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What happens when a renowned stylist visits your home? Go behind the scenes with Fifi O’Neill

National expert offers advice for home styling and decor

Fifi O'Neill, a nationally known magazine editor and style expert, spent a whirlwind week recently styling and photographing Gem State homes from Middleton to Pocatello to feature in upcoming issues of her Modern Country, Romantic Country and Prai
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Fifi O'Neill, a nationally known magazine editor and style expert, spent a whirlwind week recently styling and photographing Gem State homes from Middleton to Pocatello to feature in upcoming issues of her Modern Country, Romantic Country and Prai

The Boise home had everything design maven Fifi O’Neill hoped to showcase in her latest national magazine, Modern Country, which is set to hit U.S. newsstands in November.

Repurposed furniture? Check. A clean, almost industrial flair? Check. Antique tools displayed as art? That, too. Texture, texture and more texture? Yes, yes and yes.

All in 700 square feet of an apartment in Downtown Boise — not the first place you might look for home design ideas evoking barns and hay lofts, agricultural bounty and wide-open spaces. That, however, is exactly the point, said O’Neill, whose six magazines and three books celebrate country style of all stripes.

“This is so perfect,” she said, surveying Melisa James’ second-story apartment. “People think you have to have a farmhouse out in the country. But you can create a modern country look in an apartment in the city.”

O’Neill spent a whirlwind week recently styling and photographing Gem State homes from Middleton to Pocatello to feature in upcoming issues of her Modern Country, Romantic Country and Prairie Style magazines.

Yes, there was a farmhouse on her itinerary — two, in fact, along with a multistory schoolhouse remodeled into a spacious single-family home. But she also styled smaller spaces — two Boise apartments and a petite duplex in Meridian.

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Magazine editor Fifi O’Neill talks with Melisa James during the staging. James owns Home by Melisa James, a Boise store specializing in modern farmhouse decor. Katherine Jones kjones@idahostatesman.com

O’Neill’s first Idaho trip comes at the right time for Boise’s changing landscape, as scores of new condominiums, lofts and apartments hit the market, designed for smaller families that value location over space, for downsizing baby boomers and for first-time home seekers in a tight real estate climate.

James shares her Boise apartment with her husband and teenage son. It has two bedrooms, a tiny bath, a galley kitchen. What it doesn’t have is storage space. Instead of closets, clothes hang neatly on a bedroom garment rack. Dishes and appliances are on functional display.

“I always speak about my style as a farmhouse modern aesthetic,” James said. “I grew up in a tiny town in Idaho, which, when I grew up, had dirt roads. It’s always stayed with me. I’ve lived in Portland, in Eugene. I’ve traveled a lot, moved to New York and back.”

Back, of course, is the operative term here. Not to her small hometown of Bellevue, but to Boise, where she owns a design store called Home by Melisa James.

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This photo was taken by O’Neill’s photographer. Note the subtle “aspirational” differences such as the adjustments to the trees. Photography by Mark Lohman. Styling by Fifi O’Neill.

Key to her home and design work is the idea of “repurposing, reusing and recycling” objects, like the industrial rack from a metal shop on which she displays kitchen items most people hide behind cabinet doors.

“We had it taken apart by a local welder, cut in half and put back together in more of a functioning style for this space,” James said. “It could have been in a dairy farm or a machine shop, not a townhouse in the city.”

With its rusted metal shelves and artistically peeling paint, the rack is set to find a new home in the pages of Modern Country — slightly tweaked, of course. The stand mixer and a small ceramic crock on the top shelf are replaced with an antique metal bucket. A big wicker basket is positioned nearby.

O’Neill does more work on James’ living room. She hangs two big walnut drying racks — but only after asking whether she can pound a couple of nails into the exposed brick wall. She positions a row of vintage apothecary jars along the base of the racks and fills them with sprigs of yellow chamomile flowers.

The result is a magazine-ready detail shot, and a look James decides to keep in place once O’Neill and photographer Mark Lohman head off to dinner and four more days of Idaho photo shoots.

Unlike newspapers and their magazines, which chronicle life in its natural state — think Idaho Statesman and Treasure, for example — home design publications adjust reality. The goal? Beauty, not livability.

