As the first Irish fashion designer to be welcomed to the United States in the 1950s, Sybil Connolly was lionized by the American press, and was later offered the chance to design home furnishings as well.
She was featured in Time and Life magazines as well as in Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. This attention conferred on her the kind of instant celebrity in which this country seems to specialize.
Being picked up by fashion did not, however, change her ideas and values. "As someone once remarked 'we should forgive fashion anything; it dies so young.' A long time ago I decided that between fashion and beauty, I would opt for beauty," she said in an interview in New York.
While here to introduce her new collection of home furnishings fabrics for Brunschwig & Fils, Connolly was asked to compare American and British habits in decorating.
"In Britain, and especially in Ireland, a family may have lived in the same house for 900 years or more. Each family member has left something behind." Decoration of the home happens piecemeal as a new layer is added to the old. Furthermore, she added, homes may become quite shabby without anyone becoming unduly concerned.
Although the view is often expressed that American homes are more informal than the British variety, she disagrees. She finds that homes here are more likely to be furnished so that everything matches. If they can afford it, Americans tend to redecorate completely from time to time and shabbiness is rarely tolerated.
As an example of the differences, she recalled that not too long ago, an American manufacturer of sheets and towels opened a plant in Britain, but soon closed it. There simply wasn't enough demand for new products to keep the factory profitable.
Matching a New Paint Job
People in Ireland would never think of buying new lavender towels to match the new paint job in the bathroom, she says. But in the United States, it's different. There is a concerted effort to convince people to buy new things before the old things have worn out. And, she added, it's an effort in which the customers cooperate willingly.
As one who has been coming to this country at least twice a year for the past 30 years, Connolly is in an excellent position to compare American and British habits. Americans buy 90% of her couture clothing and she has designed sheets, china, collectibles and home furnishings fabrics for American companies.
At 58, she has received many awards here for her designs and is well known as an inspired gardener, plant and flower enthusiast and for her decorating and artistic talents.
The love affair between her and the United States began when she received her first invitation to come here to put on a fashion show of her clothing.
"I expected it to be my only chance so I made a list of all the sights I had to see." Luckily she added, there were to be many more trips since "it took me 11 years to work through that first list."
Changing American Taste
After traveling all over the United States for three decades, she finds a number of changes in American domestic tastes.
"I think you are mixing the new with the old more, and that more Americans are beginning to appreciate their own admirable traditions." Among American traditions she admires are Shaker designs and the furniture made by American cabinetmakers during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Although the clothes she designs are in classic styles and employ plain-but-luxurious fabrics such as handkerchief linen and handwoven and hand-dyed woolens, when it comes to home furnishings Connolly is known for floral motifs.
She confesses flowers are her passion and her home in Dublin is surrounded by a much-photographed garden which she created.
As to the decoration of the house--which has been featured in a number of American decorating magazines--she says, "I seldom rearrange my own home and when I do, it always turns out that I have replaced the old with something new that is almost exactly the same." She believes the best kind of decoration appears to be effortless, casual and timeless. "Total perfection is often dull and without charm. I like a room that looks as if someone had just left it," she said.