A House by the Sea - Bunny Williams, Schafer Gil, Christian Brechneff, Angus Wilkie, Page Dickey, Jane Garmey, Roxana Robinson (2016)
II. DESIGNING AND DECORATING
“There are so many memories you have with furniture that you have collected and owned for a long time.”
THE FIRST STEP
Decorating a house can be a daunting task. With so many wonderful fabrics, rugs, furnishings, and colors to choose from, sometimes making choices can feel overwhelming. We wanted this house to have a casual, easy atmosphere, done in light colors that would feel cool in the tropical climate. After weeks of putting together the schemes for each room, I laid everything out and showed it to John. He looked for just a few minutes and then said he didn’t like it. My heart sank. We had a long conversation about decorating, and I started to understand that what John really loves is simplicity: white walls and sisal carpet, clean surfaces that create a background for the furniture, art, and the blue-and-white china he collects. He is an antiques dealer to the core. I promised him I would not overdecorate the house, but I did want to have color and some pattern. Luckily, he relaxed and put it in my hands.
One thing we agreed on—and had already—was furniture. When we decided to build a house in the tropics, part of our decision came from wanting to be in a warm climate, but another part came from wanting to furnish a home with treasures from John’s family house in New Jersey. The New Jersey house had recently sold, and we wanted a place for all the beautiful furniture and objects it once held. Before the house was emptied, we made a complete catalog of its contents. This is a good practice for any move: Measure and photograph each item you are keeping, and make an inventory by recording the information in a blank book that you have divided by categories (seating, artwork, lamps, etc.). An inventory book is like your own personal home-furnishings catalog. Once I had the inventory book, I did floor plans for each room in the new house and then began finding a home for each piece.
“We wanted a casual, easy atmosphere . . . that would feel cool in a tropical climate.”
OUR ISLAND LIVING ROOM
Istarted my plan with the living room, which is the largest interior space and on the second floor of the house. It is always good to start planning the living room first; if you think of how you want to use the space, and you plan accordingly, it will be the room you use the most. If you provide for a television, a desk, a sofa, and plenty of comfortable chairs arranged for conversation, you might never want to leave the room. The living room at La Colina is large: twenty-three feet wide by thirty-one feet long, with two doors and four windows along the long sides of the room and flat walls at each end. The ceilings are high (sixteen feet to the large cornice, with a five-foot curved tray, or recessed, ceiling above).
To make a room of this size, or any really large room, feel comfortable, one has to use large-scale furniture. I decided that two big furniture groups would sit at each end of the room, with an enormous walnut trestle table in the middle.
John had a fabulous high-backed, eighteenth-century Italian sofa (also walnut) that I set against one wall, with a pair of his high-backed Louis Quinze chairs on each side around a modern Chinese lacquer coffee table. For the other end of the room, I designed a high-backed sofa that would balance the Italian one. I added two large upholstered chairs and a pair of Italian chairs to this group, placing them around a matching coffee table. On the large trestle spanning the center of the room, I placed a blue-and-white Chinese vase filled with five-foot palm fronds. This detail would draw the eye up and allow one to feel the scale of the room. The table would also hold stacks of books, with some of our collection of art objects scattered among the stacks. I kept the walls of the room a simple, natural plaster one shade lighter than the coral stone floors. The stone floors continue out to the two large porches on each side of the living room. Extending the flooring to an outdoor space is a nice way to give a room more of an indoor/outdoor atmosphere, which is just what we did here.
“It is always good to start planning the living room first.”
There are so many memories you have with furniture that you have collected and owned for a long time. John still remembers with amusement how, years ago, he and his business partner, Furlow Gatewood, found the trestle table on the second level of an antiques barn and managed to wrestle it out of the second floor, down an embankment, and into the back of a truck—only to realize it was much too big to fit into their shop on New York City’s Sixty-Eighth Street and Third Avenue. It ended up in New Jersey, in a large barn that served as John’s family’s pool house. A few years later, after photos of that house appeared in House Beautiful, John noticed that the table had been copied and was being offered for sale in a leading home-décor catalog. Now, restored and polished, the original table sits as the centerpiece of our living room.
Throughout the house we enjoy many such memories of the places where we found pieces, the people we met, and what we learned along the way. Buying on the Internet may be convenient, but it will never give you the same experience or stories to tell.
