For Bunny Williams, the Best House Is a Loved House

Newell Turner

The gentle sounds of spring fill the gardens surrounding the Greek Revival house that interior designer Bunny Williams and her husband, John Rosselli, share in the far northeast corner of Connecticut. A breeze whispers through the still-bare locust trees lining the driveway. Robins whistle as they search the blue carpets of Scilla that sweep up the lawn to the house.

There’s an almost tangible calm to the morning—that is until a few knocks on the side door of the house set off a chorus of ferocious barking from the couple’s two rescue terriers inside. Annabelle repeatedly body-slams the glass storm door, making sure anyone—everyone—knows she’s a force to be reckoned with. Vocal backup is enough for Bebe, who’s slightly smaller and more caught up in Annabelle’s hysteria. No need for doorbells here.

Within a minute, John arrives at the door, and after a few reprimands, the little terrors of tan, coarse hair melt into full-body-wagging welcome mats. The moment the door is cracked, they squeeze through to take quick but thorough sniffs of shoes and pants legs before dashing past to confirm that nothing is out of sorts. It’s all bravado, no bite.

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Bunny Williams's charming Connecticut studio, as shown in her new book.
Photo by Carter Berg

The day is in motion. Bunny’s warm voice can be heard before she enters the kitchen. Wearing a caramel cashmere cardigan that almost matches the terriers, she’s got news she needs to break gently to John. “Your favorite Aptware urn is broken,” she whispers. They share a long pause and lock-eye look that says, all at once, “What? Oh, no! Things happen.”

Later in the barn, which they converted into the American version of a great room in an English country house, Bunny lifts the huge, special piece of swirling brown and cream pottery to reinspect the hole at the bottom of its bowl. A pile of four-foot blooming branches lies guilty on a marble-topped table.

“We really play house,” she deadpans. But house and home couldn’t be more important to her. Decorating for Bunny is as much about organizing and living a full life as it is about picking color schemes for rooms, or trim for a sofa. There’s a difference between simply pretty rooms and rooms you really want to be in. “And we use our rooms hard,” she adds. Among friends, Bunny and John are avid, constant hosts.

Almost four decades ago, Bunny—and it is simply Bunny to everyone—bought what was known locally in Falls Village, Connecticut, as Mr. Brewster’s manor house. In 2005 she poured out the story of her deep relationship with the property in a hit design book called An Affair with a House. It was her Under the Tuscan Sun confession of love for this place manifested through the designs for their house, its dependent buildings, and many gardens.

In her newest book, Love Affairs with Houses—released this week by Abrams—the story continues with 15 projects that she and her business partner Elizabeth Lawrence have created for clients over the past 10 years. “I do have a lot of romances with houses,” she explains. “How else can you? And be a good designer? There has to be a romantic attachment. And like all romances, sometimes it’s love at first sight. Other times it grows. And sometimes the most difficult houses become the most interesting, because you have to do the most to them.”

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The entryway to Bunny's Connecticut studio. "I want to help homeowners explore the fun of adding to their rooms over time," she says.
Photo by Carter Berg

Much of that relationship is nurtured by simply living—a lesson Bunny learned while working for the legendary design firm Parish-Hadley in the late 1960s. “I had the amazing experience of working on the Betsey Whitney house, Mrs. Brooke Astor’s apartment, and the Babe Paley house; those clients were collecting all the time!” she reflects. “Of course, Mrs. Parish or Albert Hadley were arranging things for them, but those clients were always looking, learning, and shopping for their homes. I’m afraid many clients today don’t do that. They hire a designer and an architect, and then they don’t add that much more to what’s done.”

A lunch of asparagus quiche with watercress and citrus salad suddenly appears on the kitchen table, which is also suddenly perfectly set, down to the simply folded moss green linen napkins. You’d think they had an invisible staff working nonstop, because there is no hustle and bustle nor pause in the conversation.

Bunny views her role as a designer as setting up a system of well-appointed scaffolding, of sorts: “A decorator has to first bring organization and useful arrangement to rooms,” she insists. “If you have a great furniture plan when you start, you’re going to buy things in the right scale and fit. Then it’s so important to shop.”

But then, she sees that role changing. “Too many young designers are decorating on their computers in their offices. There’s no way for them to make the best choices that way. You have to get out and look at things and learn.” It creates the opportunity to “spontaneously fall in love with things.”

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Bunny Williams's new book, released April 16.
Photo Courtesy Abrams

After lunch, it’s clear the garden is calling Bunny, because she moves the conversation to a south-facing porch that overlooks her sunken garden. Here she can at least see the wheelbarrow filled with pots and urns waiting for her at the bottom of the steps. But always the gracious host, she takes a seat in one of the numerous unmatched wicker chairs she’s collected over the years. Throw pillows covered in a favorite printed cotton, fern fronds on a crisp white field, help them keep good company.

“I see too many rooms by designers that are paint-by-number. A print. A solid color. That’s easy,” she says. “A house is only going to get better if the owners add or make changes as time goes by. A house needs to grow. That’s why I love English houses. Some families have lived in the same houses for so long. There will be a 17th-century painting next to an 18th-century painting and then a Lucian Freud in the mix. There’s something wonderful about design that never stops.”

The light falling through the windows has shifted. “We’re having 12 people for dinner tonight,” Bunny says before she begins describing the table centerpiece of potted lettuces that she’s heading to the greenhouse to prepare. John is in the kitchen polishing a couple of silver serving pieces. Annabelle and Bebe are nowhere to be seen or heard.

“There’s a big difference between beautiful rooms and rooms you really want to live in,” she reflects. “Houses need loving. You have to touch your house. It’s like getting dressed every morning. You have to groom your rooms.”