Maggie O’Neill | Brings the Funk Factor to Area Restaurants

Great food is only part of the equation for what makes dining out memorable and enjoyable these days. Thanks to restaurant makeover reality TV shows and the fact that few restaurants make it to their five-year anniversary, a restaurant’s design has become a main ingredient for success.

Swanky. Artsy. Funky. Soulful. These are the adjectives used to describe the restaurants and pubs Maggie O’Neill has designed, including such DC hot spots as Lincoln, Oya, Irish Whisky and the recently-opened Teddy & The Bully Bar. When reviewing Lincoln, one customer paused from gushing about the food and commented, “Maggie O’Neill is an amazing local artist who ran the team for the decor at Lincoln, and she did a phenomenal job.” Patrons who know the name of the restaurant’s designer? Maggie is clearly blazing a trail.

“As a kid, I always loved the smell of saw dust and drywall,” Maggie remembers. “But my family was riddled with lawyers, so it was a foregone conclusion that I would go to law school. It never occurred to me that I could make a living using my head and my hands.”

Today, Maggie runs a design-build firm called O’Neill Studios. She describes it as “an umbrella of creative people and local artisans” that collaborates on residential and commercial projects.

Maggie’s designs are thematic without being campy. “I focus on being authentic – without being cheesy – to avoid looking like a Disney project.” Maggie’s core team is all women who she says are constantly reminding her that less is more. Apparently, Maggie resists that advice as she designed Lincoln with a floor made entirely of pennies (some estimate $8,000 worth of pennies is embedded under the fiberglass). Maggie says her ideal client, “Is someone who trusts me completely with their vision and space because I am worthy of being trusted, and this trust lays the groundwork for a great relationship.”

Where does Maggie go for inspiration for her designs? “I do a lot of wandering,” she says. This wandering could be down 14th street in DC near her home, wandering down the narrow streets of Amsterdam, Paris and Marrakesh where she travels for business, wandering through magazines for ideas or even wandering through Pinterest. “I was on Pinterest last night,” she admits when I ask her if she ever visits the social media site for design inspiration. Maggie says all it takes is one idea, one “domino,” as she calls it, and the rest of a project falls into place. For Lincoln, it was a single painting that inspired the entire restaurant’s theme. For Teddy & The Bully Bar, it was a statue of a bull.

I asked Maggie how suburban DIYers can create funky eating spaces in their own homes. She suggests starting by identifying what you love and finding that “never never land” feeling that takes you to a place you love. Then look for appropriate and utilitarian ways to bring that feeling into your home. Maggie recommends finding a special light fixture, and she is emphatic that doing something different on the ceiling above your eating area has the biggest impact. Paint the ceiling a different color, install a canopy or use stencils on wallpaper, she suggests, to create a dedicated, fun space where your family dines every night. Textiles and light are two easy and affordable ways to bring what Maggie calls “the funk factor” into your home.

When I asked Maggie about her own dining area, she describes it as “Willy Wonka meets total chaos.” Her kitchen currently serves as her studio – much to her husband’s chagrin – so it is filled with artifacts left over from restaurant design jobs. Maggie openly admires the work of other artists. “I am in love with all things Pucci at the moment,” she gushes. She recently purchased her first work of art: a Voytek painting she picked up in Chicago.

Maggie has a gift for explaining design to everyday people in an approachable way. Even though Maggie is one of the most sought-after restaurant designers in the mid-Atlantic area, she believes good design is more about being thoughtful than extravagant. Maggie’s favorite object, which she describes as “perfect,” is a dragon chair she had upholstered with a dress she purchased at a thrift store for fifty cents while on a trip to Los Angeles. She loves the chair so much, she made it a part of her beachfront wedding.

What does Maggie hope to achieve with these immersive dining experiences? “One time someone wrote a review that said one of the restaurants I designed has many layers and a lot of soul. That is about the best compliment I could ever receive.” To further make her mark on the DC metro area restaurant scene, Maggie hangs one of her original paintings in every restaurant she designs.

What’s next for O’Neill Studios? Maggie is getting calls from boutique hotel owners requesting her services, and she is working with a team of local artisans on Copperwood Tavern in Shirlington, VA which her web site says will have, “all the charm and texture that comes with places that make you long to hang out longer.”

Maggie O’Neill’s work can be seen at oneillstudios.com

Chris Chroll

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