Since I had done thorough furniture floor plans for La Colina, I realized that, even with the many pieces John had from his New Jersey home, there were still some furnishings we needed to find. For instance, we did not have any artwork large enough for the walls over the sofas, so, on a trip to the annual furniture show in High Point, North Carolina, I scouted for mirrors. I found a rococo pair in the right size, but the carved wood frames had an awful finish.I imagined them painted white, as though they were made of plaster—very Dorothy Draper—and that was that. I then decided we needed large panels on either side of the two mirrors. Unable to find any antique ones we liked, we had a wonderful artist who works in John’s studio paint four-by-eight-foot panels of white birds and palm trees on brown kraft paper cut into squares, just as the old ones were. (In the eighteenth century, when the French, English, and Americans were doing a large trading business with China, it was very fashionable to commission hand-painted wallpaper panels to be installed in the great houses of Europe and America. Since the paper itself was handmade, it came in small sheets that were pieced together into large panels. These antique panels were my inspiration.)
“Throughout the house we enjoy many such memories of the places where we found pieces, the people we met, and what we learned along the way.”
“I imagined them painted white, as though they were made of plaster—very Dorothy Draper.”
A DESIGN FOR THE TROPICS
If you have formal furniture and decide you would like a more tropical look for it, try covering the pieces in inexpensive cotton canvas or duck. That is just what I did with the upholstered furniture we brought to Punta Cana for the living room. I covered all the sofas and chairs in the same fabric, a clear sky-blue, inexpensive, cotton duck I had found and immediately purchased a hundred yards of. These slipcovers gave even the eighteenth-century chairs a casual feel that was more appropriate for this airy house by the sea. John was initially shocked to see the original Bargello fabrics—which had made the furniture so formal—covered with humble cotton, but he ultimately came to love the effect.
Using the same fabric throughout this large room unified all the different types of furniture and kept the space from becoming too busy. But because the furniture was now all done in a solid blue, I decided to add pattern by layering the sofas and chairs with pillows covered in antique batik sarongs and pieces of wax-resist patterned cotton that I had found in markets in Vietnam and Indonesia. I also draped pastel suzani throws over the back of the sofas at each end of the room. These decorative needlework patterns work particularly well in a tropical atmosphere because of their light, fresh colors.
When choosing a color palette for a room, I am always influenced by the location of the house. I prefer light, airy colors in tropical homes by the sea and darker, rich colors in a colder climate.
To finish the living room and unite the two seating groups, I designed a large beige-and-white-striped cotton dhurrie rug, matching the colors of the stripes to the hues of the stone floor.
Light is as important as furniture in a room, and, to me, nothing compares to candlelight for creating atmosphere. An important part of the living room plan is the four tall pedestals that stand between the living room windows with huge hurricanes to light at night with candles. There are also hurricanes set about the room, on the big table and the coffee tables, to give a soft romantic glow in the evenings, which is when we use this room most.
John has been collecting blue-and-white china for years, all sorts of pieces. We made a pair of huge blue-and-white Chinese jars into lamps for the living room (for when light brighter than candlelight is wanted). At the end of the room, there is a long mahogany side table stacked with blue-and-white china, and a collection of jars, good antiques mixed with modern copies, sits on the floor under tables.
BRINGING THE OUTSIDE IN
Alittle secret about the appeal of our island living room is this: It is at the heart of the house, but it is flanked by large porches that bring the outside in on either side. This makes the large room feel very light and breezy. The porch on the west side of the house is actually the dining room, and it sits at the top of curving staircases. We put a twelve-foot-long stone pedestal table made in France in the middle of the porch with light rattan chairs surrounding it.John designed a nine-foot-tall mirror from a pair of antique pilasters for above the console. Again, even in the exterior space, the use of large-scale pieces makes the surroundings feel more intimate. I find using mirrors on roofed porches is a wonderful way to brighten what can sometimes be a shadowy space. The mirrors reflect the light and the view.
The veranda on the east side of the house overlooks the ocean. This is the spot where we gather to have drinks before dinner, and it’s also the best place to curl up in a chaise for the afternoon. It has another large seating group, with all-weather rattan furniture and lots of blue-and-white batik pillows. During the daytime, the huge chaises are frequently occupied by someone pretending to read but really napping. To light the veranda for the cocktail hour, we use metal floor lanterns with remote-controlled luminaria candles in each. The only other illumination comes from shell-shaped plaster sconces that throw soft light up the walls. I hate using lightbulbs on a porch, since even a twenty-five-watt one can become very glaring in the dark. If they’re used at all, lightbulbs should be concealed, but candlelight is by far the most atmospheric choice.
