When I think of living legends in the design world, Bunny Williams is at the top of the list. Her impeccable design work spans decades and styles, inspiring a generation of young designers who yearn to have her Midas Touch. She’s the head of both her own design house, Bunny Williams Interior Design, and Bunny Williams Home, which offers customers that signature Bunny look in furniture, home decor, lighting, and more. She’s also the author of seven — yes, seven! — books.
I am positively thrilled to have her as my latest guest on The Finer Points, where she shares an in-depth look at her career, her love of gardening, and much more.
Bunny Williams; Photo by Peter Murdock
Marie Flanigan: Tell me about your early life and career. How did you know interior design was the industry for you?
Bunny Williams: I grew up in Charlottesville, Virginia, in a very ‘horsey’ family. And so when I was little, I rode all the time. And then I just sort of thought, “I just don’t want to spend my whole life riding horses.” My mother loved her house and she was always fiddling with it. People in those days didn’t really have a decorator, but she would go to the curtain lady, and I was always interested in that kind of thing. She would go to my Godmother’s house, and they’d move the furniture around. I always say, “Southern ladies play house.” And you had dinner parties, people entertained, and I just thought, “Wow, I think this would be a fun thing to do.”
When it was time to go to college, I wanted to come to New York to go to design school, but Parsons didn’t have a campus, and my parents weren’t about to let me to go off to New York without a structure, so I went to a junior college in Boston that had an interior design program. When I came to New York, my first job was in an antique shop, so I learned a lot about furniture, porcelains, and paintings, and then I decided that I really wanted to go work for a designer. The one designer I wanted to work for was Mrs. Parish. So, I got a job as Albert [Hadley]’s secretary.
I like to say that I went to the ‘University of Parish-Hadley.’ I was very young, and I think that when you’re in your twenties, you’re interested in boyfriends and working. I got married in my late twenties and decided at about age 30 that I wanted a career. I very much admired Mrs. Parish. To have a career, you’ve got to be dedicated to it 24 hours a day, seven days a week, if you’re going to be good at it. You have to be inquisitive. You’ve got to understand what you don’t know, and try to learn as much as you can about furniture and art and objects and design, teaching yourself about the past and what’s inspiring. Then I started my own business in 1988.
MF: That’s incredible. You’ve made an immeasurable impact on the industry through your designs and brand. How did you grow such an empire?
BW: What’s interesting is, in all honesty, I came to all that rather late in my career because when I started out there was no internet and you were lucky to get something in a magazine. I think that served me better than what’s happening today, because I had to spend the time really learning and teaching myself about architecture, about objects, furniture, the whole world of design. Now, everything has to be quick and everybody wants to create a brand overnight, so they have an Instagram or a blog or whatever and I worry — what’s the basis for it? In the end, is somebody a good designer? Is somebody a real professional at what they do? I think I was very lucky when I started.
When I started my own business, so many of the magazines wanted to support me and were very open because, when I left Parish-Hadley, I was doing half of the business of the firm but not everyone knew who I was, because it was always about Mrs. Parish or Albert. I was very lucky to have the editors of magazines want to do stories on me because I knew them.
And then, little by little, it grew. Bunny Williams Home is only 10 years old. That came about because I was designing so many products I couldn’t find for my projects. I looked around at what was being made and stubbornly decided I wanted to do it differently. I wanted to design furniture and lamps and pillows and everything, just like things I would put into my projects. My work is quite varied. Every project’s a new experience. I don’t want to repeat myself. Each client’s a new romance you start. What I’ve found doing Bunny Williams Home is that so much of the commercially made furniture comes in sets. The bedside table matches the bed, that matches the whatever, and you can get it in five finishes. Well, that isn’t the way I decorate. I like to make things up. My taste is varied. It’s whatever catches my eye.
MF: I imagine that you could have easily licensed to a different company, but you chose to become the manufacturer. Why is that?
BW: I became the manufacturer because I wanted control over it. I didn’t want somebody saying, “Okay, now you have to do this or do that.” Along with that, I’m now doing some incredible licensing partnerships with Ballard Designs, Currey and Company, Lee Jofa, Annie Selke, and Mirror Image. People started coming to me, but I only want to do it with brands who are on the same wavelength as me and who will allow me to design. We have the same sensibilities, I guess, is what it is. Every one of the companies I license with, I bought from them. I like them. And as I got to meet them individually, it was fantastic. These licensing partnerships really fill out the whole world of Bunny Williams Home.
MF: You obviously have amazing people working with you. Tell me about your teams.
BW: Well, in Bunny Williams Inc., which is the decorating side, I have a partner, Elizabeth Lawrence who has become a partner in both businesses. She’s my senior designer and also helps a lot with Bunny Williams Home. At Bunny Williams Inc., we have 16 people — three designers, assistants, coordinators, bookkeeping. And then at Bunny Williams Home, we have five and we’re looking to fill two positions.
MF: Obviously you are a great designer, but also a great leader. Do you give any credit for really how you knew how to build and manage a team, or do you just feel like it came naturally?
