Ellen O'Neill

"I like a sense of humanity in a home. I've tried not to like stuff, but face it... I just like stuff." Ellen O’Neill. One of interior design's Leading Style Makers, leading lady at New York's St. Regis Hotel, and the woman behind Ralph Lauren.

Designing Women: Interiors by Leading Style Makers
St. Regis, one of the most historic and patrician hotels in the country
The Interior Lives of Designers

A Surprisingly Large New York Studio

Designer Ellen O'Neill makes living in a studio look easy by purging her possessions, limiting her color palette, and arranging furniture into mini-rooms.

Designed by Ellen O'Neill
Written by Carol Prisant
Photographed by Thomas Loof
Published by House Beautiful, July 2010

Ellen O'Neill | Thomas Loof | House Beautiful
A pair of ebonized Parisian club chairs, a flea-market find, are perfectly scaled for a small room. The boldly striped Ikea pillows pick up on the geometry of the windows. The wire café parasol frame above the fireplace is from Bloom.

Ellen O'Neill | Thomas Loof | House Beautiful
A high ceiling and wall of windows gives O'Neill's small space a light, airy feel. The one-room apartment is in a 1920s landmark building by architect Emery Roth. Ingo Maurer's Zettel'z 5 chandelier is O'Neill's "bulletin board," displaying notes, lists, directions, sketches, even a hat. Her cat, Miss, stretches out on the mantel next to angel vine topiaries. The faux-giraffe rug is from ABC Carpet & Home. Walls and ceiling are Benjamin Moore's Linen White.

Ellen O'Neill | Thomas Loof | House Beautiful
The straight-up view into the center of the chandelier.

Ellen O'Neill | Thomas Loof | House Beautiful
Ellen O'Neill clustered black-and-white photos and sketches on one wall: "It makes the hallway feel like a 'place' and not just a thoroughfare."

Ellen O'Neill | Thomas Loof | House Beautiful
An easel holds photos of friends, gallery invitations, vintage portfolios.

Ellen O'Neill | Thomas Loof | House Beautiful
A daguerrotype setter's station serves as a bar.

Ellen O'Neill | Thomas Loof | House Beautiful
A huge mirror leaning against the wall opposite the windows reflects light and adds the illusion of more space to the room. O'Neill's farm table–desk does double duty as a dining table when she entertains. Mirror and table from Laurin Copen Antiques.

Ellen O'Neill | Thomas Loof | House Beautiful
A mini-library in the foyer has reference books, DVDs, CDs, "baskets of unidentifiable cables, and chargers for electronic necessities."

Ellen O'Neill | Thomas Loof | House Beautiful
At one end of O'Neill's daybed, a slipcovered reading chair, a table draped in a vintage linen sheet, and a caned folding chair create a tiny curl-up space looking onto the terrace and city.

Ellen O'Neill | Thomas Loof | House Beautiful
Tote bags hang handily from a French iron coatrack that was once a chandelier.

Ellen O'Neill | Thomas Loof | House Beautiful
The daybed and screen were made by Martin Albert Interiors to fit the space across from the fireplace. Cowtan & Tout's chinoiserie toile, Siam, defines the area, and its sepia tone lends softness to the black-and-white palette. O'Neill's guests enjoy trying to figure out the toile's narrative. Her eight-year-old mixed-breed dog, Maude, only tries to figure out the most comfortable spot. The reading light is from a French hospital.

Ellen O'Neill | Thomas Loof | House Beautiful
On the daybed, a morning's tumble of creamy blankets and milk-white sheets.

Ellen O'Neill | Thomas Loof | House Beautiful
There was no kitchen in the apartment — originally servants' quarters — so O'Neill created a petite but efficient one in a skylit niche. The desk chair is one of her "eclectic assortment" of vintage chairs and stools.

Ellen O'Neill | Thomas Loof | House Beautiful
A snow globe of ivory napkin rings.

Ellen O'Neill | Thomas Loof | House Beautiful
The kitchen's miniature stainless-steel sink is set in a gray-and-white marble countertop.

Carol Prisant: You can't be serious. You keep the ad for your little penthouse studio apartment, five years after you bought it!

