Tour Sister Parish's Islesboro Cape
The home of the iconic decorator lives on as a family retreat — and real-time design lab.
ABOVE Among the living-room treasures in decorator Sister Parish’s family home on Islesboro: trompe l’oeil pelmets hand-painted at her New York firm; an armchair with a swiveling book holder modeled after one Thomas Jefferson designed; a mantel tapestry salvaged from a church; and a barrel-back chair and matching lampshades in her company’s prints.
TEXT BYPETRA GUGLIELMETTI
PHOTOGRAPHED BY MAURA McEVOY
She upgraded the White House living quarters for the Kennedys and counted Astors, Rockefellers, and Vanderbilts among her clientele. But when Sister Parish retreated to her Islesboro summer house, she was free to fully indulge her genius for mix-and-match maximalism. She filled the 19th-century Cape, wall to patterned wall, with things she loved: white-painted furniture, lush floral chintz, patchwork quilts, needlepoint rugs, porcelain collectibles, and baskets galore. Her eye for detail extended even to stairs and bath floors stenciled by renowned trompe l’oeil artist Robert Jackson. When the house was featured in House & Garden in 1967, it embodied a sophisticated-yet-comfortable new design aesthetic known as American country, which would influence countless tastemakers, from her longtime protégé Bunny Williams to Martha Stewart. “Her white-painted oak chairs were a decorating shot heard ’round the world,” says her granddaughter Susan Crater. Parish popularized the notion — revolutionary in 1960s fashionable society — that one could combine high and low, old and new, and that even the finest homes should look, and be, lived in.
ABOVE 1) The porch overlooks a hydrangea-covered fence and the cove beyond. 2) In the parlor, an oil portrait of a young Bartlett watches over heirlooms. 3) Homeowner Apple Bartlett and her Cairn terrier, Brio, enjoy her bedroom’s breezy porch access. Other favorite features include a rug Parish had pieced together from potholders and a vintage shelf Bartlett painted. The wallpaper and sofa fabric are by Sister Parish. 4) In the living room, a pair of antique dogs Bartlett painted and adorned with real collars stand guard.
That’s why Parish, who passed away in 1994, would surely be pleased to see that today, the house is very much living and breathing, as the year-round home of her daughter, Apple Parish Bartlett, and the site of frequent family gatherings. Bartlett used to decamp to a nearby “winter house” during the coldest months, but recently finished winterizing the Cape. Now everyone can stay for Christmas. There will be ample space around the painted oak table, thanks to another renovation that absorbed a screened porch into the dining room. Meanwhile, Crater, Bartlett’s daughter, is busy transforming a card room into a nursery for her grandson. His mother, Crater’s daughter Eliza Crater Harris, who everyone agrees inherited Parish’s facility with pattern and color, regularly adds thoughtful, contemporary touches. When Parish’s eponymous fabric-and-wallpaper company, now helmed by Crater and Harris, launched ikat and block-printed performance fabrics, Harris couldn’t wait to reupholster things, not just on the waterfront porch, but throughout the house, as a stylish kid-and-dog–proofing measure. Harris and Crater also do photo shoots and bring their design staff here to get inspired. “Sister used this house as a design laboratory, and we do too,” Crater says.
ABOVE 1) Bartlett found this needlepoint parlor chair at an island antiques store; Parish often filled the vintage basket with sunflowers. 2) A crewelwork canopy and curtains on a guest-room daybed juxtapose with Sister Parish prints on the wall and pillows. 3 and 4) On dining-room shelves, Dodie Thayer lettuce ware and other ceramic vegetables mingle with plates and trinkets Bartlett picks up at local shops.
Of course, Bartlett, a decoupage artist who runs a local home-décor shop, has also made her mark on the home, sharing her mother’s passion for bold statements — and animal trinkets. The living-room’s color palette now centers around a hooked rug in a rainbow of shades she bought online (“It reminded me of a quilt!”). And recently, she was unable to leave an antiques store without a certain wooden fish. “It’s probably not going to appeal to anybody else, but that fish has a real look to it, for me. It was the same for my mother — they just speak to you.” As other elements shift, Bartlett has kept most of the house’s original furniture. For every lofty piece (heirloom canopy beds, custom-upholstered sofas), another is humble (bureaus and nightstands salvaged from an island inn). Furniture rescuing is another family tradition that’s been carried on. “Now there’s a movement toward ‘sustainable luxury,’ but we’ve always been varsity antiquers,” Crater says.
ABOVE 1) High-gloss paint makes the downstairs hallway glow. “Sister loved bright, clear colors, never moody or muddy,” her great-granddaughter, Eliza Harris, says. 2) In the pantry, original shelves remain sturdy beneath stacks of antique French china. 3) A guest-bedroom collage by Bartlett picks up the shades in the Sister Parish wallpaper and a rag rug reminiscent of ones Parish had Helen Gushee, of Appleton, create for Caroline Kennedy’s White House bedroom. 4) Parish adored ticking stripes, seen on the parlor wallpaper; the matching Roman shades are a recent addition.
You’d think everyone would walk on eggshells in a house brimming with history, fragile curios, and scratchable paint. And there are moments when caution kicks in. “I admit, I’ve put my son in a playpen here,” Harris says. But ultimately, Parish’s guiding star — that houses are for living in — lets everyone relax. “She would love that her great-great-grandson plays here,” Crater says. “She’d be so delighted that it’s still our family house.”