Sister Parish Design

On Decorating

Susan Bartlett Crater and Libby Cameron; Illustrations by Mita Corsini Bland

St. Martin's Press

SISTER PARISH DESIGN
OUR ROOMS
When I was in college in New York I had the luxury and good fortune of visiting many spectacular houses with my grandmother Sister Parish when she called on her friends on the weekend. Sunday lunch was a popular time to entertain with her generation, and it is a shame this tradition has gone out of style in our busy lives. Dedicating a block of time to a Sunday lunch means you are really dedicating the entire day to leisure, as a big component of the Sunday lunch is a cocktail before lunch and wine during the meal, rendering you hopeless for whatever afternoon activities you had previously scheduled.
Many of the houses I visited with Sister were unforgettable. Brooke Astor's house in Briarcliff, New York, stands out as the scene of colorful verbal skirmishes between Mrs. Astor and Sister, both very competitive women. It was also the most representative of a way of life we don't see anymore. All of the big houses in the country had pea stone driveways so the sound of cars on gravel was the first impression, followed by the smell of lovely pots of flowers surrounding the front door or wood smoke from the fire within, depending on the season. The door at Mrs. Astor's beautiful Georgian house would be opened by the familiar major domo of the house, whom my grandmother knew well as she visited often. Sister would always call out "hoo hoo," and the response from far away would be "we are in here," meaning in the beautiful large living room or a smaller cozy library that was almost a sun room. Usually a fire would be crackling and drinks offered up--sherry or something light. I remember the feeling of being frozen in time as we sipped our drinks and looked out at the beautiful gardens, chatted about the news of the day, and then went into the dining room for a traditional meal with lots of spirited conversation. Finally, completely satiated, there would be coffee back in the library or living room. Obviously the house's settings were amazing as Sister and Mrs. Astor had collaborated on its beautiful rooms, but more important, in that grand Georgian house one was made to feel comfortable and welcome. If we sat in the large living room, there were master paintings scattered about, but you never felt intimidated or overwhelmed. Seating arrangements were cozy and the upholstered furniture wonderfully comfortable.
We had similar lunches at the Whitneys' house on Long Island, a rambling Dutch Colonial revival, which embodied a grand, yet livable country house, or her childhood friends' houses in New Jersey, typically smaller clapboard farmhouses filled with odd family heirlooms and bursting with color and charm. No matter the era of the house, the recipe was the same: extremely comfortable living rooms or libraries with brightly colored chintz and a mix of assorted eclectic family paintings and objects, delicious three-course meals that began with piping hot soups and finished with old-fashioned cakes and custards, and throughout, attention to the moment--no rushing to finish and get going. I don't think I ever saw anyone from that generation rush. It must have been considered very bad manners.
The rooms that we visited in these great houses were well worn and well lived in. You had the impression that countless parties, family meals, or just plain hours of reading the Sunday paper had taken place in these rooms. That is what good decorating is--the transformation of a house to be aesthetically beautiful as well as useful for the family that lives there. Comfort and lack of intimidation were the foundation these houses were built on. It was not unusual to see a typically tattered dog bed underneath an old master painting. The rooms were designed to be used and they were, to their fullest.
Billy Baldwin was a great proponent of urging his clients to live in their living rooms and he paid homage to Sister's living room in his discussion, "How to live in a living room," from the book Billy Baldwin Decorates, which includes some effective pointers:
When it comes to color think warm. Deep vibrant colors like brown, red, or burnt orange make a room intimate without reducing its size. I like to see furniture covered with chintz in a traditional room or with a wonderful contemporary pattern in a more modern room. I love to seeobjects around--not a clutter, but enough so everyone knows these rooms belong to someone--things happen here. One of the nicest living rooms in New York belonged to one of my colleagues, Mrs. Henry Parish II, who knows just how to live in a living room. The walls were dark brown. The curtains were the color of coral and there was wonderful English garden chintz on all of the big overstuffed chairs and sofas. She had arranged the furniture in three groups--one of them around the fire. Here was where she sat every day to have a cup of tea and read the mail. Here was where the family gathered drawn by the firelight on chilly afternoons. The room was equally beautiful when filled with people or when you were alone there. That is what I call a room that's lived in.
 
