My latest Design Icon Interview for Decorati:
To state the obvious, Bunny Williams needs no introduction. She’s not only one of the country’s preeminent design icons, but she’s also an accomplished author, speaker, businesswoman, garden expert and widely recognized tastemaker for gracious living.
In addition to heading up her renowned interior design firm in New York City, Bunny has been busy debuting her furniture line, Beeline Home II by Bunny Williams, at the High Point Market, and releasing her latest book, “Scrapbook for Living” (Stewart, Tabori & Chang), which is hitting the book shelves this month.
Ok, so I admit it. I was a little intimidated about interviewing Bunny for this piece. Hey, I have no design firm, no books (not even one), no furniture line, I can’t grow weeds, and no one wants me to speak. So you can imagine how relieved I was to find Bunny completely down to earth, warm, funny and, of course gracious. Here’s how our conversation went.
Buzz: What are the latest trends in interior design?
BW: What a question to start out with! I hate trends in interior design. Is this the end of the interview? (Laughing)
Buzz: Bunny please! I’m a professional journalist with special training in dealing with real-life interview disasters like this. Uh, can you just keep talking and I’ll edit this later?
BW: Sure. I just don’t feel I serve my clients by slavishly following the latest trends. I want my clients to become involved and interested in where they live, what pieces they collect over time and how their home reflects their life. I see part of my job as educating people about how to enjoy and care about the process of living. And central to that process is creating a home-after all, that’s the environment where we live our lives. (Left: Star Chair from the Beeline Home Collection).
As part of this process, I want my clients to purchase only pieces that they want to keep. Not junk that’s dictated by this year’s silly trend. We need to get back to people developing their own sense of taste. My mother didn’t have a designer, but she filled our home with things she loved and when you do that everything works together. And people can feel the loving care that went into that home. It’s quite magical. That’s what I help create for my clients.
Buzz: What do you do then when an existing client approaches you to completely redecorate the home you did together and wants to get rid of everything for a totally new look?
BW: That really never happens to me. If I’ve done my job, then the pieces purchased in my first design of their home are pieces they want to keep. So my clients don’t hire me to completely redecorate. Frankly, that concept makes no sense to me.
But don’t get me wrong; many of my clients come back to me again and again to freshen a room. Updating a home is what should happen as you learn and grow. As your tastes evolve, so should your home. But this happens over time and is part of the joy of creating a home that is a sanctuary and someplace very special to you.
Buzz: Can you give us an example of how you freshen a home?
BW: Sure. A good example would be clients who don’t care for modern art when I first work with them. But after a few years, they come to appreciate let’s say, abstract art. So we freshen the home up with some wonderful contemporary art. But this is about “adding to” the home as opposed to throwing out the baby with the bath water. It just amazes me when people do that. It’s a shame really.
BW: Because the most interesting homes, the ones that speak to you and radiate warmth are those that aren’t all Art Deco. Or all Early American. Or everything Louis XIV. Those homes are boring and cookie cutter.
No one’s life is reflected in a single note. Life is a symphony and your home should reflect this with counterpoint, variety and unexpected combinations. Static interiors are a big yawn and scream “I bought everything just now from my interior decorator.” And that’s not a good look. Great interiors are those that have pieces collected over time by the owners and reflect their style and taste in a variety of periods and styles.
Buzz: So when it comes to design, you’d agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s comment that “Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds”?
BW: Yes, I like that!
Buzz: Any gripes you have about the interior design industry today?
BW: Are you kidding? How much time do we have? (Laughing) I think it’s sad how everyone these days seems to want to focus only on young people. Most of my clients are older and more established. I think it’s the 50-60 year olds that have a lot of work for designers these days. And I love having them as clients.
BW: I really do. Animals teach us about unconditional love. They also teach you responsibility because they’re defenseless and helpless without your care. My dogs have also taught me that you can be joyous and fulfilled just being at home in the company of family and friends. Isn’t that an amazing lesson? Pets ask very little of you and give so much love in return. Very unlike people. (Sigh). Sad but true I think. Animals just give us great joy. Don’t you agree?
Buzz: Well, my dog Jackie-Boy sleeps with his face in my armpit. And I get a lot of joy from that. Do you think that’s weird?
