How Sweet the Design of Amazing Grace

Debra Parr operates Amazing Grace from her office on Entrada Drive.
Debra Parr operates Amazing Grace from her office on Entrada Drive.
Photo by Rich Schmitt, Staff Photographer

‘We made it snow at the Bel Air Bay Club,’ Debra Parr says in an excited voice injected with all the warmth of a mother recalling memories of her kids growing up. She’s sitting on the tiny turquoise couch in her 20- by 12-ft. office on Entrada, describing another special celebration that she planned with her event design firm, Amazing Grace. The photo album on her lap is filled with colorful images from birthday parties, weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, fundraisers and other events Parr has designed. One Chinese-American wedding last October featured an orange-and-white color theme with elements of the bride’s Chinese heritage woven into the decorations and ceremony, including cherry trees brought in for the occasion. However, because they were ‘a hip, metropolitan couple,’ according to Parr, everything had a contemporary, city feel. For example, modernized white lanterns hung from the trees in Maguire Gardens in Downtown Los Angeles, where the wedding was held, and each table at the reception (at Cafe Pinot) was named after a quality such as luck or grace. Even the waiters wore orange ties. ‘I’m really good with space planning and decor,’ says Parr, who earned her bachelor’s degree in art history and architecture from UCLA. She started her own interior design business, Debra Parr and Associates, straight out of college in 1987 and worked from her home in Brentwood. ‘I just hung up my shingle,’ Parr says, recollecting some of her first jobs’covering a couch and designing a nursery. ‘A couple of people gave me a chance.’ Her background in interior design, coupled with her savvy sense of style and love for planning meaningful events, eventually led her to pursue event design. ‘Having grown up outside of Montreal, some of my aesthetic sensibility comes from that European style,’ says Parr, who began modeling in Quebec at the age of 14. She moved to the United States to model in 1979 but ultimately decided to go to college instead. However, Parr says that ‘being part of the fashion world and knowing how to pull things together’ has definitely helped with both her interior and event design businesses. She also had the opportunity to travel with her husband, Rob Parr, a fitness trainer, in the late 1980s, while he trained Madonna on two world tours. ‘I got to be a sponge,’ Parr says about her experience attending and observing grand-scale parties held for the pop star in various countries. She started Amazing Grace in 2000 at Colorado and 26th St., and initially was working mainly for her interior design clients who were hiring her to do parties. After doing some pro bono work for charities, her business grew by word of mouth. When Parr was hired to design a party for Hillary Clinton in a Beverly Hills home, she decided on a Zen/Asian tea instead of the typical British tea. She has also produced events for Bill Clinton and Al Gore. Yet Parr’s passion also seems to come from helping her clients celebrate their special events while forming one-on-one relationships with the people she works with. ‘I feel privileged that families let me into their lives for a time and I want everything to go perfectly,’ she says. ‘You remember these moments in your life, not always at a party but during the day, when you get goose bumps’I’m looking for that feeling whenever possible.’ Parr is especially experienced in the realm of Sweet Sixteens and bar/bat mitzvahs because she has children around these ages’12-year-old twins Hunter and Chandler, and a 16-year-old son, Jordan. In fact, they were the reason she found her current space at Entrada, which used to be a surf shop that her children frequented. Amazing Grace has been there for about a year and a half, and Parr likes the convenience of being so close to her Santa Monica Canyon home. In the tiny office, Parr has a basket of materials and samples for each client she’s working with, and photos of her clients hang on a bulletin board. Most hire her one year in advance, though she says she has pulled events together in six weeks. ‘I try to have only one event on any given weekend,’ says Parr, who works with a two-person staff including assistants Nancy and Claudia, as well as a crew of art students who help with the installation of the event. ‘We love being a boutique business and really want to be available to the client.’ Parr does not charge for the initial ‘meet and greet.’ After the consultation, clients can hire her for a flat fee (which she says about 85 percent opt to do) or by the hour if, for example, they are already far along in the planning process and just need some hourly consulting. ‘The flat fee has nothing to do with the budget,’ Parr explains, adding that she is good at giving her clients an accurate reflection of what they can have within their budget. The definitive issues, she says, are what time frame they have to plan the event, the scope of the event and the budget. Amazing Grace helps with everything from locations and scheduling to recommendations for a photographer, DJ or a cake. Parr is involved in every step, from drawing floor plans for the venue to designing the hostess gift. One of her funky, innovative ideas for a party favor is a customized viewfinder. She’s also done candy bars wrapped in the colors of the party. Once, she rented the Big Blue Bus as transportation for a party and put customized posters on the side. At a Harry Potter-themed bar mitzvah held at the Beverly Wilshire hotel, Amazing Grace set up a ‘potion/lotion station’ where children made bath salts and essential oils. At a 50th wedding anniversary party, each table was decorated with items that referenced a part of the couple’s history together. Parr has also created and produced parties with themes such as 1940/’50s, toga (‘Animal House meets Caesar’s Palace’), ‘enchanted forest’ and, of course, the Academy Awards. In Pacific Palisades, she has designed bat mitzvah parties at Kehillat Israel and decorated people’s homes for Halloween. About 90 percent of her clientele is from the Westside, with the majority from the Palisades, though she has also produced events in Long Beach, New York and Montreal. Parr continues to practice interior design, which makes up about 25 to 30 percent of her business, since she says it ‘keeps me fresh and inspired.’ Parr, who describes her own style as ‘aristocratic bohemian,’ says she came up with the name ‘Amazing Grace’ when she was in a store on the Third Street Promenade listening to the gospel song. ‘I thought, ‘This is how I want to live my life,” she says. ‘It’s what we really aspire to in our business.’ Amazing Grace is located at 140 Entrada. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. Contact: 453-8494.