Pearls of wisdom from interior design legend Bunny Williams

It takes a lot to pry me away from Nell Hill’s during our busy season. Day off? No way. Starting in August, the team and I go, go, go, helping customers get ready for the holiday season.

But then this happened. A deliciously beautiful invitation to attend a luncheon benefitting the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, with one of my all-time favorite interior designers as the keynote speaker. I couldn’t RSVP quickly enough with my enthusiastic YES.

If you aren’t familiar with Bunny Williams’s name, chances are you are with her work. Her designs have been featured in all the top decorating magazines, from Architectural Digest to House Beautiful to Elle Decor and Veranda. She’s the author of numerous books on home and garden design, the newest of which is “A House by the Sea,” featuring her stunning home in Punta Canta, Dominican Republic.

Williams was warm and gracious, funny and down to earth as she told us about her childhood, serving as her mother’s sidekick as they decorated their family’s home in Charlottesville, Va. After studying design in Boston, she landed a job with celebrated New York interior design firm Parish-Hadley. She opened her own design firm, and today, also has a line of signature products.

I was also amazed by the Committee 100, a group of creative philanthropic dynamos who put on this annual event. From the invitations to the gracious hospitality to the beautiful table settings, every detail was perfect.

I’m so glad I played hooky from work, because I left the luncheon sky high, filled with ideas and inspiration I can’t wait to incorporate into my own home, and those of the friends and customers I get to work with to create interior spaces they love.

Here are a few of my favorite pearls of wisdom from Williams about decorating your home:

Design your home to fit your lifestyle. As you create your interior spaces, ask yourself, “How do I really live in my home?” Make sure all your design decisions support your day-to-day lifestyle. For example, if you have a formal living room that you never go into, turn it into a space you will use, like a den or a library or an office.

Follow your heart, not trends. Decorate with what you love, and don’t worry so much about what is in and out of style at the moment. Williams said she likes to decorate with chintz, and when someone asked her, “Isn’t chintz out of style?” she replied: Only if you don’t like it. If you like it, it’s in style.

Classic style should not be predictable. I loved this point, as my own traditional approach to decorating has evolved over the years. For Williams, classic style is a mix of traditional and modern elements. Her body of work includes sleek modern spaces and traditional ones, and often she blends the two. The key, she said, is to mix beautiful things together in interesting ways.

Make your home inviting to guests. Williams said she and her husband had entertaining in mind when they designed their beach home, and now it is always filled with visitors. To make people feel at home, she pays attention to little details, like always having a self-serve bar when she entertains, so guests can feel comfortable helping themselves.

Celebrate dishes in your decor. You all know I’m a dishaholic. So I could instantly relate to Williams’s passion for dishes. She says she likes to have a different place setting for each of the three meals she serves at her costal home. She mixes dish patterns, but keeps the color scheme the same, such as layering only blue and white dishes together on the table.

Restore and reuse when you can. A lifelong lover of antiques, Williams likes to use imperfect pieces in her designs because they have a history and add to the room’s character. When she can, she prefers to modify an older piece for modern life, instead of buying something new, like making an old plantation canopy bed larger to fit our modern, bigger mattresses.

Shopping is education. To find the right pieces for your home, you need to spend some time educating yourself by shopping, in person, not just over the internet. For example, if you’re looking for a sofa, you have to sit in several before you find the perfect one. Shopping online seems like it’s easier and more convenient, but you can’t replace the experience of working with a good sales person who knows her product, and seeing the items for yourself.


This column was adapted from Mary Carol Garrity’s blog at

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