BW. No I think that’s adorable!
Aside to readers: Well that’s a load off my mind. I thought me and Jackie-Boy had to go to couple’s counseling and that’s expensive…
Buzz: Since you like animals so much, let me ask this question: what would you do if a client wanted to hire you to do a hunting lodge with lots of stuffed moose heads and bear skin rugs?
BW: Actually that’s happened to me. One of my clients is a big game hunter and I did a retreat for him that showcased many of his game trophies. And I was happy to do it. First and foremost I’m a professional. I don’t impose my personal beliefs on my clients. If they want my opinion, they’ll ask me for it. But most don’t and I’m fine with that. I’ve done a number of homes for this client and his wife and I adore them, except for the hunting part. But they didn’t hire me to lecture them on animal rights. They hired me to design their retreat. I was taught by my mother that good manners and professional behavior are very important. And doing this project without crusading for PETA is part and parcel of that.(Right: Zigfield Mirror from the Beeline Home Collection).
Buzz: Does this same non-judgmental professionalism apply to politics?
BW: Absolutely! Politics is another topic that really isn’t raised in polite society and has no place interfering with my business relationships.
Buzz: OK. Are you a member of the Tea Party?
BW: Didn’t you hear anything I just said? Why Buzz Kaplan, you are NO gentleman!
Buzz aside: Not to worry, people make that mistake all the time.
In all my years as a designer, my relationship with my clients has been a professional one. I never forget that they are hiring me to provide them with a service-that defines our relationship. A designer should never lose site of that but I think many do. Maybe they aspire to the lifestyles of their clients. Or perhaps they secretly wish they were their clients. But I don’t.
Buzz: When you say you don’t aspire to your clients’ lifestyles, what exactly do you mean?
BW: I mean that I don’t need or want to surround myself with famous, titled or wealthy people. I have nothing against them. I just have my own life and it’s not as grand as most of my clients. But I love living it.
Buzz: OK, new topic. In preparation for today, I read many interviews you’ve done in the past and, quite frankly, some of them made me nauseous.
BW: Pardon me?
Buzz: No offense to you Bunny, but some of those interviewers were falling all over themselves to gush about you, kiss your….well, they were overly obsequious.
BW: You know I never understand that. And frankly, it makes me kind of sick too. I’m basically a normal person who works very hard for a living. I don’t think I’m pretentious. I think I’m unassuming. I’m really not sure where all that comes from. It’s flattering of course, but really unnecessary.
Buzz: Bunny, why are you the most celebrated, fabulously talented, glamorous and wildly successful designer on earth?!
BW: Buzz, put a sock in it, OK?
Buzz: OK. How about this: Do you think your gender plays a role in your client relationships?
BW: Yes, I do. I think that male designers are expected to be best friends with their female clients. But women designers like me aren’t. My female clients understand that I have a husband and a very busy private life. Plus no one wants an extra woman just hanging around.
Buzz: OK, it’s time for our lightning round: What’s your biggest pet peeve?
Buzz: Favorite TV show?
BW: That’s a tough one because I don’t have a TiVo and don’t watch a lot of TV. I do love Madmen. I think it has tremendous style. “24” was great because it was so fast- paced. Oh, and I love the PBS series Foyles War.
Buzz: If you weren’t Bunny Williams, who would you want to be?
BW. Tina Turner.
Buzz: I knew that!
BW: You did not. (laughing) I’d want to be Tina because I’d love to be someone who sings from the heart. You know, sings with soul. Her singing is so heartfelt and I love that. If I couldn’t be her, I think I’d be Aretha Franklin. Also incredible.
Buzz: Name your favorite food.
BW: Something chocolate.
Buzz: What’s the biggest design faux pas that people make?
BW. Scale. The scale of many interiors is just off and it drives me crazy. Furniture pieces in a room need to be appropriately scaled both as to the size and height of the room as well as to each other. When I worked for Albert Hadley, I had to learn scale. I can’t tell you how many times he asked me, “Have you scaled it into the plans?” So that’s important. But I also believe there are no hard rules as to scale. Either something works in a room or it doesn’t. Feeling scale is an emotional thing. At least it is to me.
