We’re thrilled to announce our new partnership with the incredibly talented Bunny Williams! To celebrate the launch of Bunny’s new collection for Ballard Designs, we thought we’d sit down with the designer and talk shop.
We met up with Bunny at her charming 18th-century Connecticut home to discuss some of her favorites from her new collection and to get her inspiration and insights into how to create an authentic approach to gracious living and entertaining.
Ballard Designs: Let’s talk about the highlight of your new collection for Ballard: tabletop.
Bunny Williams: I really wanted to take on the whole subject of entertaining. That allowed us to get into linens, china, glassware, salt and pepper holders, to all the accoutrements that went with entertaining. We’ve also taken on flower containers, which I find very difficult to find when you go out into the market. There are a lot of glass flower vases that are about four feet tall and open at the top. They’re impossible to do flowers in. So I went to my own collection, took some of the containers that I do flowers in all the time, and reproduced those for this collection. I find the same thing with table linens. I love pretty colored table linens and different mats. Many of the things we designed from my own collection are items that I really found hard to locate.
BD: To show off all of these beautiful items — and to pick up some hosting tips from one of the best — you’ve happily agreed to throw a dinner party tonight. Tell us, what’s going to work on tonight’s table?
BW: We have so many beautiful flowers in the garden right now! I’ve cut zinnias, snapdragons and greens from around the property. We have two large, long containers for the table filled with flowers that go nicely with the color of the tablecloth. And, again, the colors of the stems are all shades of oranges and a little bit of hot pink, but mainly in the orange and yellow family.
BD: And what are some of the items from your collection we’re going to see tonight?
BW: Tonight, we are going to start at the bar. We’re going to have glassware from the collection on the side piece. On the buffet the dinner is being cooked in the casseroles and will be served in the rattan servers. The entire table setting will have the containers with flowers in it. It’s going to have the salt and peppers. We’re using the orange tablecloth. So everything on the table will come from this new collection.
BD: Is there any one particular item on the table that’s a favorite of yours?
BW: When we sit down at the table tonight, what’s going to be very sentimental to me is seeing some of the things we’ve reproduced that mean a lot to me. One of those are the little salt and pepper cellars. I have the original sterling silver ones I found in an antique shop. They’re these little miniature buckets with spoons that look like a little shovel. I have this attachment to anything that looks like it belonged in the garden or the farm, and I think it’s kind of chic when you have something that’s really rural, like a bucket, made in sterling silver. These are not sterling silver, but they’re fantastic copies. I remember the originals were quite expensive, and they’re something I really treasure. So to see them beautifully made and available at a much more reasonable price is fantastic. And if you have a beautiful table, you don’t want the box of Morton’s salt or a plastic salt shaker.
BD: What is your plan for how your dinner party should flow?
BW: We love to throw dinner parties. But one thing to remember is that it doesn’t have to be fancy. I’ve always said if you don’t have time to cook, get takeout. Just put it on a pretty platter and set the table. When our guests arrive, we always have a big table with glasses and wine bottles open in the pretty sleeves – the wine coolers we’ve designed. There’s red wine, white wine, rose, sodas, tonic, diet cokes. People can find anything they want, and I usually graciously say to help yourself. I’m not the bartender. I always have just a few hors d’oeuvres out for people to nibble on. I might have a cheese plate or mixed nuts in a bowl. This time of year I love the little cocktail tomatoes that come from the garden, and I toss them in salt. I don’t put out a lot, because we’re going to have a big dinner and I don’t think people really want to eat that much. We sit and have conversation, and then I want people to come and have their dinner. The worst thing is to go to somebody’s house and think you’re invited for dinner, and then two hours later you haven’t seen any food, and you might have had too many glasses of wine and you’re certainly hungry by that time. So I believe you should get the food on the table within 45 minutes of the guests being there. They can sit at the dinner table for hours; I don’t care. They can come back in and have coffee after dinner or tea, but they’re here for a meal, so you need to get the food on the table. So after about 45 minutes, we put the food out on the buffet, and I tell everybody it’s time for dinner. They get their plates and they sit down at the dinner table.
