Charting A New Course at Isabel O’Neil Studio


Novelist F. Scott FitzGerald is known to have said, “There are no second acts in American life.” For FitzGerald this turned out to be a truism since he died shortly after making this statement. In contemporary times, however, Americans’ second act or parallel working lives are a way of life whether out of necessity or the thrill of seeking new adventures. It’s another option in an unpredictable work environment and one in which leisurely activities are aggressively promoted as important to a person’s well being. This was especially brought home to me on a recent visit to The Isabel O’Neil Studio a workshop nestled in on a bucolic street on Manhattan’s Upper East Side where students study and apply learned techniques to the art of painted furniture.

My hobby was furniture refinishing but I wanted to
advance up to the next level. Little did I know
twenty-two years later I would have progressed
from student to teacher to a board member who serves
on the management committee.

Thomas Diffley
Facility Director
Community Service Society

Founded in 1955 as a studio workshop for instruction on how to execute furniture painting, the Studio provides a wonderful opportunity to exploreaspects of the decorative arts learning more about materials, chemicals, design and to engage in, if so inclined, an apprenticeship similar to the Guild System of the Renaissance. All teachers at the Studio serve on a volunteer basis and have taken the required sequence of courses starting as an Apprentice then on to Journeyman and finally Master teacher. If anyone believes this is a short-term undertaking think again. It’s a ten-year process at minimum (longer than medical school, internships, and residencies combined) reflecting the old world European tradition toward craftsmanship.

The Isabel O’Neil Studio is a complete environment.
Eugenie Fuhrman, Master Teacher, Board Member, Disciple

Founder Isabel O’Neil (1908-1981), a graduate of Skidmore who attended Yale, found herself a divorcee with a child to support after World War I. Arriving in New York from Washington D.C., her good friend Dorothy Rodgers (wife of the composer Richard Rodgers), helped O’Neil land a position as a furniture painter with interior decorator James Amster.

From her very early years, O’Neil was a student of painted finishes researching the historic methods of the art form from its origins in the Renaissance through its manifestations in later day periods. Her curiosity, acquired skills, innate intelligence, and love of the craft naturally led to experimentation, resulting in new methods of achieving faux and fantasy finishes to stimulate materials such as marble, shagreen, tortoise shell, lapis lazuli, and malachite. This quality is encouraged in students and was central to O’Neil’s teaching. Her course study of apprenticeship is strictly adhered to as Genie Fuhrman, an arts patron and artist who knew O’Neil so breathlessly expresses in her enthusiasm, “I live and breathe Isabel O’Neil.”

There are many rewarding benefits – an exhibit of your painted pieces, a holiday sale at the Lighthouse for the Blind on East 59th, and most importantly, meeting and working along side like-minded people who can become life-long friends. Students can take classes at a pace that accommodates their schedule and interest.

For further information go to the Isabel O’Neil website call Executive Director and Journeyman Beth Mahaffey, 212-348-4464.

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