Born Dorothy May Kinnicutt on July 15, 1910, “Sister” Parish received her moniker from her 3 year-old brother Frankie’s nursery nickname. The “Grande Dame” of interior design, she is credited with ushering in what has become known as “American Country Style”. Parish remains an acclaimed and enduring interior decorator, one of the giants of American interior design. Vogue magazine once said she was “the most famous of all living women interior designers, whose ideas have influenced life styles all over America.” Her six decades in the business epitomized the rise of women in her own, and other professions in the early 20th Century.
The daughter of a stockbroker, Parish was raised in baronial splendor by a patrician New York family. Her father, G. Hermann Kinnicutt, could trace his ancestry back to the fiery Puritan preacher Cotton Mather. Her mother, the former May Appleton Tuckerman, was descended from one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. The Kinnicutts had homes in Manhattan, Maine and Paris, as well as New Jersey. Sister’s privileged early life was one of the right schools, yacht clubs, coming out parties, and the Social Register. A cousin on her mother’s side, Dorothy Draper, was also an influential interior decorator in her own right. Parish was a strong traditionalist, and “what was important was permanence, comfort and a look of continuity in the design and decoration of a house,” she once observed. Her sensibility was a reflection of her deeply felt Yankee roots. Her father– a collector of antiques– may have influenced her philosophy “that innovation is often the ability to reach into the past and bring back what is good, what is beautiful, what is lasting.”
Her firm, “Mrs. Henry Parish 2d Interiors”, founded in 1933 by the young Depression-era mother, was the result of her husband’s and father’s financial difficulties following the stock market crash of 1929. Although she never received her high school diploma, her rise was made easier by her upper-crust roots. Parish met Jacqueline Kennedy socially in the late 1950’s and helped her decorate the house in the Georgetown section of Washington where she and her husband, John F. Kennedy lived while he was still a Senator. Later, the public came to know her as the visionary who transformed the Kennedy White House from an outdated relic to an “American Camelot”. Electing an Irish Catholic to the presidency had been a major issue during the campaign, so news of Parish’s assignment caused one newspaper editor to assume it was sign of the Vatican’s impending influence as the paper published the headline: ”Kennedys Pick Nun to Decorate White House.” Parish and her partner Albert Hadley, who joined her firm in 1962, developed as long-time clients not only the Kennedys, but Brooke Astor, CBS chairman William Paley, and the Bronfman, Getty, Mellon, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt and Whitney clans.
Over the course of its history, Hadley-Parish produced a huge body of work and influenced an entire generation of American decorators. Her ageless atmospheres appealed to both men and women, and dictated style on both sides of the Atlantic. A passion for homey, yet sophisticated touches, bold color and mixed patterns invoked charm, imagination, and a lived-in look to her rooms. Combining unexpected items such as Colefax and Fowler chintzes, overstuffed armchairs, patchwork quilts, knitted throws and rag rugs, baskets and showy painted floors, her philosophy was that things should be “put together not because they matched but because you liked them”. She had a revelation about painted furniture, which she saw while in her teens in Paris, and championed of the use of humble mattress ticking, using it for slipcovers and pillows, a practice which became widely popular. Because her rooms seemed to develop over the years, they were timeless and never seemed dated. Her sensibility and keen eye developed organically, and her handiwork was admired by friends who began coming to her for help with decorating. She later confidently recalled of her advice that “it never occurred to me that I wasn’t qualified to give it.”
An enduring member of a coterie of designers who came to prominence between the two world wars, Parish worked at her firm into her 80s, and died at age 84 at her home at Dark Harbor, Maine. Her legacy has influenced such designers as Mark Hampton, Bunny Williams, David Easton, Mariette Hines Gomez, David Kleinberg, Thomas Jayne and Brian McCarthy.