BD: You are a stickler for assigned seating.
BW: The other thing I feel very strongly about when it comes to entertaining is people want to know where to sit. So I do place cards and we’ve designed some wonderful little place card holders for Ballard. You can write it out yourself on a little card. You can have your children do it; you can do all kinds of fun things. But it’s very awkward to go to a table with your plate and not know where to sit down. You’ve made your guests feel more welcome when they see their name at a seat and they sit down.
BD: Do you have any rules you stick to when setting out place cards?
BW: I mix up people. If there’s a couple, I separate them. I get to talk to my husband all the time, so if I go to somebody’s house for dinner, I’d rather talk to new people or even somebody I don’t know. I don’t need to sit next to him. So I make sure couples are separated, or if I have somebody I’d like to introduce to somebody else who’s single, I’m going to put them together at the table.
BD: Your guests will love to sit down at this table. We love the visual mix of china. Talk about that.
BW: One of the things I’ve always loved is china. I love entertaining and I love having people over, so I like to buy china. And I’ve bought china in the most bizarre places, like thrift shops and tag sales. I’ve never really been a fan of one style of china. When I got married the first time, I registered and got 14 plates and salad plates and bowls, everything all the same. Every time you set the table, everything was all the same –and it was just so boring I couldn’t believe it. So years and years ago my friends and I swapped china. I gave somebody my dinner plates, and I got some different dessert plates. Early on I thought it was much more interesting to mix it up.
BD: What makes the right mix work?
BW: What makes it work is that you have a color theme. I’ve designed this wonderful group of china for Ballard. All of the plates have different patterns, but it’s all blue and white. There’s another collection that’s white and beige, and some of the plates have a little bit of green and orange in it. But you can mix it all. You could make it all beige and white one day and add in the blue and white on another day. You kind of think about the colors that you’re putting together, and as you buy your china, you can keep adding to that color. Then you find when you set the table it all works together — and it’s more interesting than looking at the silly same pattern on every single plate that you own.
BD: That’s an approach to the table that most people would be afraid to take.
BW: I consider setting the table a work of art. I like to have a patterned tablecloth with the blue and white china, but then the next night I might have a white cloth with the same china. So that’s what makes setting the table fun, and each time you’re doing it, you’re kind of creating a little still life.
BD: Your mastery of the artful mix certainly doesn’t stop at china. It’s your hallmark.
BW: I have always thought in life that if you have everything matching, it’s a real bore. You don’t get dressed and put on a purple shirt, purple pants, purple shoes, purple jewelry. It’s ridiculous. What makes anything interesting is a mixture. It’s a mixture of color, it’s a mixture of texture, it’s different things put together. So you want some silver, you want pottery, you want china, you want brass. Yes, you can mix brass and silver and different metals. That’s when you get something that’s more interesting. It’s really like painting in a way – the mixture of paint textures on a canvas. So it’s part texture, it’s part color, and it’s high and low design. I think it’s really beautiful to have something fancy with something that’s simple. When you do contrast, you end up with a more relaxed look and a more interesting look. When you match everything, it’s stiff, it’s too perfect. I’m hoping when someone sits down at the table, it’s this mixture that makes it — I call it, “perfect imperfection.”
BD: Your collection is mostly focused on tabletop and entertainment. But you snuck in a few practical household items as well. You really wanted to design a charging station and notepad holder. Why is that?
BW: One of my favorite pieces in this whole collection is the charging station. This came about simply because I was so sick of seeing these tangled up wires on my kitchen counter where I had to plug in all of the gadgets I use every day. It drives me crazy. It also drives me crazy when I’m a guest at someone’s home and I’m crawling around on the floor looking for a plug to charge all of these things we have. So we designed this beautiful Leather Charging Station that can sit on a tabletop, plug into one place and hide all of the wires. It’s really designed to solve a problem. I also love having a notepad next to my bed to write down a thought, a telephone message or just all those ideas that come to you in the middle of the night. And why not have that be attractive? It’s better than scrounging around for a piece of paper and thinking, “I need to write this down, so I don’t forget to do this tomorrow.” A lot of the things in this collection have come from products that I use or have had a hard time finding. Now we’ve designed them for this collection!
