Each Julie Neill creation is at once elegant, dazzling and completely unique – much like the designer herself. Many of Julie’s fixtures and furnishings are even named after the person for whom they were designed. I caught up with Julie at her shop on Magazine Street in New Orleans to discuss her work and inspirations.
How did you become a designer?
I think I became a designer when I was six years old! One day I was looking at the bookshelf in my room and realized that it was screaming at me to become a doll’s four-story townhouse. I consider that my first decorating project. I’ve had a lifelong love of beauty and beautiful things.
How did your career develop?
I received a Fine Arts degree from Agnes Scott College outside of Atlanta. After that, I pursued a career as a painter. But I found painting on canvas very confining and I began painting on other things such as walls, fabrics and furniture. I started selling my painted pieces as well as doing freelance decorative painting.
After my two children were born, my pediatrician asked me to do some decorative painting at his home; he liked my work so much that he asked me to help him decorate the entire house, and this led to other decorating projects.
As a decorator, the most frustrating thing was finding good lighting, especially chandeliers. New Orleans is full of wonderful craftsmen, so I asked around and found some talented, artistic craftsmen who helped me create special pieces for the special people for whom I was decorating.
Tell us about the names of your products.
Every piece that you see on my website was custom designed for a particular client and then added to my line. That's why most pieces have the names they do - they're usually named after the person they were first made for. If someone gets more than one piece, we name them after one of their friends or a member of their family. I’m pleased that my business has that personal touch, and that I get to continue the tradition of making a well-designed, handcrafted product. (Find photos and names of Julie's products right here.)
I’ve just begun making my pieces available “off the rack”, so I can offer my line to a much wider market. But I’ll continue to make custom sizes and finishes available.
What do you like most about your studio/workspace?
I opened my shop on Magazine Street in 2000. It’s a great place - a 120-year-old house with our showroom in the front and workroom in the back. I like working in such a gorgeous historic New Orleans building. It has 14-foot ceilings with old cracking plaster medallions - we hang our chandeliers from them. The other thing I love about my studio is that it is usually occupied by very creative and talented people who work with me to turn my design inspirations into a reality. Each person is a true character so that it feels like I’m at a party all day long. It’s a great environment for creative give-and-take, and the process always produces something unique and beautiful.
And I love being near so many antique shops! When I need inspiration in creating our signature handpainted finishes, I just take a walk and soak up all the colors and patinas of the very old places and pieces that inspire me.
Who/what/where are your greatest design influences?
Far and away, the city of New Orleans: my home, my heart, my native city. This wonderful place has the greatest influence on my work. New Orleans is a city of artists; it’s an antique city that’s beautiful and decaying and intense and European and peopled by an amazing array of characters. The beauty of the architecture and the elegance of the old homes inspires me in every way. It’s a city of decoration and grandeur that’s tempered by a patina of decadence, a city that thrives on celebration, a city that stimulates all your senses. In this place, there is no way to escape being inspired.
What four (or five or six) people (artists, historical figures, people you know) would you like to have as dinner guests?
Mario Fortuny for his multi-disciplinary art and design genius, but mainly because I am completely wowed by his fabric designs. Caio Fonseca for his many layered and simple/complex dynamic paintings. Richard Serra for the monumental simplicity of his sculpture. Gerrie Bremmerman because she is the goddess of interior design in New Orleans. Patty Griffin because when she sings, I am moved to tears. Miranda Lake because her wonderful encaustic collage pieces poke me in the soul. My son Henry and my daughter Isabelle because they love to party with interesting people.
What is your most valued possession?
Right now I’d have to say my most valued possession is my beloved 1880 house in the historic Garden District where I live with my two children and my three cats. We all agree that this house is a treasure and we absolutely enjoy living here.
Tell us about your connection to New Orleans.
I am a third generation New Orleanian. It is my home and my heart. When you are from New Orleans, you are not like other people. New Orleans people love their homes and they love to decorate, and they decorate to please themselves. New Orleans people are easy going and love to party and to just visit. They are passionate and often favor thinking with their hearts and not their heads. This is part of what makes New Orleans special.
This wonderful city was truly knocked over by Hurricane Katrina. We will never be the same. But we are rebuilding and remaking and reinventing and renewing ourselves. This is a city that doesn’t give up.
Which products from your line do you have in your home? Do you have a favorite?
I have several pieces which I have designed for my home. Most of them are custom pieces that I’ve had made for myself. My favorite piece is my Isabelle chandelier because it was one of my first designs, and because it embodies everything that’s important to me - it’s classical in form, its details are simplified and modern, it has a certain lighthearted elegance and it’s hand made - it doesn’t take itself too seriously and it gives a sense of celebration to the room and the people in it. It is also named after my daughter.
:julie neill website and contact