BW: I certainly learned along the way because I have no real business background. Working at Parish-Hadley for as long as I did helped me learn how to run a design business. The whole structure of running a business is one that I learned from Albert. I think everybody who came through Parish-Hadley runs their business the same way. It’s the way you track things. I think if you’re going to be successful there has to be a real tight ship and I don’t think that happens with every designer. Mrs. Parrish used to say to me, “You can lose a client over a missing lamp shade.” And she’s absolutely right because even though we’re doing all these beautiful houses, it’s still a service business. The clients want it and they want it on time and they want to know what it’s going to cost and they want an organization that can produce it. And I think if designers haven’t worked in that kind of discipline, they can get themselves in trouble and the clients won’t be happy. We have to serve our clients. One of the things that I find frustrating about so much of the furniture that’s out there in the market is you have to wait so long for it. They don’t have it in stock. At Bunny Williams Home, we have it in stock. If you open the catalog and you want one of our tables, it can be in your house in 10 days from North Carolina.
MF: I didn’t realize! That’s incredible! Let’s talk about another of your passions — your dogs!
BW: My two favorite subjects, dogs and the garden. My father raised beagles, so when I was little, there were dogs everywhere and I loved it. When I first came to New York, I couldn’t have a dog because I was going to work every day and I didn’t want to lock him up. So when I left Parish-Hadley and started my business, the first thing I did was get a dog. Daddy raised beagles, but my pet was a Norfolk terrier, so that’s what I got. When Brewster died, I decided I was going to go get another one and a friend of mine said, “Oh, why don’t you think about rescuing dogs?” So I’ve now rescued a number and I’m a big advocate of Petfinder.com. They’re a huge part of our life. [My husband] John loves them and I can’t imagine not having a dog. I’m always a little suspicious of somebody who doesn’t like dogs.
MF: That’s so lovely. You’re also an avid and expert gardener! That’s something I know nothing about, so I would love any tips!
BW: Well, the funny thing about gardening is that it’s so like, in many ways, like interiors, and yet so unlike it. A great garden has a great sense of design. As the gardener, you’ve got to plan your spaces, make your garden rooms, create your halls — I wrote a whole book about it — because it is first about design. Then you have to choose the right plant material to fit into your landscape. The interesting thing about gardens is they can grow at first, then everything can go wrong. I said an interior’s pretty good because the sofa doesn’t get any bigger and the rug doesn’t mildew, so you put it in and, with a little dusting, it can last a lifetime. You put a plant in the ground and it’s got to be nurtured and watered and fed. If you don’t really want to garden, you can have beautiful shrubs and things like that that don’t take as much care. But I think that a lot of people don’t realize what really goes into the maintenance of a garden.
MF: I would love to talk about your new book, Love Affairs with Houses. Why was it important to you to write this book?
BW: Well, you have a body of work and many of my clients don’t want their homes published in a magazine, but they were thrilled to be in a book for some reason. It doesn’t mention clients names. I think it’s important to have a record of our work. I wanted to document it, I wanted to photograph it. And I hope it’s inspirational for people. I always think being in a space is so much more exciting than looking at a picture of a space. I’m sure you feel the same way. People will come to my house and they’ll go in the barn and they’ll go, “My God. This one is so wonderful, it’s so much better than the pictures.” And I say, “Because you’re in it.” But because you can’t have everybody in every house, you try to work with a photographer and try to get the essence and the soul of the work you do and document it. We try to photograph two or three projects a year. A photo shoot is very, very expensive. It’s important and every designer should do it, and a lot of designers don’t. Now you need your images not only to do a book, but you need them for social media. I like to write my own books because I feel I can tell the story better. I write it out in longhand on a yellow pad. I write at night and on the weekends.
MF: That’s amazing. I had no idea! Tell me what’s on the horizon for you.
BW: I haven’t quite figured out how I’m going to do it, but I feel drawn to teach. Education is very, very important. I see a weakness in the design world and if you’re going to be a top designer, it’s not fly-by-night. I would like to try to figure out how to help with that education. I was very lucky. Albert was an incredible teacher and Mrs. Parish was just instinctive. She didn’t even know how to draw a floor plan, but she knew where she wanted the furniture to go. But Albert was a real teacher. I think the problem with design schools today is that they’re basically training people to be commercial designers rather than residential. And because of that, more people are going to get a job working in hospitality or hospitals or offices. What we do is a really small percentage of what interior design’s all about. I see a lack of the education and I’d like to find a way to help.
MF: The industry would be so lucky to have you as a teacher! Let’s have a little fun and do some rapid fire questions.
BW: Mossy green.
MF: Favorite city?
BW: London and Jaipur. I can’t choose one!
MF: Favorite food?
BW: Salad niçoise and ham biscuits.
MF: Favorite flower? This is big for you, I bet.
BW: Primulas and tuberose because I love the scent.
MF: Favorite artist?
BW: See, I can’t choose one because I love Joni Mitchell and I love Matisse.
MF: Favorite musician?
BW: Yo-Yo Ma and George Straight.
MF: Ha, I love that! You’re talking to a Texas girl. And finally, what’s your guilty pleasure?
BW: My garden.
MF: I can’t thank you enough for joining me, Bunny. You are such an inspiration!