The striking Richard Lear Memorial pavilion at the LongHouse Reserve is punched up with Sunbrella-upholstered pillows.
Photo: Joanne Sohn

Outdoor Furnishings That Are Stylish and High-Performance

Design legend Sherri Donghia talks about her partnership with Sunbrella
Sherri Donghia Photo: Matt Albiani

Some might find it hard to make a name for themselves after a family member has seized the spotlight first. That has certainly not been the case for Sherri Donghia, whose cousin, Angelo Donghia—who died in 1985—was one of the most influential interior designers of the 20th century, with a client list that included Ralph Lauren, Neil Simon, Diana Ross, Barbara Walters, and yes, Donald and the first Mrs. Trump, Ivana. At his death, Angelo left behind the growing furniture and fabrics company Donghia.

Sherri Donghia, who had already built a sizable reputation of her own in the fashion industry, both at Bloomingdale’s—the New York department store—and, as an independent consultant, joined the firm in 1987, and for the next 20 years helped turn it into one of the most prestigious design companies in the world. Before her arrival at Donghia, she had worked only in fashion, but that profession led her to acquire a keen love of textiles, the division that she spearheaded at the firm.

One of her first jobs was to consult with Paul Costelloe, the Irish fashion designer, where she even learned to smell the fabric. (“They have an amazing aroma,” she explained.) Donghia left the company in 2007, after the business was acquired, but has stayed in the spotlight as an independent consultant, acting as chairperson of CAUS (Color Association of the United States), sitting on the boards of Jack Lenor Larsen’s LongHouse Reserve Foundation, in East Hampton, and the Rhode Island School of Design.

The amphitheater at LongHouse is the setting for the colorful array of non-fading Sunbrella fabrics that was used for the NAWA Axis for Peace obelisk by the Japanese glass artist Mariyo Yagi. Photo: Matko Tomicic, Courtesy LongHouse Reserve

During her tenure at Donghia she had collaborated with Sunbrella, a privately held American company, to create the first luxury collection of outdoor fabrics, or “performance textiles” as they are referred to in the industry. She proudly emphasized that they were jacquards—woven designs—not surface prints. “It was so successful, we co-branded,” Donghia said. She sat back and watched as a host of copycats jumped into the market. 

Today, these indoor-outdoor fabrics are a major category at almost every level of retail—from Costco to Donghia itself. Her prior relationship with Sunbrella led her to an exciting role as a consultant to the company, and for the past five years she has had an evolving and expanding role working not only on design development, but also on marketing and sales. “My job is to give them the big picture,” she said.

In 2014, Donghia co-curated Exteriors: The Explosion of Outdoor Furnishings for a special exhibition at the LongHouse Reserve. The major show included over 150 examples of furniture, lighting, and fabrics assembled in nine outdoor rooms that were spread throughout the foundation’s 16 luscious acres. Sunbrella was an active participant, along with such prestigious brands as Vitra, Knoll, Moroso, and Herman Miller.

The striking Richard Lear Memorial pavilion at the LongHouse Reserve is punched up with Sunbrella-upholstered pillows. Photo: Joanne Sohn

Donghia is behind Sunbrella’s new artisanal Performance Art collection, and paired the company with Dransfield & Ross, a luxury textiles design firm based in Jersey City, New Jersey, which felt there was a void in the market for modern, hand-crafted, high-performance fabrics. The collection is currently for sale at Barneys New York. In Donghia’s mind, being a matchmaker at that level is truly something to be proud of.

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