When designer Elizabeth Swartz was completing her studies at the New York School of Interior Design, she knew that an integral step in becoming a bonafide interior designer involved an internship with an established firm. “Why don’t you apply to ?” said her mother, with the same nonchalance that a mother would say, “Why don’t you cut your hair?”
“Yeah, right,” was Elizabeth’s response, realizing that what is arguably one of America’s most revered interior design practices, led by “the Meryl Streep of décor,” surely gets flooded with such inquiries. But, in this instance, mother knew best.
Swartz’s confidently calm demeanor and obvious talent appealed to Williams, and an internship was offered. “They were the first firm to call me!” she says. It lasted for two years, although Swartz, had also graduated from the University of Richmond and taught photography at her alma mater, the Tatnall School, is clear that she was paid after the first year, all the while continuing to take classes at NYSID.
Further study whetted her appetite for contract and hospitality design, so she accepted an internship with reality TV star Thom Filicia’s firm, working on the W Hotel and one of Jennifer Lopez’s residences. From there, it was a position at McIver Morgan, until Bunny called again.
“She offered me a full time position as an assistant designer to one of the firm’s senior designers. How could I say no to that?”
Within a year, the senior designer went on maternity leave, so it was up to Swartz to keep all the balls in the air for their many projects. It needs to be explained that a typical Bunny Williams project goes way beyond décor, often involving a close collaboration with the architect and most certainly with the landscape designer, two areas in which the firm is revered for its deep knowledge and lyrical but livable sensibilities.
When her colleague left the firm a few years later, Swartz moved into the more senior role, running full projects for five years. And that’s when things got really interesting. “What’s amazing about Bunny,” says Swartz, “is her ability to see the next big thing. Here she had built this extraordinary business, in the spirit of her beloved Parish Hadley, and saw how that had ended—how it simply ceased to continue. So Bunny decided to promote from within and keep the name going. There’s something to be said for people who thrive on always learning. That kind of curiosity is truly at Bunny’s core, along with the pure joy of passing knowledge down to others.”
That strategic business decision, along with her 13-year association with the firm, resulted in Swartz being named a partner in the firm in June 2017, to the delight of the entire design industry. “I want the best from my staff,” Williams said, “and I want them to succeed.”
Bunny Williams Interior Design has been a bastion of classical expertise since its founding in 1988, and Swartz extolls on the firm’s abilities to create striking contemporary interiors also, as evidenced by the most recent Kips Bay Decorator Show House. “People said, ‘Wow. This is modern!’ but this is what we do. People need to realize that regardless of period or style, it’s the true love of good furniture and art that makes a space livable.”
Like her mentor, Swartz is deeply committed to her work but also understands the importance of balance and perspective. She deliberately keeps two separate iphones: one for work and one for personal. “If I didn’t, I’d get stressed out on weekends,” she admits. Still, she frets over each and every project, all the while reminding herself, “It’s a pillow. I haven’t ruined your life, even though you may think so.”
And this fall, Swartz will become a bride. Her fiancé, Steve Lawrence, is a television producer and director. But without the time or the temperament to become a bridezilla, Swartz laughs, “I’m way too busy. I’m letting my mother handle everything.” Once again, in the thoughtfully charmed life of Elizabeth Swartz, the most perfect individual to shepherd Bunny Williams Interior Design into its future, mother knows best.