Society doyenne Sister Parish and design academic Albert Hadley seemed an unlikely pairing. Revealing, their eponymous design rm made history, forever changing the fabric of contemporary American decor.

After 28 years in the business, Mrs Henry Parish II needed help. It was October 1961 and the society doyenne — born Dorothy May but known as ‘Sister’ to her friends — was in the final stages of decorating the White House for the Kennedys. Albert Hadley — a young designer who had been flexing his muscles at the prestigious decorating firm McMillen Inc — was summoned to an interview at Mrs Parish’s apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, on the recommendation of their mutual friend, Tiffany & Co. design director Van Day Truex.

The interview is now the stuff of interior design legend. Greeting Hadley at the front door in stockinged feet and one of her signature black wool dresses, Mrs Parish asked, “Would you zip me up?” What went through Hadley’s head we’ll never know, but what followed, the formation of Parish-Hadley Associates
Inc, could be described as the decorating supernova of the 20th century. An influential East Coast blue blood devoted to the English country house style of noted tastemakers Sibyl Colefax and Nancy Lancaster, Mrs Parish was spontaneous, and completely intuitive. “Forget the floor plans,” she pronounced. “Arrange the furniture where it is most comfortable and it will look best.”

Hadley, by contrast, was disciplined and erudite, graduating top of his class at New York’s Parsons School of Design, where he went on to teach for five years. Cut from the same cloth as American decorating legend Billy Baldwin, Hadley was elegant, refined and modern, with an architect’s feeling for space.

Divergent backgrounds and design philosophies aside, the Parish-Hadley partnership flourished. As Mrs Parish once said, “We fight a lot, but we complement each other. It’s an interesting balance.” One of their first joint projects was a vast Park Avenue triplex apartment for Seagram chairman Edgar Bronfman, Sr. But as Parish nursed plans for a traditional scheme involving yards of her beloved chintz, the firm received an urgent telegram from the Bronfmans, then vacationing in Mexico: “Stop all work until we return. We want a floating apartment.” Mrs Parish was dumbfounded. “What in God’s name do they mean by a floating apartment?” she remarked. Hadley knew exactly what they wanted: modern, clean, uncluttered.

Entire walls were removed and replaced with glass, and a sweeping travertine
staircase was installed. Recovered from the initial shock, Mrs Parish went shopping for a collection of fine 18th-century furniture that complemented the new, open contemporary space. Their clients were delighted with the result, Hadley later recalled. “The project became a big turning point in her thought
process. I could never have done what I did without Sis and she couldn’t have done what she did without me.”

The Parish-Hadley client list read like a who’s who of New York’s Social Register. Their standout interiors include the drawing room of broadcasting baron William Paley and his wife, Babe, where, on a whim, Parish had magnificent French boiserie panelling painted a glossy taxicab yellow; and the apartment of Margaretta ‘Happy’ Rockefeller, where Hadley adapted its original furnishings by Jean-Michel Frank and a ceiling by French cubist Fernand Léger to his new scheme. The firm’s masterpiece, however, is undoubtedly the library in society queen and philanthropist Brooke Astor’s Park Avenue apartment, created to house the extraordinary collection of books that had belonged to her late husband, Vincent Astor. With its oxblood-red lacquered walls and brass-trimmed bookcases, the Astor Library is one of the
most iconic rooms in the history of American interior design.

In another of Mrs Astor’s rooms, custom-printed linen curtains were installed, their ‘Tree of Life’ design taken from an antique fragment of crewel work. The Tree of Life was to become a potent going on to forge their own distinguished careers. “I went to the University of Parish-Hadley,” interior designer Bunny Williams, who started at the firm as Hadley’s secretary in the 1960s, once quipped.

Other alumni include David Easton, Brian McCarthy, David Kleinberg and Sydney-based Thomas Hamel, who reminisces fondly on the Parish-Hadley years. “No matter if you are living in Sydney, New York or Shanghai,” he says, “the Parish-Hadley principles, which were founded on an understanding of historical references, will always be important. In my opinion, the best contemporary work is accomplished by those who have a foundation in the classics.”

A classic of the modern era — that is the legacy of Parish-Hadley