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A primer for decorating with antiques Designer explains how to use pieces you love in the home


Museums know how to collect antique furniture and decorative objects; they know how to use them and how to care for them, and how to place them to the best advantage.

Collectors, on the other hand, are often baffled by objects that have a secure place in their heart, but no certain place in their living room.

The Baltimore Museum of Art, as part of its annual antiques show next weekend, hopes to bridge some of the objects-decorating gap by offering a luncheon lecture by noted New York designer Bunny Williams called "On Decorating With Antiques."

"I'll be talking about how to combine different periods and styles, and about how people approach collecting today," Ms. Williams said in a recent phone interview from her New York office. With the help of slides of interiors on which she has worked, she said, she can illustrate "the placement of furniture, floor plans, how people can put things together."

Ms. Williams hates the word "eclectic," suggesting it is used too often and too forgivingly in design circles these days. It's not that she thinks people's homes should have a museum-like consistency in design ("I don't do period rooms"), but she does believe in putting some organizing principles to work.

"You can mix a lot of wonderful things" in one space, she said, "but you have to have an idea of scale and other things that make it all work."

She advises people to buy one or two good things, and then fill in with older reproductions or family objects.

The slides will show a variety of ways to use particular pieces, she said. "It's fun for people to see how English furniture can look in an informal setting, or in a more formal room."

Ms. Williams was born in Virginia, went to school in Boston and got her first job in the decorating world at 20. The largest part of her career -- 22 years -- was spent at the distinguished firm of Parish-Hadley (partners Sister Parish and Albert Hadley). "I started out as Mr. Hadley's secretary and became the senior designer," she said. She started her own firm, Bunny Williams Inc., seven years ago and now has a staff of 13 people. She also works closely with an architect on renovations.

She enjoys jobs where "we are allowed to come in and get the background right," she said, perhaps by rearranging spaces or correcting and repairing other flaws in the structure and basic layout. "The backgrounds are the canvas for everything you do."

Every design job starts by taking stock of what the clients already own, and how it might fit into a design so that the whole becomes a "harmonious unit," she said. "I always tell people it's their house, not mine. I spend a lot of time getting people to tell me what their dream is. Everybody who comes in here has a fantasy," perhaps something they've seen in a magazine, she said, and it's her job to make that fantasy reality.

Getting all the pieces in place, she says, is like working "a huge puzzle." And every job is different. She has heard designers say, "Aren't clients a problem?" but her response is, "No, they're what gives every job its individual quirkiness."

She shops with her clients to find the missing pieces of the puzzle. "You will probably go everywhere from the grandest antiques shop to a flea market," she says with a laugh.

Ms. Williams' talk, the M. Austin Fine Memorial Lecture, will be delivered at 10 a.m. Friday. The cost is $35, with show admission, catalog and lunch; it's $20 for the lecture only. For reservations and information, call (410) 396-6314.

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