As the end of summer closes in my mind wanders to the comfort inherent in the traditions of country house style. The Virginian Nancy Lancaster introduced Americans to the British tradition of shabby gentility, bringing pared down comfort to stately homes and grand gestures to shabby ones, creating comfortable, inviting and elegant rooms, be they town or country. Today there seems to be not quite as many interior designers and decorators who engage this tradition or understand and embrace what, to the undisciplined, appears haphazard or fortuitous at best. For success lies in their knowledge of architectural and stylistic appropriateness, a grasp of proportion and scale, mastery of color, and a refined and informed eye for collecting and editing. One such American decorator is Bunny Williams.
Since An Affair with a House was published in 2005 shelter magazines, the Homes sections of print and digital media, and bloggers alike have waxed poetic over Bunny Williams’ slice of bucolic heaven in the countryside of Falls Village, Connecticut. Which may bring you to ask, “Why are you, then, writing this post?” Well, I simply couldn’t resist. For one, a current reiteration of Bunny and John Rosselli’s Connecticut rooms appeared last week on One Kings Lane, the impetus for writing this post. For another, I had launched The Art of the Room six years after An Affair With A House came out and felt that it had been duly covered yet wished I had included it. And if these reasons aren’t enough then I must admit that I simply and selfishly want to add Bunny’s beloved country home to the Categories section of my blog to reference whenever, and wherever, I like.
Over the years I have retained, and in many cases repurchased back issues, of shelter magazines that date back to the 1970’s. I am constantly pulled between wanting to unload some and wanting to fill in the gaps to complete my collections. The latter applies now, as I’m certain there must have been an issue or two of House & Garden or House Beautiful that showed us inside Bunny’s world in the countryside at around the time she purchased it in the 1970’s. To date only a scant few photos have popped up pre-1988 on such sites as Pinterest, Tumblr and Instagram. One lucky discovery conveys Bunny’s earliest decorative resolution for the living room which had originally been completely swathed in chintz – from curtains to upholstery to walls because, in her words, she lacked a decent collection of art to hang. Thankfully, years ago I created binders to organize clippings from magazines by style. In one binder labeled “Country House Style” is a feature from either House & Garden or House Beautiful, c1988, featuring the library in its early decorative iteration conveying that era’s penchant for Anglo-American shabby gentility.
The original farmhouse, now the dining room, dates from 1780. An addition in the more formal Federal Style reconfigured the house in 1840. Then a second story with dormer windows materialized on top of the carriage house wing in the 1930’s. The house and its outbuildings were in derelict state when she discovered the property – a blank canvas with just the right amount of age and patina to transform into her ideal of country house style, which she has shared with antiques dealer John Rosselli the past few years. For nearly four decades Bunny Williams’ love of home and passion for gracious living has transformed this once sleepy property into a magical and welcoming compound for family, friends, and beloved pets.
THE ENTRY HALL
The entry hall, up until recently, had been glazed a warm cantaloupe with floors painted white – at once cheerful and warm, a welcoming gesture come all seasons. The Greek key border at the crown molding was eventually removed by the time the entry appeared again in An Affair with a House, and the prettily painted Italian chairs were switched out for simpler English ones. Today the entry is painted a complex neutral that goes from green to blue to gray and the floors are stained dark, patterned with a darker stencil design. The atmosphere is more sober, serene and edited. A new leopard pattern stair runner adds a dose of high style glamour.
THE LIVING ROOM
The living room has evolved over the years from a chintz-enveloped paean to English country house style to a quietly elegant version of itself in subsequent years. The first photo was published in House Beautiful in 1987, after Williams removed the floral wallpaper and curtains and replaced both with solid material. I cannot determine whether the windows are stained or painted to match the walls. About ten years later the living room would take on a simpler, lighter look and feel with walls painted a warm yellow inspired by the Michelangelo designed loggia at Villa San Michele in Fiesole, Italy (see my post A Tale of Two Villas), with trim painted a crisp white. Accents of sylvan browns and greens ties the interiors to the gardens beyond their windows and doors in a quietly subtle homage. Williams told Veranda “I’ve come into a confidence that only time gives you. I’ve cleaned up. I’ve gotten stronger. I want big scale. I’m not so interested in little stuff in a room. I’m more serene about what I’m doing.” The results of her evolution are clear: elegant, edited, comfortable rooms that are pleasing to our senses and intellect.
THE DINING ROOM
The dining room had retained its Federal style decor until only recently. Walls were covered in green-and-white stripe wallpaper from Twigs & Company which Williams put up herself many years before. A table draped with one of William’s many antique textiles is surrounded by black painted antique Regency chairs beneath a tole chandelier. I’ve always admired the effortless balance of sober elegance and country house charm in this room. Today the dining room remains virtually unchanged save for changing out the wallpaper for a more subtle pale faux bois watermark paper – but what an impact it has on the overall aesthetic of this room. The absence of stripes and lighter color opens it up and allows the furniture and art to stand out.
