DECORATING : Sister Parish’s Legacy: Styling the Familiar


Toss a patchwork quilt over the back of a sofa, stencil a pattern onto a wood floor, pair a primitive accessory such as a basket or a birdhouse with a silver candlestick, and you’ll be borrowing from ideas popularized by Dorothy Kinnicutt Parish, also known as Sister Parish.

Parish (Sister was a family nickname), who died in September at age 84, was sought by the rich and famous. She took familiar furnishings and made them chic through her own sense of style in a decorating career that spanned six decades.

“There is no question that Sister Parish was one of the biggest influences on decorating in the United States,” Lou Gropp, editor of House Beautiful, said. “She dominated the decorating of the 1970s and ‘80s, and many of her ideas that were fresh and new in the 1970s are now in the mainstream of American decorating.”

Her influence probably will live on. A number of the country’s leading decorators, including Mark Hampton and Mario Buatta, acknowledge her effect on their work. And the firm she founded, Parish-Hadley Associates Inc. of New York, continues under the leadership of Albert Hadley, her partner and associate since 1962.


“Mrs. Parish had no formal training, but a wonderful background,” Hadley said. “Her motto was: ‘Either you have it or you don’t.’ ”

She had it.

She didn’t have a high school diploma, but she had a privileged childhood. Her parents were antiques collectors with four homes, including one in Paris. She attended the elite Chapin School in New York City and the Foxcroft School in Middleburg, Va.

She started her business in 1933 in tony Far Hills, N.J., and her first clients were friends who admired the unconventional way she decorated her own weekend house in Far Hills.


“It never occurred to me that I wasn’t qualified to give (advice),” she once wrote.

In the 1930s, in her first foray into decorating in her own home, she had her bedroom floor painted a cherry red with white diamonds and had a mantel of glass blocks installed. Later, in a traditional living room, she stenciled the floor with crisscross lines and put a little red star at each intersection.

“Nobody else would have had the nerve to do it, but she had unbelievable assurance,” Gropp said.

“She had little regard for periods and she had a great eye for items,” Hadley said. “They could cost a million dollars or a few dollars. She might put a prim wooden dog made by some backwoodsman up in Maine on a gilt wood and lacquer table.”

When Sister Parish began using handicrafts in upscale rooms, it was highly unconventional.

She was one of the first to drape a patchwork quilt over the back of a sofa. She and Hadley worked with quilters from Selma, Ala., in the late 1960s to develop patchwork quilted yard goods.

In the 1970s, Parish-Hadley commissioned artists to paint old furniture in unusual colors and patterns. For example, a marble-topped console table was painted black with red dots.

They stocked handwoven Irish rugs and baskets and other crafts in a small private shop on New York’s Upper East Side. It was open by invitation only. As the items were photographed in magazines, they spread into general use.


Part of her influence in American home decor is that she worked for many influential people--Mellons, Rockefellers, Vanderbilts and Whitneys. She decorated the Georgetown home occupied by John and Jacqueline Kennedy when he was a senator from Massachusetts. In 1961 she was called to the White House by Jacqueline Kennedy to refurbish some rooms. But the two women eventually parted company.

“It was an unhappy divorce,” said Pat Linden, who profiled Sister Parish in Town & Country magazine in September 1988. “Oh, she was young,” Parish said when asked about it.

Sarah, the Duchess of York, hired her in 1988 to put the Parish imprint on a new country house near Windsor Castle. The duchess’s mother-in-law, the queen, later rescinded the assignment in favor of an English designer, but just getting in the door was a triumph.

Sister Parish gained early recognition through national magazines. In January 1967, House and Garden featured her house in Maine with its painted white furniture and quilts and rag rugs. The departure from traditional decorating was on par with fashion’s introduction to Dior’s New Look.

Sister Parish didn’t readily admit to being influenced by anyone. But Linden believes she had some influence from British designers John Fowler and Nancy Lancaster, who helped originate the English country style.

“She developed a style of pastoral opulence, as if the vicar had married a rich wife, as Brooke Astor, who was one of her clients, is supposed to have said,” Linden said.