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This months feature is a real highlight for me, as we're visiting the one and only Fifi O' Neil of the blog "Chez Fifi" and editor of Romantic Country Magazine!
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Some homes just have it. That “je ne sais quoi” that makes one’s heart skip a beat. “For me, it was love at first sight,” says French born Fifi O’ Neill, a writer who has been calling Sarasota home for thirty years. “In spite of its peeling paint and overgrown yard, the derelict little house not only looked like something out of a storybook it was also a stones throw from the beach. The only problem is that it was not for sale,” Fifi recalls. But some things are meant to be. “I kept driving by religiously and, ten long years later, it finally went on the market. I bought it the very same day,” she adds.Poised on the shores of the Gulf of Mexico, Sarasota has experienced great growth in the past decade and vernacular wooden cottages are hard to come by. Built in the early 1920s as an eight hundred square feet fisherman’s shack, the tiny historical dwelling still bears the vestiges of its humble beginnings. “This is a rare and wonderful find,” Fifi explains. “With the exception of the formerly open front porch that was enclosed to add interior space, the structure itself has remained the same. The tin roof, siding, and the interior wood walls and hardwood floors are also original,” she says.Upon moving in Fifi added a white picket fence where crimson roses and a blue thumbergia vine now flaunt a profusion of blossoms. Where there was no garden, beds were built, seeds sowed, and trellises fashioned. Today the grounds are redolent with the scent of flowers, herbs and the heady aroma of angel trumpets. Ancient oaks, their gnarled limbs dripping with Spanish moss, seem to protect the diminutive cottage like benevolent giants. “It took a few years for the garden to mature. There is always something ready to bloom. Right now it’s the roses and jasmine then the frangipani and the moonflowers are going to join in,” Fifi says.Aptly named the sunshine state, Florida enjoys countless sunny days and a little shade proves to be vital to the enjoyment of the outdoors. There was a lovely deck area outside the kitchen door but it offered no protection from the intense summer heat, humidity and seasonal downpours so Fifi built a simple cabana with a roof made from two layers of bamboo fencing with clear waterproof plastic sandwiched in between. "Though, color wise, the inside of the home was very drab, I was pleasantly surprised by the 10 feet ceiling. It makes the rooms appear a lot more spacious than they really are. Repainting all the surfaces--floor to ceiling--in light shades helped to create a soft but warm palette that gives the rooms consistency and serenity,” she recalls.The French are know for being indefatigable foragers with a talent for putting together things from various provenance and Fifi’s decorating style is a testimony to her Gallic roots. In objects some perceive as only junk of doubtful lineage she sees treasures with exquisite potential. She relishes sifting through the discarded, the tattered and battered, the crumbling and the shabby to reveal their ravaged beauty. She equally embraces flirty, fresh accessories and those she lovingly calls “regal rejects and relics”, selecting pieces not for their decorative value alone but rather for their history, useful purpose or visual wit. “I follow my taste rather than a specific style. Nothing pretentious or too serious, and it can’t cost over $200. Architectural salvage outlets, thrift stores and flea markets often have misbegotten vintage pieces that beg for a little love, care and a coat of paint,” she says.Integrating various periods and materials with accessories indicative of the waterside location, Fifi fashioned a mood of relaxed charm with ripples of romance. “I gravitate to textures created by the passing of time or the wear-and-tear bestowed by use" says Fifi.The kitchen had a typical diamond pattern linoleum, which, I thought, probably hid hardwood floor similar to the other rooms. But, when I removed it I discovered not just another layer but four more and, finally, deteriorating plywood under the last. I inquired about having planks installed but the cost was prohibitive. Instead, I set new plywood over the old one and painted it to look like weathered wood planks. There is no greater satisfaction that making something ordinary look unique,” Fifi explains. In spite of its newness, her handy work creates the impression of being an integral part of the original home.The union of soft and rough conveys a mood of effortless elegance: a long sideboard, which she made using an old door cut to fit the space and set on spindles, the perfectly peeling paint of a rustic farm table, a curvy chair and a pink garden bench with cushions covers made from dish towels communicate a French vintage charm that reflects her heritage. “As for the crystal chandelier, it’s for the glamour-puss in me,” she admits. “My friends always laugh a the fact that even when I build, paint or drill I always do it in high heels!”The harmonious blend of function and ease carries on from one room to the next where unique details express Fifi's sense of style and illustrate her philosophy of furnishing her home with the things that appeal to her.True to its period, the house has no hallway so making the overall look consistent was a must not just from the flow aspect but also for visual impact. In the living room, sofas dressed in nubby blankets and French vintage sheets and pillows contribute a restful, relax and intimate mood. “Like the painted furniture the fabrics gently show the passing of time. It’s a good match for this modest cottage because it’s evocative of that era’s welcoming simplicity-- beside, when you have three cats who love to snuggle on the furniture it makes sense to use coverings that can take a lot of wear and tear.” Fifi advises. An ample coffee table--a rehabbed flea market find--shares center stage with a faux fireplace made from old boards. “I have always loved fireplaces, functioning or not. They add instant romance to any room,” she says.“If you surround yourself with the things you love, you can’t help but have a home in which you feel content.” Fifi notes. “Through my work I get influenced by the places I write about. Although I try to control myself I always seem to manage to bring back “treasures“ from my trips. Everything in this house is a little piece of my life.”Compact and cozy, endowed with authentic charm, the cottage encourages intimacy and self-expression. “When people ask me to describe it I tell them it’s just a chic little shack,” Fifi says. Please visit Fifi's blog, and tell her The Old Painted Cottage sent you! -JG(Photographs by Fifi O' Neil and Dan Mayers. Written feature with permission by Fifi O' Neil)