-- SUSAN BARTLETT CRATER
LIVING ROOMS
Madame used to say, "We are not decorating--we are making places to live."
WILLIAM HODGINS
 
LIBBY CAMERON When we started with projects at Parish-Hadley, there was never a moment given to the possibility that any one of the rooms would not be used and loved and lived in. Each room was as important as the next although the purpose may have been different. And as I learned well, each room has to connect to the others, not in terms of the colors used, but in its aesthetic; each room needs to be its own while simultaneously being part of a whole. I remember Mrs. Parish talking about rooms and colors swearing at each other, and the importance of a thread that tied all of the rooms together. Comfort is an element that connects rooms and is what Parish-Hadley was known for. A room was never designed without thought given to how it would be used and what was important, how the light fell and how many people lived there, how the lamps or lighting in the room would draw you in and enable you to read.
Living rooms were never planned with just one place to sit and often had three or more seating areas, and were cozy enough so that one or many people could be comfortable. Parish-Hadley was a wonderful school for so many. Ingrained in us all was the importance of imaginative warm rooms that had to be friendly, comfortable, and timeless.
 
MITCHELL OWENS What I think the "graduates" of Parish-Hadley have in common is a certain respect for history without being slavish, a breadth of vision that reveres quality over specific periods or styles, and an understanding of real comfort, no matter how formal the client's lifestyle. I don't think I've ever been in a room executed by a Parish-Hadley alum that isn't eminently livable. The rooms themselves may not be my cup of tea, per se, in terms oflooks, but the comfort level is pretty much steady across the board, don't you think? There's inherent practicality, too, an attention to the sorts of amenities that many designers of otherwise striking rooms often forget. (There is a world of difference between a room styled to be beautiful and a room that is actually decorated for living.) I once spent an evening at a star designer's apartment, and though the sitting room was spectacularly outfitted, I had to clutch my glass all evening--there was no place to set a drink down! That sort of foolishness would never occur in a room with a Parish-Hadley bloodline. At least, I hope not.
 
MARIO BUATTA The thing about English houses that is so great is that they are always played down with chintz and sisal carpeting. Sister did the same thing. She did not like a room that was only filled with "important furniture."
 
JANE CHURCHILL Obviously I come from a family of decorators, being Nancy Lancaster's niece; Nancy's sister, my grandmother Alice Winn, never worked as a decorator, but she had fantastically good taste and always did it much more on a shoestring. She could turn a hovel into something. I remember the house she had at Sandwich--a really nasty, suburban-looking brick house. By the time she added lattice balconies to it, painted it a different color, and planted a garden in front of it, it was drop-dead gorgeous. But she always did it in a much cheaper way than Aunt Nancy, not that money with Aunt Nancy was key. I will always remember she had something red in every room. They both had an eye for things that some people didn't seem to see. I think you are born with an eye or you're not. Nancy Lancaster and Alice Winn had incredibly wonderful, comfortable houses with bathrooms that always looked like other people's drawing rooms and my grandmother always had very, very good food. They were American. We were brought up with American backgrounds, not just a British background. In those days comfort was more unique. My cousin Lady Wissie Ancaster had wonderful taste, but that also came because she had the whole line of Aunt Nancy, Granny, and the whole lot in her. They didn't just make homes, they made wonderful homes. They were never pretentious.Nothing was ever pretentious. Dogs were everywhere, pee stains on the edge of the curtains. Not that it was ever dirty, but they were absolutely lacking in any form of pretention. They were such personalities themselves. The women had such energy.
Nancy Lancaster was funny and amusing and she treated everyone the same, from a duke to the dustman, and they all adored her. She was really happy in her garden with all the gardeners. The staff she had was there for years and they all adored her because she was kind and funny. She always had an eclectic group of people around her. They were just very talented.
 
EMMA BURNS When I was working with Roger Banks-Pye, we were on the way to see a client and he said we should make a quick detour and go see Nancy. We had a delicious lunch--this was when she was at the Coach House at Haseley--and that was just enchanting. She must have been about eighty-seven by then--she said a hundred minus thirteen. She was quite wonderfully eccentric.
Sadly, I only met her that one time and I never met John Fowler. He was very much the decorator and she sort of dabbled really. She had most of the contacts. Also she had that phenomenal American style. It was the combination of her and John Fowler together that was so exciting. She had the confidence and he had the attention to detail. You think of a room like the Yellow Room at Brook Street and people always make the mistake of saying that that strength of color was an American influence, but it's pure John Soane. I think that she was brilliant at using color when most people had rather forgotten about colors or using them on a grander scale. There was also always something informal about her interiors. They were lived-in. They didn't have the stilted feeling that so much English decoration had. They are not formulaic, but with individual pieces and collections of things, not studied in any way.
 
PETER DUNHAM I am concerned about creating spaces that people are actually going to inhabit, places where they are going to want to go into thatcorner and read, for example. I am focused on what's going to bring them into the room. How am I going to make this living room work? So I am very concerned about creating destination places in my decorating. The big challenge here in LA is that there are all these nightmare windows and doors. There is no way to do the destination thing with that kind of architecture so I am always moving doors slightly and closing things out so that there are actual places that people will want to go. That's where I start--figuring out the use. With the client we also spend weeks talking about whether they like to watch TV in bed or whether they like toilet paper on the left-hand side or the right-hand side. Finally, they get a feeling that you understand their physical needs.
 
