La Colina: Bunny Williams and John Rosselli's Dominican Republic Retreat

La Colina: Bunny Williams and John Rosselli's Dominican Republic Retreat

April 20, 2011
Photo by: Chelsea Lobser

Halfway to the pool house in Bunny Williams and John Rosselli’s garden in Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, the path widens to accommodate a stone clearing no bigger than a bedroom. Dense foliage makes the spot invisible from anywhere else on the property. The only man-made object is a 19th-century Greek oil jar that Williams and Rosselli found on a trip to the South of France. At first glance the little clearing looks like a throwaway moment in a garden jam-packed with bigger gestures. But if one place captures the mystery and beauty of this subtropical Eden, it’s this place—in its seclusion, its spare but elegant furnishing, and above all in the way it uses the abundant sun of this Caribbean retreat not as a focus but a foil.

Punta Cana lies just south of Cabo Engaño, the lush, sand-fringed cape that separates the Atlantic from the Caribbean at the easternmost tip of the island that the Dominican Republic shares with Haiti. Discovered by the jet set in the 1970s, Punta Cana’s white beaches today draw tourists looking for warm weather solace nearly year-round. At La Colina, the Southern Colonial villa that Williams and Rosselli built six years ago, paths canopied by trees and lined with roots connect a series of hidden garden rooms, with constant transitions from dark to light. Shade, says Williams, is “not only a relief, it’s also very interesting.”

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The dining loggia overlooks a courtyard with a fountain.

This garden of eclectically furnished spaces is just what you might expect from Williams. One of America’s premier interior designers, an alumna of the legendary firm Parish-Hadley, Williams has four popular books to her name (including Scrapbook for Living, published by Stewart, Tabori & Chang in November). Rosselli, if known mostly by design-world insiders, is no less esteemed: His antiques business has been a destination for decorators and architects for half a century, treasured for its imaginative, ever changing inventory. Together, they are prodigious, global shoppers, and for 20 years have run Treillage, a pair of Upper East Side Manhattan shops that offer antique and contemporary garden furnishings, brought back from their journeys around the world. Over the years they’ve kibitzed about each other’s choices for their homes in New York City and Connecticut, but the four-bedroom Punta Cana house and its garden is the first project they’ve designed together from the ground up. 

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Leading from the beach to the house is a coral stone rill framed by sculptural Cassia corymbosa underplanted with variegated mondo grass.

The labor was divided along familiar lines: Rosselli was the collector, Williams the designer. “John goes to the nursery and finds new varieties,” she says. “Then we have to figure out how to make them work well.” The first step was to walk the hilltop site (the house’s name, La Colina, is Spanish for “The Hill”), intuiting the proper location for each element of the landscape. “It became obvious where the paths had to be, where the pond would go. You have these moments of ‘Oh, this is the place for the cactus garden,’” says Williams. “There needs to be a direction to move through the plants.”  

Visual cues do much of this work. From the pool house, a water feature runs beneath an arch, which in turn frames a large Ficus rubiginosa tree, inviting a closer look. The ficus sits at the center of a shady patio, with a dining table and chairs set up nearby for an impromptu lunch. The sun is most noticeable in the green glow of Philodendron imperialis as they pick up light filtering down from above. 

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Orchids bloom generously in the Carribean. Here a terra-cotta tub is used as a cachepot to elevate, and propitiously frame, a happy pair.

Order—or the progressive lack of it—is another directional device: From the loggia on either side of the house, the garden appears linear and well trimmed.  The plein air living room and dining area on the inland side faces  a formal courtyard. On the ocean side is an allée of Cassia corymbosa and a lawn studded with curving palms that catch the light and drop dramatic shadows. Along its border, a stately line of palms is underplanted with Iris japonica. Follow a coral stone rill through this lawn, though, and nature seems to take over. The farther you go from the house, “it’s more meandering, less formal, more like a woodland garden,” says Williams. 

The unruly foliage sets up the surprise of the set pieces, like the splendid cactus garden. “Whenever you’re walking around, you need to arrive at someplace where you can sit, enjoy a glass of wine,” says Williams. A walk lined with aloe and agave leads to a light, bowl-shaped space, delineated by a low wall punctuated with Golden Barrel cacti in large, cobalt blue pots. The colors were inspired by Majorelle, the garden designed by painter Jacques Majorelle in Marrakech, later owned by Yves Saint Laurent. 

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Elements from various warm climates, like this Mediterranean 19th-century oil pot, seem both exotic and perfectly in context.

The Caribbean weather, with frequent afternoon rain breaking up long, sunny days, makes Rosselli’s side of the bargain seem easy. Irises flower all year; orchids replace their blooms within weeks. But in his choices for the garden, Rosselli was less concerned with color than with shapes. “It’s about the texture and variety of the leaves, which form patterns,” he says. Many of the deciduous trees lose their leaves in summer, so he thinks about the color of the bark and how to shape the branches so that when they drop their foliage, they reveal a sculptural beauty. The real advantage of the climate is the constant growth, says Rosselli.  “It’s easy to make changes, to redirect and to propagate.” Trees and roots bend quickly into archways; fig vines engulf a wall, seemingly becoming the wall itself. Aloe in large urns by the pool have grown to resemble giant finials. 

The climate does have its price. Because of the prevailing wind and proximity to the ocean, he must choose and plant carefully. “If the wind blows for several days and there’s no rain,” says Rosselli, “the salt will burn the trees. It’s very debilitating, corrosive.” As a frame for the furnishings Williams and Rosselli lug back from their journeys, however, the environment is a perfect match. As lichens attach to porous stone containers and vines engulf new structures, the elements of the garden seem as comfortable together as the couple who put them there.

Decorating like Bunny Williams and John Rosselli

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Large ceramic frog pitcher, $95. Photo: Michael Kraus.

Much of the charm of Bunny Williams and John Rosselli’s home derives from the objects the couple collect on their travels. Many of these items are also for sale at their two New York stores. Housed in a former blacksmith shop, the original Treillage offers furniture, lighting, and pots, all heaped beneath huge skylights in a seemingly endless space. The second location, blocks away, is a delicious curio shop containing tableware, pillows, and gifts. For all products, visit or call 212/988-8800.

Stephen Treffinger writes about design and architecture. All photos, except for frog pitcher, by Chelsea Lobser.

This article was first published in Garden Design April 2011