“I find using mirrors on roofed porches is a wonderful way to brighten what can sometimes be a shadowy space. The mirrors reflect the light and the view.”
“I prefer light, airy colors in tropical homes by the sea and darker, rich colors in a colder climate.”
At La Colina, the main house has four guest bedrooms, and the pool house has two. When I was creating their decorating schemes, I chose a different color for each room. The master bedroom features walls done in a turquoise the color of the sea. There is also a peach-colored bedroom, one done in yellow, and one in lavender. In the pool house, one bedroom is pink and the other green.
All six have Venetian plaster walls that look as though the surfaces were washed with watercolors. In every bedroom, I used simple cotton or sisal carpets to cover the floors and added slipcovered upholstered chairs, plus a large chaise in a natural cotton dye. As in the living room, pillows and throws of hand-blocked Indian fabrics are mixed with suzanis and soft, faded batiks. These fabrics, which come from the Philippines, can make any house feel as though it is near the sea.
There are no curtains or drapes in the bedrooms. Instead, we installed plantation shutters at the French doors to filter the sunlight and allow breezes to blow through. The doors open onto porches where guests will find a comfortable chaise.
Of course, in any bedroom, the bed is most important and can give the room real character. I love tall four-poster beds with or without a canopy. Tall posts can make a low-ceilinged room seem loftier and make a very high-ceilinged room feel more intimate. The bed in the master bedroom is a fabulous southern American mahogany plantation-style with simple, tall, obelisk posts. Originally, its mattress was almost forty-two inches thick, and I needed library steps to get into bed! Now the bed has been customized for greater comfort and ease, as have the other antique beds—most of which came from John’s New Jersey home—in each of the guest rooms. Since they were all antiques, however, their sizes were much too small for my taste. To me, the best size for a bed is a California king—seventy-two by eighty-four inches and so much more pleasing than the standard square king size. We found a fabulous cabinetmaker, Lorenzo, to adapt the frames for California king mattresses and then had the mattresses and box springs made to fit by Charles H. Beckley, Inc., a company that has made custom mattresses for me for years.Surprisingly, they are only six inches deep. I hate the new, thick mattresses and box springs that have become so popular of late; they are just not right for antique beds. If six inches seems too shallow, all I can say is that our guests tell us the beds are the most comfortable they have ever slept in.
“Every home that is used as a getaway needs lovely guest rooms.”
MAKING GUEST ROOMS GRACIOUS
Every home that is used as a getaway needs lovely guest rooms. You want to have a place where your friends can feel comfortable, private, and very at home for the length of their stay. What follows are some things I have learned about creating spaces for guests at our island retreat, but they apply equally well to guest rooms anywhere.
At La Colina, each bedroom opens onto a loggia with comfortable chaises for a read or a nap, but even if your space is diminutive, you can still set up a little corner for reading and relaxing. I like to make sure guest bedrooms are supplied with books and a desktop charging station for the various technology everyone has today. (It’s terrible to have to crawl around the floor looking for outlets for your chargers!) I place terry robes in the closets, a spare hair dryer in the bureau, and fragrant oils in the bath cabinet. Both the main house and pool house at La Colina have mini refrigerators, so guests can help themselves to cold drinks, which is especially nice upon returning from a run or walk. You can easily adopt this idea for your guest room with a mini college-dorm-type refrigerator.
Plenty of towels (bath and beach, too, if a beach is nearby) make a guest room feel luxurious. In the breezeway at La Colina is a long, Anglo-Indian bench stacked with straw hats and caps and lots of large towels ready for a trip to the shore. By the pool, more towels are rolled up in a large basket.
Last, it is fun to have a chess or checkers or backgammon set, playing cards, or puzzles available (as we do at La Colina in the TV room) for guests to while away the evening with a lively game.
