Republic.

Culled from Williams' high-profile clients around the world, the rooms profiled look beautiful, but their real beauty lies in the fact that they are designed not so much to be looked at as to be lived in graciously. Take Williams' own three homes, the ones she shares with her husband, antiques dealer John Rosselli, and their three darling and devoted dogs – Elizabeth, a sleek whippet with the personality of a princess, and Lucy and Charlie, the more rough-and-tumble terrier mixes who are proud to call themselves mutts. “I don't believe in creating rooms that are so precious that they have to be saved for special occasions,” Williams says. “I have used slipcovers in projects, and I put faux leopard throws on the furniture for the dogs and ended up liking them so much that I never take them off.”

Two examples of stunning interiors designed by Williams during her prolific career.
Williams, who began her career with the venerable design firm Parish-Hadley, has taken her design advice to heart and hearth, tailoring each of her own homes to suit her needs. “John and I are very welcoming people, and we love to entertain, so our homes have to function for groups of people,” she says. “But we also like to have alone space, so that is incorporated also. Our home in the country, for instance, has a dedicated room where we can watch TV together.”

The Upper East Side Manhattan apartment, where she spends the workweek and does little more than rest her weary head at each day's end, is an eclectic yet dressy mix of modern, Art Deco and English pieces, the kind of place, she says, where an elegant Dior cocktail suit would make the perfect hostess. “I like to combine things that don't relate,” she says, adding that “I prefer that people don't think of it as a style so much as a collection of objects” that includes everything from volumes of books to Victorian needlework pictures.

At Manor House, a 19th-century Federal farmhouse and cutting garden whose flowers coordinate with the interior colors, the décor reflects the fact that it is a weekend retreat. Williams says it is akin to a favorite tweedy Burberry jacket, the sort she prefers to wear when she wants things to be a tad more relaxed. The living room windows, for instance, don't have curtains or blinds, so the sun merges the outdoors and indoors into one panoramic postcard-pretty picture. “We always have something going on here,” she says, adding that recently 650 people toured and tramped through the yard for The Garden Conservancy's tour.

More inspirational design from Bunny Williams. The color of the polished travertine floor is echoed in the hand-painted canvas on the dining room walls.

By design, at the two-story Dominican Republic house, the Oscar de la Renta turquoise silk kaftan of Williams' four-wall summer wardrobe, possesses another look altogether. “The color turquoise reminds me of the water, and the kaftan conveys the image of an airy, floating feeling that fits right in with the tropical breezes,” she says.

The new house, designed for al fresco living and dining, has double porches on front and back and literally breathes in the ocean views through French doors and triple-hung windows. When Williams is in residence, she and Rosselli often find themselves in their matching chaise longues, reading or napping. The Venetian plaster walls are vibrant tropical colors – cantaloupe orange, banana yellow and lavender to match the thunbergia flowering outside the windows – the floors are covered with sisal or cotton, and the furniture, favorites from Williams' and Rosselli's collections, is slipcovered in off-white or ocean-blue cotton duck. Ornate, overscaled white-framed mirrors and large custom paintings of palm trees and white water birds invite guests in the living room to linger languidly for a long, lazy spell.

Views of La Colina, Williams' new house in the Dominican Republic.
For her clients and for herself, Williams shops around the world for the objects that bring her rooms to life. “Travel is eye-opening,” she says. “My ideas come from architecture, paintings, costume exhibitions, crafts, new buildings and even just looking at – and really seeing – the colors of the sunset. You always have to look for something different.”

The quest for something different has taken her everywhere from the big cities of England and France to the far reaches of India, Cambodia and Vietnam. And to her own past: One of her prized personal possessions is a pair of bird-shaped wooden planters she bought from the estate of her premiere mentor and employer, designer Sister Parish. “Each object has a story, a memory, and I see every table as an opportunity to create a still-life,” she says.

The planters remind her that “you always learn from people with great taste,” she says. “The most incredible lessons I ever learned were from Sister Parish and Albert Hadley. Mrs. Parish was very traditional, and Albert was more modernist. They had very different sensibilities and together they made extraordinary rooms that were traditional and modern at the same time, so I learned new ways to use things.”

It goes without saying, Williams says, that she learned a great deal from a great many people who really know how to live well and she hopes that her work will bring new insight into the design process. “So often people only look at design books; I'm hoping everyone not only looks at but reads this book,” she says, “because I want people to have the confidence and freedom to create their own special spaces.”

Photos: Bunny Williams' Point of View, Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2007. Photos: Fritz von der Schulenberg
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