The Whimsical Patterns of Sarah Fitz

Founded by artist Sarah Fitzgerald O’Brien, the Sarah Fitz studio in York is an airy, colorful space filled with covet-worthy products.

A smiling whale wears an old-timey life preserver in one of Sara Fitz’s delicate watercolor cards.
Wallpaper and textile samples hang on one wall of the shop, while blankets spill out of wire baskets below; baskets and glass jars also hold rolls of gift wrap, while cards and notepaper cover tables and benches.
The gallery wall at Sara Fitz is constantly expanding and changing. “I think I have 14 more to add to that wall or something. It just grows and grows, which is really exciting,” O’Brien explains. Below the prints sit trays of varying sizes as well as stationery for every occasion.

“Surface design” is a relatively new term for an art form that’s been around for a long time: the creation of patterns to adorn items of every kind. After designing a pattern, surface designers get to see their work in all sorts of contexts: on sheets, for example, or on trays or stationery. It was stationery that drew Sara Fitzgerald O’Brien away from her planned career and into the world of surface design; looking around her airy design studio and store in York, it’s hard to believe that all the beautiful objects—blankets, stickers, wallpaper, needlepoint kits—start out in the same way: as sketches on paper.

Her new career began somewhat by chance, O’Brien recounts, with her “save the date” cards. She had met her husband-to-be, Miles O’Brien, on Nantucket one college summer when she was at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island. “I went to undergrad and graduate school for architecture, and I had a bunch of minors. I minored in visual arts, painting, art, and architectural history,” she says. “I was planning to become a shingle-style, residential cottage architect. Then Miles and I got engaged when I was right out of grad school.” Dissatisfied with the options in stores for her wedding stationery, O’Brien started making her own save-the-date cards “in our apartment guest room on an all-in-one printer,” she remembers with a laugh.

“I knew I wanted something with my art on it, something that reflected us. So I just threw something together, kind of for fun, and then sent it out. And our guests started asking, ‘Where did you get these? I’m getting married. And my sister’s getting married.’ By the time we had our wedding, I had clients. I completely started an accidental wedding business that I didn’t mean to start,” she recalls.

This accidental business thrived and fed O’Brien’s creative impulses. “I ran that for a few years and had a wonderful time. When my second son was born, I decided to take a break and be home with the boys full-time, but I always knew I wanted to start up that creative studio thing again, something with the illustration, with more of a focus on home design rather than weddings,” she says. “My husband was working in IT at the time, but he said, ‘Maybe now’s the time to do this together?’ And he left his job and we launched Sarah Fitz.”

The couple had moved from Massachusetts to York early in their marriage. “We had been coming up here on weekends to see my parents, and we thought we’d just poke around York and see if there was anything for rent. There was a pet-friendly little ranch, right by the wiggly bridge, right on the water; it was the most beautiful location,” says O’Brien. “Now we have our home in the harbor and it’s our forever spot. I’ll never leave it. It’s a really special town.” When she and Miles decided to open a studio space for their new joint venture, they found another ideal York location: “It’s a mile away from our house, so it was a perfect location for us. We moved in July 2021. We have great office space and workspace in the back, and then we have a second story, which houses a lot of inventory.”

First-time visitors should not be deterred by a sign on the door that says, “by appointment only,” O’Brien says. “We were originally going to be an ‘appointment only’ design studio, where interior designers could come in and meet with us. And occasionally we’d be open to the public. But then, as we set up a store, I thought, Oh my gosh, it’s such a retail space. It’s such a shame to have the lights off most of the time.”

Looking around the shop, one can easily understand the impulse to throw open the doors to the public. Huge windows flood the space with light, which bounces off the blue and white striped floor; combined with the pops of color from O’Brien’s artwork and carefully arranged seashells and coral, the whole room gives off a sense of coastal ease. Wooden tables display stationery and stickers, while wire baskets hold rolls of gift wrap for all occasions, from birthdays to holidays. Other baskets overflow with soft blankets patterned with some of O’Brien’s most popular designs: blue and white ginger jars, or winter hats with pom-poms. These form part of her ongoing collaboration with ChappyWraps, based in Cape Elizabeth.

The ChappyWraps represent just one of the many projects O’Brien has worked on with other companies. “Collaborations are awesome,” she says. “Working with ChappyWraps has been like a dream.” Another Maine company she works with is L.L.Bean: “The Bean collaboration is wonderful. They are such a nice large group of people to work with. Bedding is the current collection, and then they carry a lot of other Sarah Fitz items. That’s been great for us too.” She also teams up with Daytrip Society in Kennebunkport, where they have a collection of Sea Bags featuring her designs. “That collection just keeps growing and growing, which is great,” says O’Brien. There’s apparel arriving at her shop this summer too, from a collaboration with NavyBleu (beach coverups and pajamas), as well as their very own Sara Fitz line, which has left O’Brien and her husband scrambling to revise some of their space. “We’re having a dressing room made; fingers crossed for no delays,” she laughs.

Between retail operations and design collaborations, O’Brien relishes the chance to return to her drawing board and work on more illustrations. She has a studio in her home by the harbor. “It’s super cozy, and it’s very inspiring. I feel like it’s such a mental thing; once you’ve had luck in one spot, you always go back to the same place,” she says. There she sketches and paints by hand on watercolor paper; she then digitizes her work in order to have more flexibility with colors in the finished product. “That’s been fun, to explore those two worlds and mesh them together,” she reflects. “I’d say, overall, I’ve been happily surprised at the amount of consistency we’ve had across products, because every material handles it differently and everything takes color a little bit differently.” It’s all part of the fun of discovering how many surfaces need the Sara Fitz touch.

Everything Fitz

Sara Fitzgerald O’Brien loves rearranging and changing her own home around regularly: “Interior design for me is like breathing. Our home is like my project.” Her shop offers many possibilities for changing up one’s own space; here are a few of our favorite ideas inspired by a recent visit.

• Melamine trays offer an easy way to add a pop of color and pattern to a hall table, a bureau top, or a kitchen counter. “The large size is great for serving, and the smaller size is great for a catchall. I keep my jewelry on it. People keep keys on it by the door,” says O’Brien. “They’re so fun and colorful, and each one is so different from the next.”

• An accent wall covered in wallpaper can really change the tone of a space. At the shop, rolls of wallpaper dangle enticingly down one wall so that customers can easily imagine the patterns in their own homes. “There’s nothing like getting a picture in an email of a space in someone’s house that has your wallpaper in it,” says O’Brien.

• In a time when so many of us jot down lists on our phones, real paper notepads and journals can bring an analog pleasure back to writing. Sara Fitz notepads have gently textured paper and take ink well; they are also produced in an eco-friendly fashion. O’Brien points out, “The notepads are a really wonderful product line for us: they’re wind-power printed. In fact, the note cards, the notepads, the journals, and the gift wrap are all wind-power printed.”

• And, of course, there are always prints of O’Brien’s watercolors. An enormous gallery wall of them anchors one side of her shop, but the prints work just as well in more modest groupings to brighten up rooms. For a classic coastal vibe, try assembling a set of her blue and white prints, like the Breton-striped shirt, the blue and white polka dot bathing suit, and the navy checkered thermos. As she says, “When I want something to look timeless, I usually go toward a blue and white detail.”