As in every home, what really makes all the planning, decorating, and cooking worthwhile is family and friends. Sitting around the breakfast table sharing stories of trips; discussing politics, movies, plays, and books; and gossiping, of course, makes for a fabulous time and great memories. Our guests often add even more enjoyment by bringing along new movies to watch or recommended books to read. My dear friend Betsy Smith introduced us to a fabulous game for after dinner—one anyone of any age can play. It is called Hide in Plain Sight. She chooses ten or twelve household items and then hides them—in plain sight—while everyone temporarily vacates the room. But try finding a white tissue tucked into a white orchid. A yellow pencil alongside the spine of a yellow book. A dollar bill rolled up and snuck into a potted plant. You are given a list of the items, and you check off each when you spot it, not saying a word until all are found. It is such fun! You would think I would win, since I know the house intimately, but I almost never do. Alternatively, one weekend our friend Len Morgan played DJ, and we danced into the wee hours.
“What really makes all the planning . . . worthwhile is family and friends.”
“Rooms become relaxed when there is a little patina on the furniture and textiles are mixed in a casual way.”
NOTES ON FURNISHING
When you are furnishing a new home, whether apartment or house, it seems you are always hunting and gathering in one store or another. When you are furnishing a house on a remote island, however, you really have to plan ahead and make lists. There’s no running out to Bed, Bath & Beyond; even the local grocery store is a good distance away. When I started planning La Colina, I would sit up at night and make long lists of everything I would need to run a house that I hoped would be filled with guests.
Writing out everything you’ll need—from wastebaskets to salt and pepper shakers, from pots and pans to pillows—is probably a good endeavor even if you aren’t decorating a remote location. Making and keeping lists help focus a plan—but be prepared with lots of paper: My lists went on and on. When I wasn’t in a store, I spent late nights online ordering towels by the dozen and having them monogrammed with a beige R. I love the freshness of white towels, and they go with any bathroom, as, in most, the porcelain fixtures are white. On the other hand, establishing a different color scheme for each bathroom makes putting out clean towels simpler. Whenever I found a great white sale, I jumped on it, and I found amazing bargains online for wastebaskets and place mats, too.
One weekend, while we were in New Jersey, I serendipitously spotted a huge sale on bath soaps and body washes at Marshalls, and I started filling carts. When I needed a third cart, the store manager appeared in order to help me check out and get everything to the car; he asked if I was opening a hotel!
Perhaps my favorite part of furnishing La Colina was choosing books for the library. Everyone loves a house filled with books, so I made lists of authors I had read and loved, as well as lists of those I hoped to read. It was exciting to treasure-hunt in bookshops and at online secondhand-book dealers. Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, and Henry James are just a few of the wonderful authors whose books are now in our library at La Colina. When a departing guest asks to take a not-quite-finished book along with them, it makes me very happy.
LAYERING THE DETAILS
After months of work, the floor plans for each room of La Colina were finished, the furnishings sketched into place, colors chosen, and the little luxuries (candles, scents, vases) and necessities (sheets, towels, soap) ordered or already purchased. With a floor plan in hand, I decided where all the furniture we owned would be used, and I then studied the elevations of each room, deciding where I would place pictures and mirrors. After this I was able to prepare a list of items we would need to find.
I wanted to make sure we had art in every room, and I dove into what we had on hand as a first step. John, of course, had a treasure trove, including a wonderful collection of Indian miniature paintings, which we slated for his dressing room. One day I found a fantastic portfolio of large-format prints from Sweden, which I then got framed and planned to hang side by side in the TV room and on the walls of the interior staircase. For the peach bedroom, I started collecting pictures of parrots, and for the green bedroom, I made a selection of black-and-white photographs. Art for a room does not have to have a theme; various pieces and types can be combined. Drawings, photography, paintings, and prints can all make an interesting mix. The most important elements to keep in mind are a pleasing scale and arrangement on a wall.
One exciting art “discovery” came to me when I was planning the yellow bedroom. We had a big wall to fill in there, because two Biedermeier daybeds occupied the center (rather than the periphery) of the room. When I found them at an antiques fair in the South of France, I loved these daybeds immediately and imagined the pair floating in the middle of a room. Years later, I bought what I thought (from photographs) were large rolls of antique grisaille wallpaper printed with images of ships at sea. When the dealer arrived with my purchase, he handed me a shopping bag full of small wallpaper pieces and said, “Sorry, we had a hard time getting the paper off the wall of the old house in Maine.” I put the bag on a shelf and forgot about it for a while. Thinking of the yellow bedroom—and remembering the paper—I took the pieces to John Nalewaja, the great paper restorer, to see if they were worth saving.He recognized the sections: They were from a rare, original set of wallpaper printed in the 1800s by the Parisian company Joseph Dufour et Cie. To my delight, Nalewaja was able to assemble the pieces and create two large panels that filled the long wall of the room. The gray panels stand out on the lemon-yellow walls, and the scenes of the warships in the waves seem perfect for this house by the sea.