JEFFREY BILHUBER I always think comfort will override surprise or astonishment. Perhaps the most astonishing thing is when a house continues to reward and give back to you as you use it. That is going to have a more long-lasting effect than anything else.
 
PETER DUNHAM I think that people want to go to a glamorous house and they want it to be exciting. On the other hand, they don't want to be intimidated by it. So you've got to take the air out of it. There is nothing worse than going to a house and thinking, "Oh my god, this is very fancy." People are scared to sit on the sofa. It happens all the time. It's too rich. Sister's genius was at making people feel it's okay to be in their houses and have the confidence that the people were more interesting than the houses.
For me it's like dressing people--you've got to make the clients look and feel sexy. So if I have a forty-five-year-old single studio executive from Paramount, I want him to be sexy when he has a date. I want him to impress people if he wants to. Also, if someone is coming from a date, I want him to be able to curl up on the sofa and end up in bed with the person. That's what he wants. You've got to make him look slimmer and taller. You've got to make him look fun and eclectic and amusing, and have a sense of humor. My clients call me up and say the house is so great and people love coming. If it's a drab depressing house it's such a downer--who wants to go there?
The essential thing is the function and how to bring people in to use the room and how to break that room to humanize it. Also how you build in mistakes so it doesn't look like it's absolutely perfect and lifeless. For example, in a very fancy silk velvet living room you might want to have a dog bed or something, just so that it feels like somebody is actually living there. You make sure to include a desk so that's where someone goes to use the computer--and have the bills piled up, rather than it be two sofas and be perfect. Sister and Nancy Lancaster were very strong in making people understand about living in houses.
 
TODD ROMANO I have a theory that if most people had a huge open kitchen, living room, sitting room, and an office they would be happy. I think many houses and apartments nowadays are underused. I tend to make rooms where people will feel comfortable and use them. We try to make living rooms very inviting, for example. Our parents and our grandparents used those rooms because people entertained much more. Nobody really entertains very much anymore. One of my great friends and also a client, Cornelia, is one of the few young ladies I know who still really entertains--luncheon parties, dinner parties--at home. You think of all the people we know and with such amazing resources available to them in these massive apartments and they won't even have you over for a peanut butter or tuna fish sandwich. It's insane. It's a funny thing because growing up in South Texas--San Antonio--we didn't go to restaurants. Most of my mother's family is from Virginia and Georgia. Part of her family left after the Civil War and settled in Corpus Christi. My mother grew up in San Antonio and there was a lot of holdover from the Georgia-Virginia Southern lifestyle, which was then adapted to the heat of South Texas. Sunday dinners were always a big thing. The concept of entertaining at home was very important to my grandmother and my mother both. My grandmother was, and my mother still is, an exceptional gardener with a huge interest in horticulture and landscape gardening. My father and I come from a long line of Italian engineers and builders. We are all frustrated architects and what Italian doesn't like to stack rocks? I grew up in a house that was always changing. There were always additions being done inside or out, gardens beingplanned, patios being laid. Our family lived in one house for about twenty-eight or thirty years and that house went through so many transformations. It evolved over time. As our family grew and changed, the house grew and changed to accommodate it.
 
MILES REDD I believe in big living rooms. Big, cozy living rooms that are full of objects are better with more seating areas. How do we get twenty people sitting in this living room? I always think about how you are going to live and what makes sense for a group or a gathering of people, which is very much a Southern way of thinking. But it's not exclusively Southern. I don't know why we get all the credit. I have met some awful nice Yankees. I want people to feel welcome. You were Invited--I like you--make yourself at home and relax. I think that comes more from the personality of the person who invited you. There is perfection in imperfection. You want some things to be a little off. When things are perfect it feels like Disney World in a way.
 
PAUL VINCENT WISEMAN A house is a reflection of your soul. It is the most personal reflection. Think about it--you can buy the right jewelry, the right neighborhood, the right car, the right clothes, and the right hairdo. Guess what? When someone walks into your house it's scary. It's very scary, particularly to people who don't come from strong cultural backgrounds. Because they know they're going to be judged.
 
MARTHA ANGUS I do not necessarily try to get as much seating in a room as possible. I like air around things. I like space. The Bronfmans' apartment was one of my favorites. It was beautiful because it had air around objects. I prefer that. I also think that to function you need to have a place to put a drink down and to be able to read a book.
SISTER PARISH DESIGN: ON DECORATING. Copyright © 2009 by Susan Bartlett Crater and Libby Cameron. Foreword copyright © 2009 by Albert Hadley. Illustrations copyright © 2009 by Mita Corsini Bland. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.