The Rural Charm of Bryn Mawr’s Isabella Sparrow

Hillary O’Carroll doesn’t cook, but she loves to design kitchens.

If you want the clearest sense of Hillary O’Carroll’s design aesthetic, visit Isabella Sparrow. Her Bryn Mawr shop’s rural charm is implicit in its ironstone tableware, baskets, grain sacks, and hand-woven textiles. “Each thing, object and element must be useful, but also beautiful,” says O’Carroll. “It’s even better if the object has a story.”

Personal decorating style: It’s guided by a deep regard for uncomplicated rural simplicity and a desire to create a pure expression of personal identity in the environments we choose to occupy. 

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Favorite room in her house: I’ve recently moved from a farmhouse in Chester County to a Victorian twin in Chestnut Hill. It’s all a work in progress. More than any other room so far, I love my bedroom. It’s very understated, with only carefully added elements. Because of that, it’s so serene to me. There’s nothing in it that I don’t adore. 

Most prized possession: I have the most incredible 200-year-old handmade grain chute on legs that I use as a side table. I don’t think I’ve ever seen more lovely wood in all my life. 

Designers who inspire her: I’ve been inspired more by the farming people of Europe and early America than by anyone who would officially be called a designer. But if I had to offer one, I might say J. Morgan Puett, for the almost-intoxicating feeling of living character imbued in every project she touches. 

Favorite design advice: Keep what you love. Let go of what you don’t. 

Colors she can’t design without: I generally work with a very “neutral” palette of whites and grays, coffee tones and slate. 

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Favorite room to design: The kitchen, which is ironic because I don’t cook—but I love to create beautiful spaces where other people can. I imagine how and where people will gather to talk, to feast, to linger, to be a family together, to connect. And for most of us, all of that happens daily in the kitchen.

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