“I always think large-scale pictures are more exciting in a space. If I have a collection of small pictures, I hang them in groups, filling up a larger part of a wall.”
“Think of placing furniture in unusual ways to give a room a sense of surprise, like these beds placed in the center of the room.”
In fact, I always think large-scale pictures are more exciting in a space. If I have a collection of small pictures, I hang them in groups, filling up a larger part of a wall. In a high-ceilinged room, arranging pictures above one another pulls the eye up, so you feel the height of the room. When hanging groups of pictures, I often arrange them on the floor first to form the layout before hanging them on the wall.
When thinking about a design, pictures are just one facet. Accessories are needed, too, for rooms that are interesting and layered. Throughout the period that La Colina was under construction, John and I haunted every antiques center, auction, and shop we could find, looking for unusual accessories, old and new, to add layers to each room. A porcelain parrot, a beautiful shell, a carved wooden fish, cachepots for orchids—we collected them all over the months to eventually place within the finished rooms.
A ROOM FOR RELAXING
Gathering, lounging, talking, and relaxing—having a room that encourages friendly togetherness is just as important as the private retreat of the guest bedroom. At La Colina—for guests and family alike—this is the television room near the kitchen. That’s where we keep the only TV in the house, and watching it is a luxury we indulge in often, as we are big movie buffs. Almost every afternoon we gather to watch one we haven’t yet seen, and guests are always bringing favorite films as house gifts. Relaxing in comfort is the order of the day in this room, so I had a sofa custom-made to seat five, and we add additional comfortable chairs when the guest list grows. When not watching films, we’re often at a table set up in a corner for puzzles (I am a jigsaw-puzzle fan) or a fast, ferocious game of gin rummy or hearts. The best part is how close the TV room is to the kitchen, with snacks and hot popcorn within easy reach during every movie and game.
Imentioned the complexity of furnishing a house that is not exactly around the corner from where one is currently living. When everything was finally purchased, restored, re-covered, framed, inventoried, and packed up (which would never have been possible without Celebrity Moving, the storage company I have worked with for years on all my projects), we watched as the movers loaded the boxes and crates into containers for shipment to the Dominican Republic.
On the hottest August day in 2005, we arrived in Punta Cana. We stood on the porch waiting for the last container of the larger pieces of furniture to arrive. And we waited. And waited, until nightfall. Finally, a small car pulled onto the property, followed by a big truck with the last container. We waited again while the four customs inspectors who had arrived in the car were given cups of coffee and exchanged pleasantries. Finally they allowed the container’s seal to be broken, took a look inside, and let the movers start unloading the furniture.
The next morning, the real work began. Rugs were located and spread in each room. Little by little, each piece that had been carefully labeled over the months was placed in the correct room. Dishes found their way into the pantry. Light fixtures were hung, beds were assembled, lamps plugged in, books put on shelves. We used long folding tables to unpack and organize accessories—a useful technique I learned years ago and a good idea when setting up a new home.
Setting up a house can be a long, tiring process. But moving into La Colina gave us one of the best gifts John and I have ever received. The wonderful Baltimore interior designer Stiles Colwill, who is married to John’s nephew, arrived to help us get installed. Stiles brought his friend Dan Sellers, one of the most amazing people I have ever met, and the two of them assisted with the thousand things there were to do: hanging pictures, placing mirrors, repairing little things damaged in transit. We couldn’t have done it without them, but nothing was easy. The large panels in the living room had to be mounted on concrete-block walls, and molding had to be cut and installed around them as frames. Through it all, Stiles and Dan were heroic. After six days, everything was in place.
Moving in was like a ballet; everyone had a part in the production, and all came together in a grand finale. John and I were so excited to be in our new home, we spent the second night on a mattress and box spring on the floor!
Over the years, a few things have been added, but most of the house was assembled that week. At the end, we were ready for our first houseguests, who arrived a month later and who have come back year after year. La Colina was now in business.
