By Nancy Oakley
Mention the name Bunny Williams to devotees of interior design, and you can practically expect them to start genuflecting, given the New York designer’s storied accomplishments: her 22-year apprenticeship at the legendary firm Parish-Hadley; longtime co-ownership, with husband and antiques dealer John Roselli of the Manhattan garden boutique Treillage; various product lines through Ballard Designs, among others; and author of several books, including the popular An Affair with a House (Harry N. Abrams, 2005), which chronicles the restoration of her and Roselli’s Federal style Connecticut home. A native of Charlottesville, Virginia, Williams owes much of her aesthetic to her Southern roots.
In May, along with Atlanta designer Miles Redd, and former design editor of Architectural Digest Howard Christian, Williams will discuss Southern design at the Spring Design Symposium on May 6 at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) in Winston-Salem. She took the time to chat with Seasons about her views on the region’s style, her love of old houses and their place in 21st-century design.
SEASONS: Is there such a thing as Southern style and design anymore? Or has the plethora of visual tools — HGTV and Pinterest, for instance — diluted regional style?
BW: I would say that decorating is not fashion. Decorating is something that people develop over a period of time. You know, you can buy a dress and it can go out of style next year, and it’s not the end of the world. A good house and a good home, even if you move, is a style one develops, and adds to. And it gets richer as time goes on. So when I think of Southern style, to me, the whole reason I got into this business is, Southerners still love to entertain. They open their doors, they love people in their houses. I still think of Southerners as having a cocktail buffet or having a picnic in the backyard . . . they like to get together. They’re a sociable group of people.
SEASONS: How does this translate into how we decorate our homes?
BW: All this begins to affect the style of decorating — whether you want a red room or a white room, or whether you want modern furniture or traditional furniture — what you find in Southern houses is this sense of welcoming, because I think Southerners use their houses. I also think that for most of us who grew up in the South, there is a sense of history. Not everybody that’s living in the South is from the South. But if you did grow up there and you have a Southern family, there’s always nostalgia talk: “Oh! This was your grandmother’s,” or, “We did this.”
SEASONS: Does that extend to the current generation?
BW: Even though a lot of young people say, “I don’t want this anymore,” they’re going to come back and remember the story that related to their family, or related to something their mother bought when she went on a trip. Memories and history mean something to Southerners. But it’s also warm. A warm connection you have to something. And you may not like it. It’s not that you should take something you don’t like, but I use my mother’s Blue Luster teacups and I love them. And I love the fact that she had them. And no matter how you live, I think that tradition and hospitality, and caring and kindness, influence the design in the South.
SEASONS: Speaking of younger people, the millennial generation stands to inherit a lot of antiques. How do you teach them the value of these things?
BW: I don’t know that you do. I think gardening and maintaining a house take care. And love. And I think the problem is, a lot of millennials, everything is fast for them. It’s the internet, it’s being connected. I’m not sure they really want to go out and spend three hours with the birds gardening. I do. I can’t wait to go out in the garden. That is my solace. I want to be disconnected. I don’t want to be near the phone. I want somebody to not be able to get in touch with me. That’s very hard for young people. I always say to them: “You know what? This old chair is going to look better in twenty years than that thing you bought from Crate & Barrel that’s not going to look so good in five years.” But I think what they want in their lives is something that can be swept out. They’re not particularly caring about housekeeping or vacuuming. Nobody wants silver, because they don’t want to polish it.
SEASONS: Something that makes us want to cry!
BW: Oh, tell me! But I say, “If you use your silver every day, you don’t have to polish it.” It’s just if you don’t ever touch it. But you can’t give away silver. To me, polishing silver is sort of therapeutic. It’s sort of, “Oh! Doesn’t this look pretty?!” But I don’t want to be on my iPhone all the time, and actually, I don’t like to watch a lot of television. The next generation is completely geared into every channel you can get, downloading this, emailing, texting . . . and I think they’ve become addicted to these apparatuses that make it almost impossible for them to do something that’s solitary.
SEASONS: How does that affect you, if you’re working with younger clients? And they’ve got every app and they’ve looked at a zillion pictures on Pinterest or Instagram?
