Growing up in an old clapboard house in Chevy Chase, D.C. in the 1950s and '60s, in a family of eight children, the four Grimm sisters played a decorating game called "One Thing." Wherever they went -- shopping, vacations, the movies, other people's homes -- they took turns answering one question: If you could own one thing or change one thing in a room and money were no object, what would it be?
Later Connie, Mary Jo, Suzie and Regina refined the game pouring over decorating magazines and coffee-table books or while checking out show houses and antique shops. They shared bedrooms and traded ideas for fixing them up -- painting old furniture, shoving beds and chests of drawers around, even putting up wallpaper by themselves.
The Grimm sisters now: Mary Jo Donohoe, Suzanne Hawkins and Connie Britell.
(Mark Finkenstaedt For The Washington Post)
Eventually -- and to no one's surprise -- three of the four pursued professions in design: Connie Britell, Mary Jo Donohoe and Suzanne Hawkins became Washington area decorators. Their work has appeared in show houses, in House Beautiful and Southern Accents, and on HGTV's "Interiors by Design with Chris Madden" and "Bed & Bath Design" hosted by Joan Kohn. (Fourth sister Regina Dickens, became an accountant and moved to Florida.)
Now the designing trio, still with separate businesses and clients, are marketing their sisterly shtick in a joint venture called SOS -- Sisters on Style. They recently shot a TV pilot about -- what else? -- three sisters making over spaces with three distinct styles. They're currently shopping the idea around to HGTV, the Learning Channel and Discovery Channel.
Later this month will see the launch of their first product -- "SOS: The Professional Organizer for Your Home Designs." The kit contains a three-ring binder to hold swatches, magazine articles, business cards and paint chips, and includes design tips from the sisters.
As children and now as professionals, the three have distinctive styles.
Britell, whose business is in Reston and Bethany Beach, Del., is a color and lighting specialist who favors a clean, contemporary look. Donohoe, who lives and works in Bethesda, leans toward a classic European/Old World style with custom accessories and architectural elements. Hawkins, who started as a decorative painter, describes her style as cozy-comfortable and often garden inspired.
At Donohoe's glam Bethesda house last week, the sisters gathered at the sprawling kitchen island finishing each other's sentences and eating each other's salads.
"There is nothing like a sister to tell you the real truth," said Britell, 64, the oldest, who the others claim used to boss them around in the old days. But no more.
"We learned to express our opinions," said Donohoe, next in line at 59. "And to talk over each other."
Youngest sister Hawkins, 51, added, "We liked the idea of working together. And we do have different ways we like to live. It made perfect sense."
A preoccupation with design came early for the sisters Grimm (yes, they are related to the Brothers Grimm). Clare and Frank Grimm raised their family in a 1920s Colonial Revival house in Northwest, a few blocks from the Maryland line.
The girls' bedrooms were furnished in hand-me-down chests and spool beds. "Mom didn't really have time to think about decorating," said Hawkins. "It wasn't her thing. She was frugal and we always painted our own bedrooms."
Britell recalls her maternal grandmother taking her downtown to Sloan's auction house and teaching her how to find a bargain on good rugs and furniture. "I remember in the fourth grade, I decided my room was boring. My mom said I could wallpaper it, but I had to go to Sears and not spend over $2 a roll." She and her sisters put up the blue and green hydrangea wallpaper themselves. When they got older, the sisters helped each other decorate their first apartments. Mary Jo sewed paisley sheets into curtains for Suzie's first one-bedroom, on Wisconsin Avenue. Connie helped Mary Jo fix up her newlywed digs in Bethesda, making curtains out of felt because it didn't require seaming.
"They all had the calling," said sister Regina Dickens, who didn't. "They were always changing and rearranging."
The sisters followed different paths to the design field.
Britell was studying design when she got married, moved to Salem, Mass., had four kids and worked for a local decorating firm. She got her first break decorating a hotel in Salem in 1976, and a couple of years later she moved her business, Dovetail Interior Architecture and Design, to Washington. Two years on, Mary Jo joined her in doing high-end residential properties across the Washington area. Britell, now divorced, still takes on residential and commercial interiors and has recently opened a second office in Bethany Beach.
Donohoe studied elementary education and taught in Montgomery County and at the Maret School in the District before she married local developer Jim Donohoe. She had two kids, and when Connie moved back from Massachusetts in 1978, Donohoe couldn't resist joining in her design operation. In 1985, Donohoe launched her own business, M.J. Interior Design, in Bethesda. She specializes in new home projects and large-scale additions. She's currently working on a remodel of a brick farmhouse in Easton, Md., and a Georgetown project that is combining two townhouses. Her clients include Washington businesswoman Sheila Johnson, co-founder of Black Entertainment Television, for whom Donohoe did several properties.
Hawkins studied elementary education and art history, and became a teacher before she married local landscape architect Bob Hawkins. She had three children, and started doing decorative wall painting in the 1980s. She worked with Mary Jo before starting her own Bethesda company, Suzanne Hawkins Interiors, in 1998. She has a lot of local clients who want their family rooms and kitchens spruced up, but she also works on seaside houses in North Carolina and the British Virgin Islands.
It was Connie's daughter Martine Britell, 38, a freelance writer/producer, who realized that her mom and aunts had the charisma and decorating smarts to have their own TV show. "I filmed them and interviewed them one Thanksgiving as they were critiquing some decorating books and magazines," said Martine. "I told them that they light up together and they should be on TV." She suggested they check out some of the proliferating home cable shows. "I told them they could do a better job than some of them."
Martine also had a brainstorm about the binders that the sisters use for keeping track of client projects. There were plenty of hefty wedding planners on the market, she noticed, but nothing substantial for corralling all the bits and pieces involved in redoing a house. She envisioned a binder that would break down the decorating process into manageable chunks. Clear plastic sleeves would hold magazine articles and budget work pages. A sturdy tote would be roomy enough to lug tile and granite samples plus books and magazines. Lively text would include hints on decorating from the sisters.
The resulting box and binder set, priced at $79.99, is now available through the Sisters On Style Web site (www.sistersonstyle.com). Next month it will be offered through Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble.com. QVC, the home shopping channel, is considering selling the product as well.
Do they still have time to play "One Thing"? All the time, they say, and now their kids chime in too.
"When we get together," said Britell, "we stack up design books on the coffee table and go through them and critique the photos. It's like a family joke."
The Hawkins family likes to bike on vacation, and when they come back from cruising through neighborhoods, they each pick the house they liked the best. "We pick jewelry at Tiffany -- we do it everywhere," said Hawkins.
Britell, Donohoe and Hawkins were shopping together the other day at a Georgetown antiques shop. "When we left," said Hawkins, "Mary Jo and I were talking about what things we liked best in there. But not Connie. There was this cute guy in there that ran the store. She chose him as her 'one thing.' "