Ellen O'Neill: I do. It's just two lines: "One room with balcony overlooking Gramercy Park, fireplace, outstanding views, key to park."

So you grabbed it. Who wouldn't?

I was sold at "hello." It breathes and has such character. I'm perched on top of a wonderful urban tree house, on the last gated private square in Manhattan.

Gramercy Park is known for being a quiet, conservative neighborhood. Isn't it a bit tame for someone with your background and experience? You've traveled the world as a design consultant with clients in interior design, home-product design, retail, hospitality.

I did look in the West Village first. And even though I would have liked to be hip and cool, I didn't want to be the oldest person there, with my nurse's aide someday parading me around the nabe. And I didn't want to break a hip on the cobblestones!

You'd been living in a six-and-a-half-room apartment. Why were you even looking for just one room?

Maybe because I'd been designing luxury rooms for Starwood Hotels & Resorts. The idea of one perfectly proportioned room really appealed to me. I'd bought a little house in the country, so I didn't need a big apartment, filled with towers of items. I just wanted a modern cubicle, where I could recline on a daybed and touch everything.

Still, a studio must have felt tiny after being in such a spacious place.

With this 10-foot ceiling and the big, windowed doors and the terrace, it didn't feel small at all. And anyway, you tend to hang out with your friends in just one room, don't you? There's so much space that I can have a cat and a dog living with me, and relatives staying over. I've even had five people, sleeping on air beds. When you live in a studio apartment, your friends and relatives don't expect you to be too hospitable.

Did you paint the floor white to make the room feel bigger?

I've always had painted floors — I use automotive paint. Brown floors depress me to death. And I knew from the start that I wanted a black-and-white palette. But just black and white can be too hard and cold, too optical. You need some creams and grays and sepias to ease you into a softer, gentler world and add a little romance.

What did you do with those towers of items?

It took months to sort out. I was practically an Egyptologist — rooting in dark old closets, digging out and refinding my life. Then, I had to set up a whole filing process. There was even a pocket for Old Boyfriends and a pocket for Bridesmaid Dresses. And after I decided who got what, I had a huge sale. It was a healthy purge.

So what did you keep?

I kept my books, my black and white clothing, and a few sentimental bits.

Hmm. Severe. How did that work out?

It lasted about four days. I felt so naked, it was almost like I didn't have clothes on. I really needed my papers and things.

So your stuff crept back in?

Well, it began, I guess, because my vision for a white box didn't include a toile. But I wanted one, and the toile you see here on the daybed and on the screen is a capital-T Toile — really large-scale.

Where did you find a daybed that's the perfect size for the room?

I had it made. I wanted it to have a certain scale and not look like a bed made into a daybed. The efficiencies I learned when I was designing luxury hotel rooms helped when it came to furnishing my studio. I have pieces that multitask: the daybed serves as both seating and a bed, my antique farm table as a desk and a dining table. The club chairs are small-scale — very narrow, very "lady." The various randomly placed chairs create "lobby moment" conversation. There were no bookshelves, so I put some in the foyer, which makes that space seem more like a library than a hall. I know it's what the hotel business refers to as a "confusing arrival experience," but I couldn't do without my books!

Or without your wire: I can't say I've ever seen so much in one small room. Is there a theme here?

Beyond the fact that I like it — it lightens things up — I was inspired by that chicken-wire mesh embedded in the safety glass on the terrace doors. That's why I use vintage wire baskets to hold my firewood, garden supplies, and stationery, and why I have wire-framed topiaries on the mantel. Just in case you were wondering, that's an old wire parasol frame hanging behind them.

And let's not overlook the wire chandelier.

It's by Ingo Maurer. It came with love notes in foreign languages that no one could understand. And also blank notes. Little by little, I'm switching the printed cards out for more personal things — people are more entertained by substitutions.

You're so lucky to have that terrace.

And the view: At night it's like St. Petersburg with all the domes lit up. Across the street there's a fabulous billboard that's lit at night. It's changed once a month, and I consider it my personal art exhibition.

Okay, now tell me the truth: Isn't it really hard to live in one room?

I love being here, and never yearn for "things," and…oh, all right. I'm not sure I could do this without my country house. And I do fantasize every so often about having a bedroom.