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When it comes to design, “money is not always the answer, although it’s kind of nice to have when it comes to decorating. Paint is your best friend. You can go to flea markets. You can go to antique shops. You can stay within a very limited budget and redo something,” says Fifi O’Neill, who styled the James family apartment to feature in one of her magazines. Photography by Mark Lohman. Styling by Fifi O’Neill.

O’Neill starts many days on the road at Trader Joe’s, buying armloads of fresh flowers and bags of grapes, artichokes, limes and baked goods. The props are used to create tableaux in her subjects’ homes.

She transports accessories from room to room, rummages in drawers for just the right items, moves furniture around, makes television sets disappear. Circuit breaker boxes, toilet paper holders, light switches and other intrusions are digitally removed from the final images.

“With news photography, you can’t do more than adjusting brightness,” O’Neill says. “We’re always making things prettier, better.”

Amanda Mosdell’s Meridian duplex is a case in point.

O’Neill, who lives in Sarasota, Fla., travels around the country photographing homes for her magazines and books. The Boise trip was launched when she was invited to do a book signing in April at the Pickin’ Boise vintage and artisan show at Expo Idaho.

Brenda and Ron Buckingham, who stage vintage shows in Idaho and Washington state, scouted most of the Southern Idaho homes that O’Neill styled and photographed for her magazines. Mosdell’s was one of them.

What O’Neill did not know until she knocked on the duplex door on a cool, sunny Tuesday morning was that Mosdell was about to move to Nevada. Many of her belongings were already in boxes, others at a local consignment store.

“You can only do what you have to do,” O’Neill said as she surveyed the dining area. “Que sera, sera. Do we have a teapot?”

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“Romantic Country is definitely for the people who like kind of the shabby chic look, and not necessarily all out shabby chic, but really more romantic. The pinks and the blues, the lace and the roses, that kind of thing. They usually have fluffy pillows. ... Hers was a bit of eclectic. She had a bit of boho with the furry cushions,” Fifi O’Neill says about Amanda Mosdell’s former Meridian home. Photography by Mark Lohman. Styling by Fifi O’Neill.

O’Neill poked through the garage and came back with an antique door and a small side table. Mosdell raced off to the consignment store where she had placed belongings up for sale.

“So now we wait for her,” the stylist said, undaunted. “I asked for some pretty little napkins, some silverware.”

The end result of her morning at Mosdell’s?

More than a dozen finished photos of artfully arranged rooms ready to be featured in Romantic Country magazine. Delicate china teacups adorned the dining table. A candelabra shared a pink ottoman with a tray of lemonade and berries. Mosdell’s collection of bird statues perched throughout the home.

“She’s so good at what she does, isn’t she?” marveled Mosdell, who was a partner in A Beautiful Mess vintage store in Nampa until her recent move to the Southwest. “This is all stuff she’s pulled together. I have two toddlers. I try not to have too much glass stuff out. ... I wish I could be this fancy all the time, but kids. ... ”

That actually is the point of the magazines O’Neill founded and edits. They offer readers guidance, goals, aspirations. The images on their pages appear effortlessly beautiful.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth.

Or as O’Neill warned before tackling Mosdell’s home, “I’m gonna move so much of your poor little things.

“Nothing personal.”

Country? Romantic country? Prairie style? What’s it all mean?

Fifi O’Neill, who was raised in Paris, lived and worked in Switzerland and Canada before moving to the United States. Over the years she has carved out a niche in the crowded home-design field as an expert in all things country.

But when she considers country, she envisions a wide spectrum of style inspired by landscapes as varied as French farmland, Manitoba prairies and seaside Florida, where she lives today.

Her magazines reflect that wide-ranging sensibility. Current titles include the quarterly Romantic Country; Prairie Style, which comes out twice a year; and French Country, Boho Style and Rustic Weddings, which are annual publications.

Modern Country joins the mix in November, and O’Neill is considering a coastal living magazine to explore her love of boathouses.

French country can be more ornate; think Gallic roosters and gold trim. Boho features bright colors, live plants and global influences, O’Neill says.

