Renowned DC artist and designer Maggie O’Neill is leaving her imprint on spaces all over the city.
Maggie O’Neill, photographed in her studio, credits studying in Italy with fueling her creativity and interest in the arts.
Scroll through Maggie O’Neill’s Instagram feed, and you will leave inspired—and perplexed. In one photo, O’Neill dips an infant’s bottom in paint and stamps it onto a canvas illustrating cherry blossoms. When asked about the idea, the poli-sci student-turned-fine artist is instantly animated.
The story begins with a tragic accident in 2012 that claimed the life of her friend Erin Fry’s son, who had Down syndrome; since then Fry has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for research organizations. “The number of people this little baby affected—and still does—is amazing,” O’Neill says. In the spirit of solidarity, O’Neill began donating the proceeds of a limited-edition cherry blossom print. But after stepping in paint one day and noticing the shape made by her shoe, she had an idea. She called Fry, who has an infant daughter, and asked, “Can I take Faith’s butt and put it in paint?” The result—entitled Baby Booty Blossoms—will be digitized to wallpaper, and the proceeds from its sales will benefit Down syndrome research. “Who doesn’t love Baby Booty Blossoms? It’s adorable; it’s happy—think of all the good [coming from it],” she says. “I’m doing two more sets with women and their babies soon. Women all over the country could be painting their baby’s booties and sending them in.”
It’s the perfect illustration of O’Neill’s infectious spirit and unique sense of creativity—something she first started to explore in Italy, where she went to the University of Georgia’s graduate study program in Cortona to focus on painting, rather than attend law school. “Everyone in my family is either an attorney or an academic, so the idea of being a professional artist was not even discussed,” she says. But when an art professor at Trinity College, where her mother was vice president, suggested she skip the LSATs and go abroad, O’Neill refocused. “I was really into the idea of restoration work,” she says. “So when I got there, I joined a restoration crew, mixing my own plasters and fixing frescos.”
She learned the trade as an art. “There is this reverence for artistry and handcraftsmanship,” she says of Italian culture. “We treat people who make things with their hands in this country like second-class citizens. And they should be revered.”
Memorial Bridge by Maggie O’Neill.
When the program ended, O’Neill returned home to Washington, working out of a warehouse in Kensington, where O’Neill Studios grew quickly. She attributes the success to something she calls “art karma.” “I introduce somebody to another artist and magically one of my paintings sells,” she says. “That has become my business philosophy whether I knew it or not.”
Eventually, O’Neill says she came to a crossroads and decided to take another look at decorative finishing—the field that had funded her art education. Over 12 years, she designed and finished 10 restaurants, including SAX, Teddy & the Bully Bar, and Lincoln—featuring her famous million-penny floor—as well as residential and commercial spaces like the DC Twitter office and tech incubator 1776. In 2012, she teamed up with fellow artist Warren Weixler, and Swatchroom, a full-service design and fabrication studio, was born. “Warren and I have a different kind of creative, amazing collaboration,” she says.
Swatchroom’s touch can be found all around town, too—from its Ninth Street neighbor, Chaplin’s, to Chinese Disco in Georgetown. Now employing a team of nine full-time artists and collaborating with dozens more, O’Neill continues to cultivate that art karma. “Swatchroom should be a launching pad for other artists—in the same way O’Neill Studios allowed me to do different things.”
Since leaving her Kensington warehouse for Swatchroom’s small Shaw studio, O’Neill’s love for transforming everyday objects has found yet another extension: the Department of Funk, a collection of one-off pieces of furniture, home goods, and other items, such as roller skates (a vintage pair is her latest muse).
Tying it all together is her signature explosion of color. “It’s not for everybody; it’s just what makes me feel good,” she says. But even her Pop Capitol elicits different feelings from different people. “The Pop Capitol is about as innocuous as it gets,” she says, “but a lot of the Washington icons… Some people do not appreciate them being painted in a happy, joyful, lighthearted kind of way, which is just fine. It invokes a visceral reaction.”
President Obama didn’t seem to mind—despite O’Neill’s concerns. “You can’t not have a reaction to color, or the absence of color,” O’Neill says. “So I didn’t know what President Obama would say about my painting of him.” When she had the “surreal” opportunity to present the president with his portrait after giving him a tour of Lincoln a few years ago, she lost it. “I started bawling,” she says. “I had this whole speech planned with pomp and circumstance, but the only thing I could say was, ‘I made this for you!’”
Fortunately, President Obama loved it. “He said, ‘Man, I really like myself here. I like this one better than—’ and his right-hand guy stopped him. I was like, ‘Better than what?!’” she says with a laugh. “He genuinely loved it. That was really rewarding.” Swatchroom, 1527 Ninth St. NW, 202-808-3343