The Isabel O’Neil Studio was founded in 1955 as a small art school dedicated to teaching the traditional techniques used to create painted finishes. Its eponymous founder was both scary and gifted. O’Neil’s meticulous obsession with this particular art form, the techniques of which find their origins in the Renaissance, still informs the teaching process today and Genie Fuhrmann, who we interviewed at her Upper East Side apartment, is one of the most experienced instructors at the studio. She’s gifted but she’s not scary, even though she says she is. “When I teach I’m very strict. You have to do the very strict basics …” But apparently once the students are through that bit, they’re let loose. “Sometimes I have a student who does exactly what I say, and it’s boring!” (For school classes see www.isabeloneil.org, for the Holiday Sale see www.isabeloneil.org/news)
This studio has become such an established name—how has the Isabel O’Neil distinguished itself?
I think the most important distinguishing feature of the whole place is that Isabel had been encouraged to go and research how the traditional painted finishes from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries were created in Europe. She went to Europe to do sort of more of a chemical analysis, actually. She came back with actual formulas.
Was that typical of her to do something in that way?
Totally. I would say that she was not going to be a painter without understanding what her product was. She wanted to know what the essence was.
How rapidly did her classes become popular?
It was a slow build. She started with the ladies who lunch. There are some hilarious pictures of these women perfectly coiffed with painted nails [working in the studio].
What was she like?
Terribly, terribly tough. She showed her likes and dislikes very obviously. If she yelled at you consistently, it meant you were good and that she cared about you. If she yelled at you once and ignored you forever, it meant you weren’t so good and she hoped that you kind of disappeared. She was volatile.
You said decorative painting [in the studio] started with ladies who lunch but in past centuries and in Europe, this was a job for men—a real job.
Actually a lot of the workers in the 19th century were women, especially in the factories. There’s a wonderful quote – I can look it up — where a Lady Blah blah blah who in her will left her most precious possession, which was a chest that she had painted, to her son. So there were women of stature who did take this seriously.
So when you say the word ‘decorative’, it has this frilly, girlie connation, at least these days. How do you get beyond that interpretation?
Well I think that some of our most well-known decorative painters, the commercial ones are men—James Alan Smith is huge, and Pierre Finkelstein …
What does it take to get good at this?
It’s a discipline. It’s very technical. And what gives you the confidence is that you first work through step one, step two, step three … that gives you the fundamentals and allows you to become free. When I teach, I’m very strict. You have to do the very strict basics but then all of a sudden you’re looking at stuff that comes out of students that … well, I’ll tell you what the secret is—it’s the person who has looked at the world with their eyes, the furthest. It’s the person who has traveled, a person who has seen color. All of a sudden the five or six things that you have taught them exponentially turn into something much more creative. It’s not talent so much as experience. It’s the person who has seen more of life. Sometimes I have a student who does exactly what I say … and it’s boring!
What attracted you to it? How did you get into it?
[Rolls her eyes] That’s a whole story. Well, my mother went to Isabel O’Neil and the last thing in the world I wanted to do was this. But unfortunately—or fortunately—I come from a Greek family where you kind of obey your parents—and my mother said you have got to do this one thing for me. “Isabel is writing a new book … she’s looking for somebody who has zero interest in art and absolutely couldn’t care less and has no talent whatsoever.”
And your mother thought you fit the bill?
Yes, she said I was the perfect person!
But why did Isabel O’Neil want someone like that to help with the book?
Because she wanted to see if they could follow directions from a book. So I come in a complete novice … a virgin! And she hands me the manuscript—first of all she’s terrifying—and I was in this room in her house and I’m reading this thing thinking I can’t believe my mother did this to me. I was trying to see if I could translate [the written word] into drawings. After a while she said, “That’s enough for now. In order to get the hang of this you have to take the basic course.” I said, “I don’t want to take the basic course.”
And here you are.
I took the basic course and the rest is history.
I saw a phrase on your website, “faux fantasy finishes” – is this fantasy we’re talking about?
I don’t think that’s incorrect. I call it “the art of the painted finish” rather than faux fantasy this that and the other. It is an art.
How has the studio evolved and changed?
I would say there was a very big traumatic change when Isabel died [in 1981] but there was group of quite wealthy and artistic people who really believed in what she did. They decided that come hell or high water, they were going to support a studio that was going to survive. The studio was much bigger then than it is now. But at that time, there was a great love of decorative finishes. We had people lining up around the block wanting to learn the art of the painted finish.
I know there was this flowering of decorative finishes in the 80s – is it coming back … um but now I’ve asked that, I don’t have any real belief that it is coming back!
What I see is a tremendous simplifying. Not that there is decorative stuff but everything now is clean. It’s steel or greys or whites. All the furniture is exquisitely sleek. This [decorative finishes] style doesn’t quite fit in, as you can tell from my apartment. And by the way, I don’t mind the sleek contemporary style. There’s value in both.
I think I found something that Isabel O’Neil said, and it was along the lines of saying “I made this” is the same as saying “I am”. I felt that was an important insight.
Totally. I really do identify with my furniture and I teach that way too.
What’s the atmosphere like in the studio? Are people absorbed and quiet or do they all chat?
Chatting … and there are some people who take it very seriously. I will say that there are people who come in, especially the night people, who say, “I feel so relaxed. The whole pressure of life is killing me at this moment [but] I walk into this studio and it just goes away.”