All words: Ashley Wright
All photos: Jeff Martin
When we arrive in front of Nina O’Neil’s three-story row house in northeast DC, the first thing I notice is a striking urn the color of fresh wasabi standing alone in the front yard. The facade of the house behind it is a spring shade of powder blue. Faded white trim frames the windows and door. Nina herself, who works for the National Gallery of Art by day and designs for her small haberdashery business, CIAO NINA, at night, is clad in a deep forest green cardigan and luminous fuchsia earrings as she opens the front door. “Lots and lots of color is usually how I function,” she smiles when I compliment the urn.
Her kaleidoscopic taste is reflected in small, tasteful ways throughout the house: the colorful pillow on an otherwise pristine ivory couch; the bright orange cookware and mint green mixer in the ice white kitchen; and the interior of the closet in her mostly neutral bedroom, its dark blue walls and bright gold railings forming the perfect frame for her rainbow wardrobe.
Nina’s studio, where she makes her gorgeously detailed fascinators and other vintage-inspired accessories, is the only room in the house where she let her penchant for color run wild. “I’ve tried very hard to curate everything so it doesn’t look over-the-top [in the rest of the house], but in my space it’s totally over the top – floor to ceiling pictures. It’s nice to be surrounded by things that inspire you.” Nina gets her inspiration primarily from Jazz Age style and the National Gallery’s paintings. “I never look at new fashion magazines … because I don’t want to be inspired by those things. It’s a little too easy to copy – like, ‘I feel like I came up with that,’ but I didn’t. I spend a lot of time looking at ’20s and ’30s hat design, and it’s great working at the gallery because … the color combinations are just inspiring. You can find one little snippet from a Rothko picture and go home and design something off of it.”
As we chat in her studio, a piece of gauzy tulle catches my eye. I ask Nina where she finds the many older pieces of fabric used in her fascinators. “I stalk old ladies,” she deadpans. “A lot of estate sales and vintage sales and thrift stores … You’d be surprised at what things end up at Goodwill, too.” Nina’s patience with her intricate work is essential; she’s fastidious because she knows her resources are limited. “Most of these materials are vintage … I don’t rush to mess up, because then I can’t go get more material.”
Nina wanted to make the studio especially personal because it’s where she does all of her millinery, which she crams into the scant spare time she can scrounge between teaching a Museum Studies class at Catholic University and her day job at the National Gallery of Art. “I make everything myself. People assume that when I say ‘I make them,’ I send them off and have someone else make them. It’s important to me that people see that my space is real and I actually make this stuff.”
There are scraps of vintage fabric and many small, colorful tools all around the room, including a huge collection of pliers on the back wall. “The last thing you want is something poking somebody in the head, and a lot of these [pliers] will allow you to get a flatter cut. When we’re doing something downstairs [my husband] Todd will be like, ‘I need pliers!’ and I’m like, ‘Well, you’re going to have to be more specific; I have 64 of them.’”
Almost all the pictures, which practically paper the walls in Nina’s studio, were given to her by friends and family. On one wall, Nina has framed the visa photo issued to her father when he first came to the United States from Italy. On another wall is an adorable photo of Nina’s husband as a young child: “He’s about to get attacked by geese,” she laughs. Other decorations are sentimental memorabilia from her life: She has a Justin Timberlake magnet in the room because “Todd and I’s first date was an N’SYNC concert.” One of her fascinators has appeared in an episode of Gossip Girl, so she framed the hat along with a photo of Leighton Meester wearing it on the popular show.
As Nina guides us around the rest of the house, I notice there are myriad prints on the walls and at least one sculpture on almost every available surface. Nina explains: “There’s a lot of family art. The sculpture that’s on the piano [is one] my mother-in-law sculpted.” In the same room as this sculpture is a fantastic snow leopard portrait, given to Nina by a favorite uncle, and a print entitled Burn that was given to her by friend Adam Davies. In the dining room are her grandfather’s bow hunting arrows, burnished Remington statues that a family member was going to throw away, and a 1939 second edition of Webster’s Dictionary. “My grandfather was ten when this was published. What words are in here that we just don’t know, don’t use – don’t serve a purpose anymore?”
This sentimentality and curiosity about times gone by translates into every piece of Nina’s work for Ciao Nina and adds old world charm to her chic home. In this house, like in her fascinators, the details are what make it special.