Around age 12, Ellen O’Neill, the oldest of seven children, was granted her very own bedroom—and permission to decorate it. With confidence, she selected black-and-white checkered wallpaper and a red corduroy bedspread, the palette inspired by her favorite Betsy McCall doll, who wore a black-and-white skirt with a black cardigan, and red belt. As she recalls this childhood memory, O’Neill—now a creative director, interiors stylist, and brand strategist—is sharply dressed in nearly the same exact ensemble. (The belt has been edited out, but her signature red hair delivers the requisite color pop.) She’s giving a tour of the Gramercy Park–adjacent New York apartment where she lives with Doll, her wirehaired dachshund. Like her wardrobe, the decorating scheme is also entirely in black and white: Casement-check roman shades. A gingham-covered desk chair. Striped cushions on a wrought-iron campaign chaise.
“Maybe it started with the nuns at my school,” O’Neill wonders aloud about the color pairing that has come to symbolize ease and clarity for her, a sort of blank canvas. “Everyone who educated me for 12 years dressed in black and white.” When it came time to furnish her current apartment, that go-to duo was an easy choice: The space’s most striking architectural feature was a wall of 11 jet-black casement windows. O’Neill, whose other homes have adhered to similarly strict color schemes—blue and white, red and white—let things unfold from there.
Finding this place was what O’Neill calls “a New York real estate fairytale.” She still has the classified ad, cut out of the New York Times and stapled into a leather-bound book, that caught her eye back in 2003. “Penthouse studio, amazing views, wrap terrace, wood burning fireplace, key to park,” the newsprint reads, a list of amenities nearly inconceivable for most New Yorkers, Gramercy Park being just one of two private parks in the city. The petite studio space, once a designated maid’s quarters, was located in a 1926 apartment building by Emery Roth. At the time, O’Neill had a place in Bridgehampton, traveled frequently for work, and was looking for a pied-à-terre where she could stay during the week. “I wanted one room that felt like a hotel where I could lay in bed and just touch everything I needed to touch,” she explains. She had found it, 10-foot ceilings and all.
In 2020, when the pandemic ushered in the work-from-home era, O’Neill was living full-time in the city, having offloaded the Hamptons house several years prior. Things changed; she needed more room. Luckily, her real estate fairytale had a sequel: She was able to buy a matching maid’s room next door. With the help of architect Anna Jachnik, O’Neill’s petite studio was expanded to better fit her lifestyle. Clerestory windows were installed, allowing more light to move from east to west and adding a sense of volume to the space. Her minuscule pantry kitchen became a cozy library—finally, she could get her books out of storage—and a proper kitchen was devised on the other side of the apartment. “I didn’t want a kitchen kitchen with a big marble island,” explains O’Neill, who rarely cooks. “I just wanted butcher-block counters, unlacquered hardware, and this faucet from Morocco.”
Instead of that kitchen island, she got a proper seating area—a pair of George Sherlock sofas was placed fireside—and a reading table with sightlines to two wood-burning fireplaces (regrettably, one needs a new flue). That table is the heart of her home, piled high with newspaper clippings, tear sheets, magazines, and taxi receipts, and watched over by a sculpture picked up at the Porte de Vanves flea market in Paris.
It’s fitting that O’Neill lives in a repurposed maid’s apartment. A narrative of utility runs through nearly everything in the home—and perhaps that’s what keeps it from ever feeling too stark or austere. Most items were scored secondhand over the years at the Paris flea market, Brimfield in Massachusetts, or the thrift shop around the corner. She gravitates toward humble materials—string, canvas, raw linen—and will often upholster using the reverse side of a fabric. Industrial staples with hard-earned patina pepper the apartment: A grain storage bin becomes a plant stand; a 1940s manicurist’s table provides bathroom storage; collapsible spectator seating is stacked with reading materials in the bedroom; the frame of a vintage parasol blooms over a fireplace. She even boils the water for her tea in a vintage enameled pot—white with a thin black rim—that, while elegant, she warns, “will burn the crap out of you.”
While she can quickly rattle off a list of the things she likes— “anything with a black-and-white stripe, a black-and-white check, anything borderline utilitarian, nothing too fancy”—there is no exact science behind it. The ultimate test of approval at a flea market or shop? “If I take a second look,” she says.
It was, in fact, a shop—Ellen O’Neill’s Supply Store, the “women’s hardware shop” she ran on East 77th Street—that more or less launched her career when it opened in 1979. Inside, and in the windows, antique linens, lace, christening gowns, and quilts told stories of utility, craft, and creative flair within the context of domesticity. “I would buy things with irony,” says O’Neill, recalling how a cigar box full of cut-out male portraits inspired one Valentine’s Day display: The window mannequin was reading Sinclair Lewis’s book Mantrap, surrounded by some hundreds of mouse traps, with the men’s pictures ensnared in them. (Bill Cunningham photographed it for his style column in the New York Times.) The skills she honed there would later be applied to hotel design for Starwood, products for Ralph Lauren Home and the Shade Store, and paint campaigns at Benjamin Moore, where, for seven years, she tapped into the cultural zeitgeist to select the much-anticipated Color of the Year.
O’Neill’s store closed in 1989. But more than 30 years later, she has revived the name—Ellen O’Neill Supply—for her own studio, under which she has started taking on residential design projects as well as consulting jobs. It’s her eye that clients are after—the way she uses color, textiles, and objects to craft a narrative; her uncanny ability to see what’s coming next. The circular metal sign that hangs above her fireplace, emblazoned with the bold commandment, “Follow Me,” feels like an advertisement for her ethos; in reality, it’s a Brimfield find that came from a Massachusetts airport terminal, where it once led planes to their destinations. Modern-day connotations aside—“Everyone who comes here thinks it’s about Instagram followers,” O’Neill laments—that phrase is a testament to the way she works: “It’s messaging through an object,” she says. “That’s what I’ve always loved doing.”
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This story originally appeared in volume 8 of FREDERIC. Click here to subscribe!