COLLECTIONS BY ANGUS WILKIE
When we arrive we are welcomed in the courtyard by Bunny, John, and a passel of dogs. It takes a moment for the eye to settle on the large coral-stone façade, whose impressive second-story columns rise behind a rustling green patchwork of orchids, ivy, and palms. The air is warm, dappled light dances, and the yapping dogs dart like the demons they are, rescued from the wild. As John calls them tauntingly again and again, Bunny directs duffel bags, pointing to guest rooms promisingly named Biedermeier, Bamboo, and Lavender Blue. Pablo King, presiding majordomo with a crescent smile, ushers a few guests toward the house’s twin exterior staircases that swoop down as if in an embrace. Bunny takes my hand and leads me down a shadowy corridor that frames a glinting view of distant sunlight drizzling on a soundless sea. My blind date with the house on the hill has begun.
Who can help but feel a prickle of excitement upon arrival? It’s the ultimate spy-hole experience to see how someone else lives, what they collect, where they eat and entertain. I remember the details of my first visit most vividly.A letter had arrived in a familiar and impeccably vertical hand on paper that can only be described as “Serendipity French Blue,” inviting my friend Len Morgan and me to visit. Enclosed was a mimeographed calendar with highlights as to “available weekends.” This was potluck at its best, and we chose a slot quickly.
“You just have to see this,” Bunny exclaimed triumphantly on that first day, throwing open the door to a neoclassic-inspired bedroom worthy of Napoleon—and in the tropics, no less! Walls glazed a lemony yellow were hung intermittently with early-nineteenth-century French grisaille wallpaper panels depicting ships at sea. The room’s perimeter was punctuated with a series of louvered French doors that allowed sunlight to stream in. It was an indelible moment for me to see twin fruitwood and ebonized, carved, and gilded daybeds floating like parallel rafts in the center of the room. (Full disclosure: I wrote a book on Biedermeier furniture years ago and once lived on the island of Dominica with my own fruitwood furniture, so this felt completely right.) It was a spellbinding fantasy to have these antique berths for a weekend. And I knew that Bunny had cleverly lengthened the beds by a foot or more to better accommodate her guests—Napoleon was terribly short, remember?
“It’s all about how people express their passions, understanding, appreciating, and sharpening an artistic learning curve. Furnishings inevitably tell a story and relate to someone’s past.”
There is no recipe for a magical interior, but a memorable one always has a point of view. Balance and proportion set the stage, a layering of tasteful furnishings reveals personality, and, with luck, that interplay is raised to a lofty art form. In the case of Bunny Williams and John Rosselli’s chef d’oeuvre in Punta Cana, there were definitely two “chefs” in the mix and no fussing around. La Colina is a house to be lived in and explored, savored, swallowed, and digested. A delicate balance of Bunny’s sense of color and comfort set to the tuning fork of dramatic scale is coupled with John’s penchant for artful collecting. Objets d’art abound like a rampant feast yet are cleverly tempered by proportioned space and a placement of furniture that leaves plenty of breathing room. Airiness is everywhere—so important in a Caribbean climate.
At La Colina, the rhythm of indoor and outdoor spaces is masterfully designed as one of constant circulation. One wanders from bedroom to porch, pool to cactus garden, up and down stairs, all in a languid putter. I’ve often turned a corner to find another guest rumpled and snoozing midday on a wicker chaise longue. I nearly had to poke Gil Schafer once, but then again, an overworked architect safe in the arms of Morpheus is a telling detail when it comes to comfortable environs. Handsome fainting couches punctuate every porch and make the perfect perch for idle conversation or a long read. A halo of shimmering sunlight surrounds the property; however, one feels protected and cooled by the canopied garden overhead.
My favorite spot at La Colina may be the capacious upstairs living room. With a nod to Monticello, windows are triple hung, and they open at opposing sides to covered loggias, one facing the sea and ideal for evening cocktails, the other a grand volume of furnished outdoor space where dinner is often served. With windows raised and a welcome, warm draft wafting through, it feels as if the contents of the space—a treasure chest of Italian, Anglo-Indian, and Chinese furniture—might have landed there in one great gust of wind. And magically balanced on the ten-foot-long, eighteenth-century Italian walnut refectory table that splendidly divides the room is a towering arrangement of verdant fronds, nature nodding gently in the breeze, shadows tickling the ceiling at night.