The early decor for the library in its Spring and Summer dress reminds me of a Merchant Ivory film. Can you not imagine coming here from the garden, an overflowing flower basket set upon the library table, to break for tea and a few pages from Byron? The cool and powdery blue glaze of the walls is warmed by an open floral pattern linen with shades of pale wood, blue and green to coordinate with the pale blue-gray striped linen slipcovers all from Colefax & Fowler – grounded beautifully by a round English chinoiserie lacquer table. In later years the mood retained its richer Winter incarnation with golden tawny walls, fabrics the color of toast and masculine furniture and art. Today the room is more eclectic, furnished with Bunny’s shapely Nailhead Sofa and two-tone Black Beauty Side Table, along with dashes of crimson and red ocher.
The cozy and inviting kitchen incorporates the breakfast room and highly organized systems for storing their extensive collections of dinner and service wares. What could be more welcoming than a crackling fire on a crisp day? Certainly motivation for preparing a tasty feast. Little has changes, save for different dining chairs. Simplicity and warmth is all that’s needed here.
It’s difficult to determine given the tawny quality of the first few photos but the walls of the master bedroom have been the same shade of an elegant gray-blue for quite some time. Since I’m not privy to earlier photos taken I can only suggest as much. You can see from the third photo that the room is much lighter and fresher, not dark at all. The same four poster and bed hangings, curtains and rug tesitfy. Today the room is painted a clear robins egg blue and the former bed has been replaced by a lighter one dressed in white and blue. Gone are the heavier curtains and pelmet in favor of a simply dressed curtains of an open link design.
The only photo of the guest room I’ve located is this one which, I assume, is also not quite as dark as it appears.
The scheme for the sunroom has remained virtually unchanged over the years with its blue lavender painted ceiling and smoky lavender painted floors. White wicker furniture and pink hydrangea patterned slip covers predominated in the early years followed by natural wicker, white slip covers and fern patterned cushions and pillows. Today black wicker rocking chairs replace the natural wicker ones.
Bunny Williams’ passion for gardening led her to transform neglected land into a series of enchanted gardens. Utilizing stone and hemlock hedges to create structure and formal gardens, the effect is one of intimacy and nuance as you pass from “room” to outdoor room. Over the years a cutting garden was added to provide annuals and vegetables as well as formal parterres to frame the barn and conservatory.
THE BARN and CONSERVATORY
Several years after getting the main house in order and imbuing it with emotion and intellect, B.W. hallmarks, Bunny and John tackled the dilapidated 1840’s barn cum garage, transforming it into a cozy haven to entertain and house guests. The partners had the barn dismantled and rebuilt, replacing garage doors with French ones and adding skylights to flood the soaring space with light. The cathedral ceilings and tall arched windows in the living area provided an opportunity to furnish the space with large-scale antiques and commodious seating in Williams’ imitable eclectic design vocabulary – where a Victorian armchair, a Regency bull’s-eye mirror, a 19th-century English oak sofa, and a 19th-century French marble top table with an iron base from John Rosselli mix effortlessly. For Williams it’s about atmosphere, the feeling of a place: “I think about scale, informality, and the uniqueness of each piece, whether it’s Italian, French, or English. It looks unplanned, but it’s actually very much planned.” Paintings of barnyard animals are hung on the living room’s back wall in honor of the barn’s original purpose. For the fireplace an Early American painted mantelpiece was added as the room’s focal point. To this windows from an 1860’s house on the Hudson River were added and an old glass conservatory was used to frame the attached dining room – a magical space to dine and entertain guests. Bunny and John love these spaces so much they have come to spend much of their time in them.
THE MANOR HOUSE (Guest House)
Bunny Willams acquired a Greek Revival house across the street as a place to house her collection of family heirlooms and overflow guests. It’s most charming attribute is the predominantly green scenic mural that wraps the dining room’s walls which is accented by more verdant color and blue-and-white porcelains, which pulls the sky color right off the paper. What a delightful and welcoming home for guests. I’d never want to leave. You know how the saying goes: “Don’t make your guests too comfortable. They may never leave!”
THE POOL AND POOL HOUSE
After installing a pool sometime later Bunny and John considered its distance from the house and designed a Greek temple of logs to function as a pool house and shaded veranda. The rustic temple design for the poolhouse is clever given its siting on a wooded knoll overlooking the property and the use of humble materials to create a classical-style structure. It is such a warm and inviting space – I can envision it dressed for autumn as easily as for summer.
House Beautiful, 1987; House Beautiful, 1988,with photography by Alexandre Bailhache; On Garden Style by Bunny Williams and Nancy Drew with illustrations by John Roselli, 1998; House & Garden, May 1999, with photography by Pieter Estersohn; House & Garden with photography by Dana Gallagher; Veranda with photography by Fritz von der Schulenburg and Bill Geddes; An Afair with a House by Bunny Williams, 2005.