By Marsha Fottler –
My petite and lively French friend, Fifi O’Neill, has a talent for creating romantic-rustic spaces where people want to gather and make food memories. Sometimes it’s her kitchen or the dining room of her tiny white wooden cottage in Southwest Florida or sometimes it’s an outside setting that she embellishes under a sprawling oak tree in her back yard. The woman just has a knack for collecting beautiful odd fabrics and found objects and putting them together to fashion unique spaces where people feel good about eating and socializing.
Professionally, Fifi O’Neill is a stylist, design writer, cookbook author, and she has “the eye” for spotting just the right thing for her own home as well as being able to identify what’s right about other homes she sees. Drawing on her lifetime of travel and expertise, Fifi O’Neill has produced a beautiful and illuminating book on the definition of American prairie style and the many variations that are achievable if you own a home whose architecture says farmhouse, cottage, ranch, beach shack, bungalow, even a somewhat modern urban condominium. The book deals with all rooms of a home, but because Flavors And More is a magazine dedicated to the pleasures of the table, we’re particularly entranced with what Fifi shows us about kitchens, dining rooms, and outdoor entertaining areas.
The secret in the design aesthetic in all the homes that O’Neill writes about in Romantic Prairie Style is the uniting of the rugged and the refined. With 250 charming large-format color photographs (by Mark Lohman) as a guide, the author talked to homeowners in Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, Virginia, California and other parts of the country about how and what a prairie style actually it. Usually, its origins are the simple sod or log houses that immigrants first built in the 1880s in the American midwest and west. But prairie style exists in almost all parts of the south and northeast too.
The common threads that tie together all the homes in O’Neill’s book are a rigorous loyalty to simplicity and recycling, a reverence for heirlooms and the use of hand-crafted items as well as both natural and utilitarian objects indigenous to the area such as baskets, Indian blankets and rugs, homespun cloth, grain sacks, lace, wild flowers, driftwood, shells and family antiques.
O’Neill’s inspiration for the book came from childhood memories of a simple stone cottage in a meadow in a village outside Paris where O’Neill and her sister spent idyllic family summer vacations. But the material for this book came from all over the country.
A dozen years ago Fifi O’Neill bought a dilapidated 1925-era cottage in an undistinguished part of Florida and turned it into a model of prairie style. Over the years she’s taken it from “dreary to dreamy” (her description) by painting the plywood floor to look like lovely old reclaimed planks and adding bits and pieces of evolved furniture both European and America.
“In France we have an expression to describe the things we love,” O’Neill said. “We call them un amour. My 900-square-foot cottage still has the vestiges of its humble beginnings. When I first saw it I thought of a storybook cottage in the woods. I couldn’t resist the setting but it needed a lot of work.”
O’Neill was encouraged by the 10-foot ceilings and she painted the rooms in soft chalky white and dove gray to make the spaces appear larger. “The most passionate love affairs often stem from the attraction of opposites and the same applies to decorating a home,” continued the author. “The contrast of rugged and refined, of strong and gentle seduces and soothes all at the same time. I’ve married furniture and accessories from different eras, styles and provenance. This is nothing new to the French who call this common custom le melange.”
In her book, O’Neill’s tiny home is called Prairie Chic. “But when people ask me to describe my home, I usually tell them it’s just a chic little shack. Everything has been recycled, reused, re-imagined and reinvented. I’m interested in regal rejects and relics from architectural salvage places and flea markets. I gravitate to textures created by the passing of time or the wear-and-tear of ordinary living.”
(Romantic Prairie Style: Homes Inspired by Traditional Country Life by Fifi O’Neill. CICO books, hardcover. $29.95)