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Meet Sister Parish: The Mother of American Country Style

You can thank her for your love of shabby chic.

interior designer sister parish with fabrics
Photography by: Horst P. Horst/Condé Nast via Getty Images

You may assume someone who goes by the name Sister Parish lived a humble existence amongst the walls of a convent — and you’re not alone. When the grand dame of interior design was commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy to help decorate 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, an uninitiated newspaper ran the headline, ''Kennedys Pick Nun to Decorate White House.'' But Sister Parish worshipped at a whole different alter — one of aesthetics. She uniquely exalted both luxury and comfort, modernity and nostalgia, and ushered in what is known as the American Country style.

 

Born in 1910, her birth certificate read Dorothy May Kinnicutt, but her three-year-old brother nicknamed her Sister, and it stuck. Her father was a prosperous stock broker and her mother a descendant from one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence — modest they were not. They owned homes in New Jersey, Manhattan, Maine and Paris, where Parish debuted to high society in her teens. Soon after, she met and married a Harvard man and budding stockbroker, Henry Parish, and took to decorating their country home.

 

During her time abroad, Parish fell in love with the painted furniture she saw in France and adapted the technique. She painted old wood tables and chairs white and the floors in bright red and blue hues. She loved needlepoint rugs, patchwork quilts, overstuffed couches, chintz and paintings of plants and dogs. She created a lived-in feel that was cozy yet stylish and was the first to mix and match pieces from different eras and price-points, pioneering a high-low look many adhere to today. And, she had a thing for baskets — which have become the preferred storage vessel of the moment once again.

 

Parish’s friends took notice of her ability to create such charming spaces and began asking for decorating advice. She happily obliged, but after both her husband and father suffered major losses in the stock market crash of 1929, she decided to take it a step further and open her own “budget decorating” business. She admittedly had “never opened a window or poured a glass of water for herself,” but she rented out a 14x14 foot office in town and slapped a "Mrs. Henry Parish 2d Interiors” sign on the front door.

 

Parish marketed herself as someone who could take the furniture you already own and rearrange it to make your home even more comfortable and inviting. The idea seems commonplace now, but was completely innovative at the time, and just what all the suddenly strapped for cash socialites were looking for. Some of Parish’s family members disapproved of a woman working, let alone running her own business, but Parish didn’t seem to mind, nor did the upper echelon of society. She ended up working for the Vanderbilts, the Whitneys and the Mellons during her illustrious career, to name a few.

 

Parish even decorated the Kennedy’s Georgetown home when John was a senator, and was invited by Jackie to have a hand at the White House family quarters as well. Though Parish’s influence can still be seen at the presidential residence, especially in the Yellow Oval Room (she had the walls painted their namesake color), the job was short-lived as tensions began to arise between her and Jackie. Some say Parish was fired for telling a young Caroline to take her feet off the sofa, while others say Parish left on her own accord because Jackie thought she should work for free.

 

Whatever the circumstances, the falling out didn’t have a negative effect on Parish’s career — in fact it may have widened her appeal. As they say, any press is good press. She became so busy, she hired Albert Hadley to help with the architectural side of things and eventually made him partner in what became the iconic design firm Parish-Hadley. The company has influenced much of American interior design and fostered a wide range of design influencers, including other female designers, Mariette Himes Gomez and Bunny Williams. Parish passed away in 1994, but her legacy continues through them, as well as well as the comfort and luxury of the American Country style that we still covet today. If you’ve ever laid a patchwork quilt across the back of a sofa, you have Sister Parish to thank.

[LEARN: How To Paint Any Piece of Furniture]