BD: You also have these gorgeous Photo Frames.
BW: A room can get overly cluttered with too many different frames, particularly the one that was given to you that’s orange with purple polkadots and the one that somebody else gave to you that’s made out of bottle caps and the other one that’s got little pink dogs all over it. Those don’t look so good on the tabletop together! This collection of frames are of similar color and shape. If you have a grouping of them on a table, what you notice is the photograph, not the crazy frame that the photograph came in. That’s why I like a simple frame.
BD: Candles are kind of your thing. Why?
BW: You want to have things in your home that create ambiance, and one thing that adds ambiance is a wonderful scent. When you walk into a room and something smells good, it makes you feel good. It’s psychological. It’s not even something that you have to do visually. So we’ve designed a candle that can be lit, put it in your front hall or in the living room. You’ll have this wonderful fresh scent. Of course, you don’t want an unsightly candle sitting on a table, so we have these very pretty Candle Sleeves that hold your candle. Decorating in your house is all about details and I’m a detail-oriented person. If something’s ugly, I don’t want to see it. So I want that notepad in a pretty container and I want the candle in a pretty container – and it just adds to the whole character of the house.
BD: You have these lovely gardens, and you bring so much of it back into your home.
BW: One of the simplest things you can do to make your house feel alive is to add plants or flowers. It can be a pot of tulips or an ivy plant, but it just makes a space have a feeling of being alive. Not everybody has time to do a flower arrangement – I know that. That’s why I’ve designed these cachepots, so you can go to the grocery store, pick up something, such as an azalea or even succulents, and drop it into the cachepot. Put it on a table and it’s done!
BD: So can you explain what, exactly, is a cachepot?
BW: It’s a decorative container that hides a rough flowerpot. In the 18th- and 19th-centuries, they were porcelain and they hid very utilitarian terracotta pots. If you were going to bring something into your house, into a fancy house, you needed a fancier vehicle for it. And today, of course, so many of our plants come in plastic flowerpots, and you don’t want to put that on the table. So having a cachepot helps you hide it – and it elevates the look. I also use them to hold my flower arrangements.
BD: Do you have a favorite cachepot?
BW: My favorite cachepot from the collection is my lattice basket. I have the original and I use it all the time. It’s great for holding flowers, a pot of ivy or a fern. I’ve put topiary standards in it. I can do any color flower because it’s silver, and I love the size. Sometimes I use a single one, but on my long dinner table I often line three down the center. You’re going to need several of them, because you can also put your ice cream container in it to serve with the apple pie you’ve made. It’s just a great cachepot that is so functional in so many different ways.
BD: You have an entire room dedicated to flower arranging.
BW: It’s one of my favorite rooms in this house. It’s really the laundry room, but I’m not in here doing laundry nearly as often I am doing the flowers! I have a wonderful shelf with all kinds of containers for doing flowers. I put together the arrangements in here, so when I’m doing the flowers I can pick the right vase for the room I’m doing. It’s a huge collection. If I go to a tag sale and somebody’s getting rid of a really beautiful blue vase with a narrow neck for a dollar, I buy it. I tend to buy containers that look good in my house and go with the colors of the room, or silver or green. I also like to have multiples of the same container, so I can do three for the table if I need to.
BD: Can you explain the art of putting together an arrangement?
BW: It helps to learn how to arrange flowers quickly – I’m very, very fast. Get a container with a narrow neck, cut the stems short and put them in there with some greenery, and you’ve got a flower arrangement. I tend to like shades of one color. I like yellows and oranges, or I like pinks and reds. I don’t really like flower arrangements that have a blue flower, a yellow flower, a red flower and every color of the rainbow. I find it just too busy. So if you do flowers with all whites and creams or all pinks and reds, it’s going to look very pretty with your table setting. They’re also very welcoming on the front hall table – they say, “I’m happy you’re here.”