The story of Sister Parish is legendary in the world of interior design. Born in 1910 into a life of privilege, Sister decided to pursue a career in interior design in 1933 as a result of the Great Depression, despite the fact that she had never even read a book on the subject. Her talent was innate, and she quickly became the go-to resource for the crème de la crème of American society, including the Rockefellers, Astors, Whitneys, Paleys, Gettys, and most famously, the Kennedy White House. Influenced by her family’s country house in Maine, her style was known as “American Country” and it became one of the most popular decorative styles of the century. With her refreshingly unstudied eye, her cozy interiors appeared as if they had been acquired over generations, even when they hadn’t. This collected look gave her rooms a sense of permanence and timelessness. Her mantra, “Innovation is often the ability to reach into the past and bring back what is good, what is beautiful, what is useful, what is lasting,” became the guiding light for her daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter who have continued Sister’s legacy.
Today, I am delighted to welcome Sister’s great-granddaughter, Eliza Crater Harris, for a Q&A. If you love history, family-owned business, stories of pioneering women, and fabulous interiors, you are in for a treat! Eliza will share how she and her mother and grandmother have kept the name of Sister Parish going strong, creating a brand that “is more than products, it’s a lifestyle.” Welcome, Eliza!
Q: Vogue magazine once said your great-grandmother was “the most famous of all living women interior designers, whose ideas have influenced life styles all over America.” How have your grandmother, mother, and you continued her legacy?
A: Sister’s influence on American design and lifestyle being so widespread and adopted, is certainly a lot to live up to. Everything we do comes back to her philosophy. She famously said “innovation is often the ability to reach into the past and bring back what is good, what is beautiful, what is useful, what is lasting”. This quote is our company’s north star. We have continued her legacy by really pursuing new designs along under this idea. She put quilts on Chippendale chairs, and birdcages in the fanciest of bedrooms, because for her vision for lifestyle was about warmth, comfort, color, and anything from her past to bring spaces alive with a personal touch. That was her magic, and we hope we have been continuing it. We know she is watching.
Q: Please tell me about the founding of Sister Parish Design in 2000 and the goal of resurrecting the prints and wallpapers that Ms. Parish loved.
A: My mother Susan Crater founded Sister Parish Design in 2000 to, among other goals, bring the archives of Sister Parish and her partner Albert Hadley to the marketplace. Often their textile designs were custom works exclusively for Parish Hadley clients, so initially the excitement for resurrecting the brand was to honor and give life to very special designs that shaped American Decorative Arts history, that may have been lost in time otherwise. Susan was really picking up the baton for Sister, with the goal to continue the legacy Sister had begun in the thirties for generations of future designers to use and love.
Q: What are some of your favorite new products, and can you tell me about the eco friendly way in which they are made?
A: We have several new introductions . My favorites at the moment are ‘Sintra’ and ‘Palms’. Our designs are hand screened using earth based dyes and pigments, and we look first and foremost to sustainability in our process. Quality not quantity is our mantra, and because the process is so labor intensive and artisanal at its heart, we do not produce extra waste or hazardous chemicals. Hand screen printing has been around for a very long time! We’re also proud to say that our fabrics and wall coverings are made in America. As you may know, the decision to manufacture in the US is rare these days, as so many textile collections are made abroad for various reasons. But for us, being an American heritage design studio, one that’s known to have created the ‘American Country’ look no less, we have felt that supporting local artisans is part of our story, not to mention keeping our footprint domestic is one of the most climate conscious decisions we could make.
Q: How has the Grandmillennial movement affected Sister Parish, and what are some of the patterns and prints most loved by this generation?
A: I think the ‘grandmillennial’ movement has a direct correlation to, and appreciation of Sisters design philosophy. I would say that our ‘Dolly’ , ‘Willow’ and ‘Chou Chou’ designs are the most loved in this style, but there are so many I can hardly say! I personally love ‘Petite Fleur’, which was inspired by the sweet rose print Sister used in Caroline Kennedy’s room at the White House.
Q: As a Grandmillennial yourself, why do you think classic style is finally making such a big comeback? And how is traditional design different today than in your great-grandmother’s day?