The pale blue walls in that living room are hung with what appear to be two white-plaster-framed rococo mirrors, each flanked by Japanese-style wallpaper panels of water birds. John had an artful employee copy the set of four from an eighteenth-century original at his Manhattan interior-design shop, John Rosselli & Associates. The silver lining to being an antiques dealer for so long is, perhaps, being one’s own best client. Another dealer’s—and decorator’s—shared secret is the ability to adapt to new surroundings. In fact, most of the furniture throughout La Colina is recycled from a former Rosselli incarnation, a property John once owned in New Jersey. Transported to Punta Cana, the sinuously carved walnut armchairs and high-backed Sicilian settee, the curlicue extremities of which extend beyond their newly faded blue slipcovers, anchor the grandly scaled room. Carved wood camel-form tables bear bamboo boxes, and porcelain elephants shoulder books; skirted sofa tables hold lamps, candles, and John’s estimable collection of lacquer boxes, blue-and-white porcelain, shells, speckled mosaic pottery, decalcomania trays, and his favorite Indian cast-bronze crab. Perhaps the most versatile piece of furniture in the entire room is a rectangular, eighteenth-century, Chinese lacquered, and parchment-colored low coffee table. A repository for many a daiquiri before dinner, this splendidly sturdy craquelure surface once doubled as a dance podium—mea culpa! Happily, my elegant tabletop partner happened to be the distinguished nonagenarian Furlow Gatewood; hence, despite our disco antics, all was forgiven.
Visiting is a fine art, a balance of grace and manners and the occasional need to redeem oneself after a faux pas. Apart from spontaneity, the ingredients that matter most and spell success at a country weekend are relaxed hosts, convivial guests, good food, and many household nooks worth exploring. As hosts, Bunny and John are happy, funny, loving people who genuinely thrive on entertaining. Pure relaxation, however, comes with socially unencumbered hours to balance an otherwise active schedule of events. That’s where the house as backdrop becomes so important.
“There is no recipe for a magical interior, but a memorable one always has a point of view.”
As a decorative-arts dealer, I am prone to a rather interactive dialogue with my surroundings. I love to peruse books in other people’s libraries, consider juxtapositions and relationships of furniture, the placement of objects on tables. I always resist the urge to rearrange, preferring to simply observe and ponder that unfathomable issue of taste, an idiosyncratic quality seemingly vested in a chosen few. It’s all about how people express their passions, understanding, appreciating, and sharpening an artistic learning curve. Furnishings inevitably tell a story and relate to someone’s past. In the case of Bunny and John, the collage at La Colina has strong underpinnings of connoisseurship established over years of experience in the business. There are relics from trips: John’s Indian miniatures and ivory pagodas, Bunny’s appliquéd fabrics and pottery cabbages that grace the ever-changing array of table settings at mealtime. The variety is seemingly endless in as much as there are shelves and closets of pantry props. Artistically recycled, everything feels fresh.
Similarly, one can, at La Colina, go on a safari of sorts if so inclined. I have spotted, in no particular order, the elephant, camel, bull, ram, dog, and cat of the animal kingdom; chicken, pheasant, turkey, rooster, toucan, dove, and goose among feathered friends; a horse or two; unicorn and dragon of mystical lore; fish, frog, turtle, and crab out of water; and untold rabbits underfoot. The menagerie of botanicals depicted on the walls, in textiles, and as objects is equally varied and ever expanding.
“Things that you collect and love will stay with you forever, and when you move, will always move with you.”
As I was packing to leave the last time I visited, I opened an Anglo-Indian porcupine-quill box on the chest of drawers. The action was aimless, the box alluring; maybe I was looking for an envelope in which to stash a gratuity?The gratuity unexpectedly fell to me, however, in the form of discovering a handwritten note left for John, written in signature green ink in a fluid hand, the lines splayed across a stiff letterhead card stamped 166 EAST 61ST STREETand dated 20 NOVEMBER 1976. It read:
That was a lovely day in the country, and what a great pleasure it was to see those two ravishing houses. I could be very happy in either without changing a thing. You certainly have that very special, rare gift that is God-given and cannot be taught. Many thanks for letting me share it.
Love, Billy Baldwin
Perhaps my unintentional snooping signals that true collectors and designers adapt well to any and all surroundings.