BW: I have to say, the younger clients are a lot more knowledgeable. They have looked at a lot. A lot of clients come to me because things looks sterile. They’re not coming to me to get something from Crate & Barrel. And they want it — I call it cleaner. They don’t want fancy curtains, because quite frankly, I think that fancy curtains are a big waste of money. That’s a lot of money. I always try to get them investing in a good art collection or buying contemporary photographs, trying to get them to think about buying things that they’re going to have for the rest of their life.
SEASONS: Things that last.
BW: That last, that are quality. I like to mix it up. I don’t like to do a room all filled with antiques. But, I’m not afraid of putting something very contemporary with an antique. And I think a lot of people aren’t confident in doing that. They can do the antique look, or they can do the modern look, but what’s prettier than, in a very simple room, having a beautiful antique table? The table looks more interesting. And so I try to get the young people to see, and they usually love it. They’re like, “Oh! Yes! That lovely old table looks fantastic and my kids can put their feet on it, and I’m not going to have a heart attack.”
SEASONS: You mentioned collections a minute ago. If someone has an existing collection, how do you incorporate it into a space?
BW: What I try to do, if I have people who have collections, or things, I try to take all the things they have together and figure out how to hang it to make it look a little different. So it’s not scattered around a room and filling up tabletops and just getting in the way. It’s like putting like things together. Putting pottery together, or mixing pottery with silver. So it becomes a statement on its own and not just scattered willy-nilly all over the house.
SEASONS: Southerners — in the Triad, especially— have preserved many of their old houses. What have they taught us?
BW: The thing I love about old houses is the craftsmanship. You come into an old house and there are beautiful hand-carved mantels and door casings and things that, today, new architecture just doesn’t have. Even if someone builds a new traditional house, unless they have a great deal of money, they tend to just put in stock molding and stock things. And I think old houses, when they have wide floorboards that were hand-scraped, there’s something that feels good about it. Even if you want to decorate that old house in a modern way, there’s already a warmth to that house. They have a soul. It’s hard to explain. I often think, OK, would I like a modern house with great big windows? And then I think, I love the coziness of my house. I love the fact that I feel it envelops me and is nurturing. And, because it’s handmade and hand-done, and often by local craftsmen, you get something that’s completely unique.
SEASONS: When someone wants to decorate an older space, are there temptations they should avoid? We tend to treat these spaces with reverence. How does one overcome the intimidation factor?
BW: I think people have got to educate themselves. You know, you don’t wake up one day and become a decorator and have knowledge. They can’t just do it on their computer. They’ve got to get in their car, they’ve got to look at house restorations, they’ve got to go on house tours. They’ve got to be in spaces. The more you see, you’re going to pick up a little bit here, a little bit there, and you’re going to have the confidence to make your own personal taste . . . Then, you need to have some visual curiosity and you learn a lot from all those beautiful houses around you.
SEASONS: Is that true for everyone?
BW: Some people never are. You know, I have some wonderful friends — very bright, interesting — they have ugly houses. And you know what? They’re always going to have ugly houses. And it’s OK! I don’t care! Because I like them, because they’re intellectual or they’re creative in some other way.
SEASONS: You’ve got a new lighting collection with Currey & Company that you’re launching at High Point Market in April. Tell us, what can light do for a space?
BW: Lighting can make or break a room. The worst thing I find is that people, particularly if they’re building a new house or renovating an old house, they go put a ceiling full of down lights and they think that’s light. Every room needs a little bit of light from different sources. You need a little bit of overhead, you can have some sconces, and then you need some filtered light from lamps and lampshades. Light should come from a number of different sources in a room, and rooms should not be overly lit. You go in a room and all the atmosphere is taken away from an overly lit room. What I do is, I’ll go where I’m going to read, I’ll have a small reading light, so there’s a light for me to read my books. But I don’t need the rooms of my house to be lit like it’s an operating room.
SEASONS: You’re returning for the design symposium at MESDA in May. What kinds of topics will you address?
BW: There are three of us. We’ll all be sharing our background — a lot of what we’ve been talking about. How did the South influence us? A little bit how to deal with old houses. How to make the old look new, all of those things. We haven’t written the script, so you never know what we’ll cover. When you get three people together, one thing leads to another.
The Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts (MESDA) hosts its annual Design Seminar on May 6 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Old Salem’s James A. Gray Auditorium (900 Old Salem Road), Winston-Salem. To register call (336) 721-7369 or go to mesda.org.