Scale faux pas are often made when a designer is planning and buying for a room that doesn’t yet exist. Like in the construction phase. That’s where you really need to look at the plans and then “feel” the scale of the room, the ceiling height, the layout and the overall dimensions. Then once you “get” the room, you just know what will work and what won’t.
Buzz: What is the one course every designer should take?
BW: A drawing class. It’s one of the best things I ever did. It makes you see in terms of relationships. For example, you mentally take in the relationship of a wall to a piece and you instantly see whether it’s a great look or not. Just like a painter who paints the eyes that work in the context of a particular face. Everyone who wants to design should take a drawing class.
Buzz: What one piece of furniture is critical in every house and should convey a sense of style and panache?
BW: Chairs. Chairs are the most interesting item of furniture to follow in design. Every period changes style through its chairs. Chairs fascinate me. And every chair that you put in a home should be interesting. Otherwise, they’re just boring. Whenever I see a great chair, I buy it because I know I will find a place for it in one of my projects. I look for chairs with character.
Buzz: Speaking of character, what’s your take on furniture that’s worn or beat up and things like plates or figurines that are chipped?
BW: I love them. People are always surprised when they visit my homes and see pieces that are imperfect in some way. I think that’s what gives them their charm. (Left: John’s Sofa for the Beeline Home Collection).
I believe that people should celebrate the wear, scratches, and other imperfections that they see. This is especially true with antiques. I mean, if you were 200 years old and been kicked around for decades, you’d be beat up too. (laughing) But that’s what creates the character, uniqueness, and personality of a piece. I don’t think that that visible wear and tear makes objects less desirable. I think they make them better and more interesting. Great interiors aren’t the ones where everything is new. Just the opposite.
I think it’s sad that our society puts such a premium on perfection. You go to a fine restaurant for lunch these days and every woman in the room looks the same. It’s scary. I believe that faces and bodies are perfect when they’re unusual, unique and different. Take brides for example. That’s a favorite of mine. Too many brides look like hookers these days. They’re popping out of their skin-tight dresses. Woman these days have a screw loose. Why do so many of them want to take pole-dancing classes? I mean really.
Until rather recently, people looked unique. Before they got their noses done, cheeks implanted or their breasts augmented. Or reduced for that matter. Everyone now wants to conform to a norm that makes for a homogeneous and very boring world. Years ago you had faces like Betty Davis and Joan Crawford. Not cardboard cut out beauties but beauties nonetheless. I like that.
As a society, I think we’re losing the confidence to be different. And that’s a shame. People look, dress and decorate their homes the same. No one wants to be an original any more. How sad that is.
Buzz: Back to our lightning round. Favorite cocktail?
BW: Oh that’s easy. Jack Daniels on the rocks.
Buzz: Favorite actress?
BW: Laura Linney.
Buzz: Favorite actor?
BW: I have a thing for old men so I’ll say Anthony Hopkins.
Buzz: What is it about old men that you like?
BW: They tend to inhabit their characters more completely and create an illusion about who they really are. I’m a big fan of illusion. I believe that everyone should have some mystery about them. They should be entrancing and not too available.
Buzz: OMG, you sound just like Blanche Dubois in Streetcar! I have chills!
BW: Laughing. I do love that character. And I loved when she put a paper lantern over the light bulb to create the illusion of youth and desirability.
Buzz: As a true Daughter of the South, I bet I can guess your favorite film.. It’s Gone with the Wind?! Definitely. Am I right??
BW: No dear you’re wrong. My favorite film is actually Indochine. Have you seen it?
Buzz: Are you kidding, of course! Loved it.
Sidenote to readers and apology to Bunny: I actually never heard of Indochine in my life. But I had to fib or I’d look like a cretin. Anyhow, I’ve ordered it on Netflix. If it’s Bunny William’s favorite film, then it must be incredible.
But I do love Gone with Wind also. I understand the importance of saving Tara. Your home is so important. I feel that about my home in Connecticut. It’s very nurturing and homes should be that way. My garden is there, my dogs, and my collection of things that mean a great deal to me. I really don’t feel that way about my apartment in New York.
