Home & Design: Studio: Creative Dynamo
Co-founder of DC’s SWATCHROOM, artist Maggie O’Neill emblazons area homes and businesses with imagination — and soul
By Tina Coplan:
Taking a break from her busy schedule, Maggie O’Neill sits behind the desk in her second-floor studio overlooking DC’s fast-changing Shaw neighborhood. Along the walls, paintings and prints from her celebrated Washington monuments series lend a cheerful sense of place. The Lincoln Memorial — in buoyant colors and bold strokes — is dusted with falling snow. Against a blazing backdrop, Uncle Sam’s iconic recruiting image is rebooted with the words “Love Trumps Hate.” Three commissioned works depicting Union Station’s grand concourse wait to be finished.
O’Neill hopes to find more time to paint. It has become a small part of her dynamic career path in art. Since starting out 15 years ago painting murals and decorative finishes for luxury homes, her business has boomed. The company that began as O’Neill Studios has evolved into Swatchroom (swatchroom.com), a complete-service firm that creates all aspects of interior and occasionally outdoor installations, from art to furniture and lighting.
“People ask whether I consider myself a designer or an artist first,” O’Neill begins. “I always say artist. The design side was born out of wanting to make art constantly.”
Her imaginative energy has transformed 22 restaurants and nightclubs around town into singular environments, from the ornate interiors of Capitale nightclub to the clean, international style and indigenous woven textures of Sakerum, a new Asian-Latin fusion restaurant. “Our goal is to create a 360-degree experience,” says O’Neill. The company has also designed a handful of residences and hundreds of smaller projects. “What we do best,” she adds, “is help develop a concept from start to finish.”
That happened when O’Neill walked into one of her first restaurant-design presentations seven years ago. “I carried in a painting of Lincoln and a pile of pennies,” she remembers. That audacious moment led to the stellar, stately Lincoln Restaurant, which reflects an inventive aesthetic based on the explosive colors and everyday materials of pop art. A million pennies covered the floors and still panel one wall; its glossy red doors were powder-coated at an auto shop. “Who would have thought back then that artists, rather than designers, would be the inspiration for a site installation?” O’Neill asks.
She discovered a smooth transition from painting to creating three-dimensional designs. “Playing with other materials besides paint became totally natural for me,” she says. Following the large Lincoln paintings she made for the restaurant installation, her splashy portraits of Theodore Roosevelt added to the exuberant mix at the restaurant Teddy & The Bully Bar two years later. Seventeen other local artists also produced spirited takes on aspects of Roosevelt’s life. Displayed around the dining room, six wooden animal heads stand in for less savory taxidermic trophies, representing Roosevelt’s passion for hunting. Cheeky post-Victorian photographs adorn the restroom walls. And a ceiling light James Kerns of Corehaus repurposed from a 30-foot-long plumbing pipe visually divides the bar from the dining room. The rough fixture diffuses a “steam-punk look,” as O’Neill calls it. All parts of the design corral historic and contemporary styles around the presidential theme.
Today, Swatchroom draws on a database of some 50 regional artists and craftspeople. Handwork, O’Neill has found, “imbues a space with soul, an intangible experience that machine-made goods can’t match.” Salvaged or ordinary materials used in uncommon ways add another dimension. At Twitter’s DC office, Swatchroom formed a “Hashtag Flag” installation out of 7,000 laser-cut feathers. For a bachelor’s all-new condo, wooden lanes from an out-of-commission bowling alley were bleached and reclaimed as a kitchen island. “I geek out over materials,” the artist says. “If I found mattress springs, I’d wonder how I could use them.”
O’Neill’s enterprising career is grounded on a classical foundation. She earned a master’s degree in fine art at the University of Georgia’s program in Cortona, Italy, where she worked with construction crews restoring frescoes.
“There was such respect for work made by hand,” the artist says about life abroad as an artist and craftsperson. “Restoration was revered for the academic acumen required, the knowledge of chemistry and the ability to execute what you were thinking. That motivated me a lot when I moved home.”
Born and raised in Silver Spring, Maryland, O’Neill returned to the area and began to paint portraits, baby furniture, murals — “whatever it took,” she recalls, to make a living as an artist. Meeting people in their homes led to requests for work on different projects; she learned to make lighting fixtures and lay tile. “My portfolio of services and abilities grew, and what I wanted to make kept growing until taking over an entire space became an option.”
Four years ago, O’Neill co-founded Swatchroom with architect Warren Weixler. The company has expanded to 14 full-time employees including architects and designers with backgrounds in interiors, graphics, carpentry, sculpture, digital fabrication and branding.
Now 39, O’Neill is eager to pass on her hard-won knowledge to others. “If anybody has to be a starving artist, it’s unnecessary,” says the entrepreneur, who with her brilliant blue eyes, flowing blonde hair and direct manner projects self-assurance.
To help women artists, O’Neill has organized SuperFierce, a traveling exhibit introduced last fall at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. It brought together high-earning women artists in a program about support, mentoring and giving back. O’Neill donates a portion of sales from her limited-edition prints to local charities.
She is grateful for the mentoring she received from chef Jamie Leeds, owner of Hank’s Oyster Bar. One of her few female commercial clients, Leeds sets an example of success in a mostly male field. An upcoming Hank’s location at The Wharf on Maine Avenue is among seven projects now underway at Swatchroom. The firm also anticipates adding international projects in the coming year.
Still, O’Neill is determined to set aside more time for painting. Stepping over to her worktable, she pulls dried acrylic paint from a palette and holds the colored shape up against her rendering of a Gibson Girl — a beloved image from the turn of the last century. The commissioned head is embellished with gold-leaf tresses. Pursuing her own muse, O’Neill has started to create variations on a Gibson Girl theme. She intends to use the congealed colors as three-dimensional waves of hair in the new works, which will also be painted against a background of recycled bingo cards gathered by the artist at a Knights of Columbus hall in DC. She is thinking about other collage possibilities, too.
In the gallery downstairs, portraits of two contemporary women, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama, are the latest in O’Neill’s “Social Currency” series. Their likenesses are painted over enlarged photos of $100 bills. O’Neill hopes to complete this personal series (which she considers politically charged) with illustrations of other iconic women overlaid on scans of beautifully ornamented international currencies.
The artist has excluded her own paintings from Swatchroom’s recent installations, preferring to promote artwork by others. At the moment, however, she takes a different tack, thinking out loud and smiling, “Maybe I’ll push for a new project about Hillary.”
Writer Tina Coplan is based in Chevy Chase.