The Legacy of Sister Parish

Text by Clinton Smith Photography by Maura McEvoy

Three miles or so off the coast of Maine, not far from Camden, is a speck of an island called Islesboro. There are no hotels, no full-service restaurants to speak of—getting there by ferry is a feat unto itself, and a trip from Boston usually involves a combination of planes, trains, automobiles—and that boat! It’s a place where doing nothing is the number-one agenda item for summer residents. Unbeknownst to many, except for diehard design aficionados, it is an epicenter of all-American style, as legendary decorator Sister Parish summered here her entire life, and her lasting influence continues to this day at the private compound on the island her daughter Apple Bartlett now calls home most of the year.

“It’s an atmosphere you don’t find any other place,” Bartlett says of the area’s natural beauty. “Everything is untouched. It’s just alive.”

Overlooking Penobscot Bay, the property features postcard views, and the soft sound of the waves rolling onto the rocky shore is simply hypnotizing. “I love sitting on the porch by myself,” says Bartlett of what’s referred to as the Summer House, “but it’s really meant for lots of people, kids, and dogs buzzing around.”

Much of Sister Parish’s signature still abounds in the home: painted furniture, high-gloss floors, wicker, quilts, spongeware, rag rugs, needlepoint pillows, and porcelain collections on full display imbue the house with comfort and charm. What appears effortless is anything but, yet the mood is relaxed and carefree.

Still, the property is not a shrine to Sister’s legacy, nor that of the Parish-Hadley decorating firm that she led with Albert Hadley. On the contrary, it pays tribute to her, yet continues to evolve from one generation to the next. Bartlett’s daughter and granddaughter, Susan Crater and Eliza Crater respectively, produce the ever-popular Sister Parish collection of fabrics and wallpapers, and new patterns have been incorporated into the house in sensitive, thoughtful ways that their grandmother and great-grandmother would no doubt approve.

“Sister never reconsidered a color,” says Susan. To choose a red, her grandmother might have told a painter to match the color of a tomato she had found, but rarely sourced from a paint deck. The color and pattern combinations in their recent introductions, including Palms and Petite Fleur, are just as confident and distinctive.

And while Bartlett acknowledges the lasting influence of her mother’s work, the eighty-five-year-old is too busy to contemplate for long. During the summer months, she runs a charming, eponymous home decor shop filled with playful treasures that she sources—things that speak to her, and, she hopes, resonate with shoppers. (Beyond her summer hours, the store is also open one other day: Black Friday. Since the space is not heated, Bartlett bakes potatoes and keeps them hot in foil so that customers can warm their hands while they shop.)

A noted artist in her own right, Bartlett creates covetable bucolic collages, featuring fanciful scenes that harken to all of the pastoral things she loves—flowers, birds, anything from the natural world—that are sometimes on display (if they haven’t already sold). She began working in this oeuvre after being inspired by an exhibit of Gloria Vanderbilt’s artwork in the 1960s. Interestingly, some of the same not-so-serious touches in Bartlett’s art is found in her mother’s decorating.

“That’s what Mummy was great at,” says Bartlett. “The great mix of whimsy with the good stuff.”

Perhaps the saying is true: on Islesboro, the Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

The Look and Legacy: Sister Parish Design

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