“Modern country is more industrial than what country is by definition,” she says. It relies on Scandinavian influences, lots of texture, architectural detail, clean lines, and a mix of old and new.

Prairie style often has a touch of Western flair. It’s a rustic look that relies on weathered woods, heirlooms and the repurposed; think collections of antique tools turned eye-catching accents.

“If you’re talking about romantic, you have to go with a soft palette, or even a neutral palette, like grays and whites, beige and whites or creams,” says O’Neill. “You have to have flowers. Definitely fresh flowers. Candles. You don’t have to have lace. I don’t think that’s necessary. But maybe some throws that have texture to them, soft, maybe a silky finish or a velvety finish.”

Although no one would confuse country decor with minimalism, sometimes, O’Neill says, less really is more. “One thing I wouldn't do is just have all kinds of roses,” she says. “Some people will have rose wallpaper, rose throw, rose pillows. Just pick one, and one is enough. ... You just want to be selective. Just pick a few elements. Nothing has to match, but it has to be cohesive.”

Some of these styles share certain elements, as the inviting porch in Marilynn Nelson’s converted schoolhouse shows. For Romantic Country magazine, O’Neill decorated the porch of the Star property in feminine pinks and blues, embellished pillows, patterned ceramics and a candelabra.

The version she’ll showcase in Prairie Style uses bolder reds and browns. The frilly pillows give way to bird prints. A galvanized watering can replaces the branching candle holder. Simple red clay pots hold flowering plants.

Nelson and her late husband, Bill, bought the three-story, 1905 school building in 2000 and spent the next seven years putting in bathrooms, a shower and other necessities to make it liveable. After he died of lung cancer, she continued with the renovations, painting and changing the fireplace.

Nelson also sells European farmhouse antiques at a Boise store called Gatherings. She showcases her wares in the former Central Park School. “I like the shabby chic old furniture, but I don’t like a lot of junk,” Nelson said. “But I do have a collection of Staffordshire china and a collection of this and a collection of that. ... [O’Neill] asked me, ‘Do you have any white wicker?’

“I said, ‘I have a whole building full.’ ”

Some resources to help you style your own home

There are many antique and vintage dealers in the Boise area to find items and inspiration, but here are some places that were associated with the photo shoots that Fifi O’Neill did in the Treasure Valley to get you started.

Home by Melisa James: A design store specializing in farmhouse modern style. 3109 W. State St., Boise. 208-890-3737

Gatherings: A home decor store specializing in European farm style. 3113 W. State St., Boise. 208-559-6153.

LA Junk Antiques: A vintage shop with a focus on repurposing, recycling, reimagining. 1911 W. State St., Boise. 208-957-5878

A Beautiful Mess: Vintage home decor in downtown Nampa, 1305 2nd St. S., Ste. 110, Nampa. 208-284-6884

Bykodicrofts: Home stylist, personal shopper and organizer specializing in farmhouse modern design. 208-861-3365. tylerandkodi@sawtoothls.com

Pickin’ Boise: Vintage and artisan show produced by Past Blessings Farm of Spokane, which also has an online store at pastblessingsfarm.com. The autumn show will be held Oct. 28-29 at the Ford Idaho Center, 16200 Idaho Center Blvd. in Nampa.

Fifi O’Neill’s magazines: Romantic Country, quarterly; Prairie Style, twice a year; French Country, annual; Rustic Weddings, annual; Boho Style, annual; Modern Country, premieres in November.

Design books by Fifi O’Neill: “Prairie Style Weddings: Rustic and Romantic Farm, Woodland, and Garden Celebrations”; “Romantic Prairie Style: Homes Inspired by Traditional Country Life”; “The Romantic Prairie Cookbook: Field-Fresh Recipes and Homespun Settings.”

Online: fifioneill.com and www.fifioneillprairiestyle.com

Freelance writer Maria L. La Ganga recently moved to the Treasure Valley from the San Francisco area. La Ganga, who was a longtime reporter and editor for the Los Angeles Times, most recently was a U.S. correspondent and senior reporter for The Guardian of London.

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