And there’s a graciousness about living that Southerners had before the civil war and still have. Southerners are more home-oriented. And I hope that grace and charm is never lost.
Buzz: Are great designers born or made?
BW: Well, great designers are very visual and you’re either born a visual person or you’re not. I’m not musical or mathematical, but I’m very visual. But even when you have this gift, you need to be trained. I believe the best training is being mentored and working as an apprentice. I was very lucky in that way, having apprenticed at Parrish-Hadley. Apprenticeships are fantastic because they allow you to DO as opposed to just learning in a vacuum as might be the case in school.
Buzz: What do you think is essence of decorating a home?
BW: In decorating homes, you want to imbue it with a soul. You want to make it somewhere where your clients want to play house. Designers sometimes lose sight of this and wind up creating stage sets, not homes. Home is a place where you feel protected and nurtured. (Right: Porter Drinks Table for the Beeline Home Collection).
Buzz: Have you escaped the recession unscathed?
BW: No. I’ve been impacted like everyone else. But I’m very fortunate in that I have wonderfully loyal clients who are still well off. But my shop and my furniture line have certainly been impacted. And there are fewer design projects out there so I’ve leaned out my staff. It’s a terrible time for the design industry. And antique dealers are really suffering. And even though the recession is technically over, people are still frightened and hesitant about spending money. Even the wealthy. Their main concern is preserving their wealth in this economy.
Before the recession, people couldn’t spend enough. But now they realize that not every light switch has to be gilded. The mentality of excess is over, at least for now. As I said, it’s all about cycles. For example, stylistically speaking, it’s only a matter of time before everyone is going to get sick of Art Deco. And the most fabulous piece of furniture will be a Georgian chest of drawers. Everything goes in cycles including design.
Buzz: Any other thoughts on this recession?
BW: Yes. I think there’s a silver lining to these horrible economic times. The conversations I have now with clients as to the scope and nature of their project is a MUCH more interesting conversation. Fascinating and more challenging than ever.
And this invigorates me. In fact, I’ve never been more excited about what I’m doing than I am right now. That’s because I really need to THINK about every project dollar. It’s more important than ever that I provide value. Value is critical in this economy and the nature of the downturn has made everyone want to wheel and deal. Negotiating is much more intense. It’s very different than how it used to be where clients felt that when it came to money, the sky was the limit. Boy are those days gone!
I also think the recession is oddly reflected in the antiques that are available on the market. Most people would think that the economic squeeze would force the truly great pieces into the marketplace at fire sale prices. But that’s not happening. Instead, the wealthy are hanging on to their best pieces and waiting until the markets improve before selling them. So I actually find that there are less truly special antiques available these days.
Buzz: I don’t mean to sound like your psychoanalyst, but what’s missing from your life?
BW: Well, for starters, a psychoanalyst. (Laughing). I think I’d have to say I don’t have enough time. But now that I’ve said that, I’m not sure what I’d do with the time if I did have it!
Buzz: What do you think about the design “commandment” that framed photographs should only be in the bedroom?
BW: I think it’s unadulterated baloney. I mean, really. Design rules like that are so ridiculous. You should have photographs wherever you want them. I’ve even created a screen for my line that allows you add and change photographs that are actually incorporated into the screen. My only caveat about framed photos is to be selective about the grouping you choose. You don’t want a huge hodgepodge of too many framed pictures.
Buzz: Back to the analysts couch for a moment.
BW: Oh God.
Buzz: What regrets do you have?
BW: Hmmm. I feel very blessed in my life so I can’t say I have many regrets. I guess I regret not taking the time to enjoy things outside of my business life. I could always spend more time with my dogs! And I also regret not taking more time to fix the things that I see as needing fixing in our world. I think the time we spend giving back to society in ways that change it for the better are very important. Mentoring young people is one way that I give back.
Buzz What is your greatest single accomplishment?
BW: I have no idea!
Buzz: What should I have done differently in this interview?
BW: Skipped the last question. Actually, this has been one of the most fun interviews I’ve done. Your questions have been very unorthodox to say the least and I’ve had a very good time!
Buzz: Thank you Bunny, so have I and it’s really been a pleasure getting to know you better.