A: Every generation has its own interpretation of a style, and really what we all do in the design world is referential. What made Sister and Albert’s classic style so interesting was that it was a combination of “traditional “and ” innovative”, and they saw no conflict between the two. This love of juxtaposition of style is something young people relate to more than ever, and that is definitely the way I feel as well. A “Traditional” house today can be sourced with reflection of the amazing Creatives we are all lucky enough to use. Sister and Albert would have been delighted by all of the new technology that helps bring dreams alive today. They were all about the future.
Q: Mrs. Parish was a dear friend of the late Mario Buatta, whose recent estate auction caused such a sensation it was dubbed “Buattacon” and has been instrumental in igniting the Grandmillennial movement. Do you have any fun stories you can share that illustrate their friendship?
A: I would say Sister and Mario admired each other, and certainly shared a love of the English Country House style. They also sparred with each other. Sister would love to joke and say ‘Mario he is SO expensive- how can anyone afford him!”, and he would tease her relentlessly. The first time I met Mario, I was at the D and D in a crowded elevator. I introduced myself to him as Susan Crater’s daughter. Playing to the crowd in the packed elevator he said dryly “Oh that Susan Crater-last I heard she was locked up in Rikers Island!” You never knew what you were going to get with Mario! (read more here)Q: What are the holidays like for your family, and are there any favorite recipes or traditions of Mrs. Parish that have been passed down over the years?
A: Sister loved Christmas, and several of her traditions have been passed down in our family. All of her presents were wrapped uniformly in crisp white shelf paper and a bright red ribbon. She loved paper whites and the green Rigaud candles were of course always burning at night. Christmas lunch was turkey, which she had her cook accompany with Jones breakfast sausage among other trimmings. She also loved caviar at Christmas, which I have a deep appreciation for!
Q: What are some of the best lessons you have learned by the incredible generations of women in your family?
A: It may sound trite, but what has been ingrained in me in our family is that hard work and not giving up really does work. Sister famously said “you have to start somewhere” and we have found that to be sound advice.
Q: How is Sister Parish handling the COVID 19 crisis, and since we are all confined to the safety of our homes, what tips do you have to make the experience as pleasant as possible?
A: Sister started her business during the depression, which was of course another time of great disruption in our country’s history. For us, our employees safety and mental and financial well being obviously comes first. Then I think we will see a time of great creativity and inspiration coming out of this pause and reflection. We have all had to slow down and that can only be good for humanity in the long run. In the present, we have focused our energy on what we can do, rather than fixating on what we can’t control. Customer service and dialogue with our clients have always been important to us, so during this time we are engaging our community, asking questions, finding solutions for clients where we can, and presenting ideas and entertainment through our social media. Our brand is more than products, it’s a lifestyle, so it’s actually very straightforward for us to present ideas for living as well as you can, even in such unprecedented times.
Q: As the youngest generation leader of this multigenerational brand, what is your vision for the future of Sister Parish? Where will the company be in the next 10 years?
A: My dream is for all design enthusiasts to learn and understand Sister’s vision. We have a wonderful design community who know us as a household name, but there are so many opportunities to share my great grandmother’s story with a wider audience. We are currently pursuing collaborations and partnerships with likeminded brands and institutions in complementary industries, to create new products and projects. It’s an exciting time.
Q: Anything else you would like to add?
A: We are excited to be launching a new content platform called ‘Tell a Sister” on Friday! Tell a Sister will be a conversation on creativity. (Click here for additional details.) As one of the first female-founded design practices in America, Sister Parish laid the groundwork for strong women in leadership in the business of design. It’s only fitting that we honor her by celebrating today’s visionary people and inspirational work that embraces Sister’s everlasting point of view. With an appreciation for American craft heritage and fresh takes rooted in traditional design, Tell A Sister is a forum and creative roundtable on entrepreneurship, inspiration and all things decorative arts. Imagination is the catalyst for both art and compassion. In these unprecedented times, we feel especially fortunate to have friends with unique perspectives and talents, and we feel compelled to share the wealth with our larger Sister Parish community.
Thank you so much, Eliza, for this intriguing interview on one of my favorite designers and brands! For additional information, please visit Sister Parish Design and follow @sisterparishdesign on Instagram for ongoing inspiration and updates. You can read additional Sister Parish features by The Glam Pad by clicking the links below.
- SISTER PARISH’S MAINE RETREAT
- SISTER PARISH HOME GOODS COLLECTION
- SISTER PARISH’S ENDURING STYLE IS A FAMILY AFFAIR