Julie Neill: The Bayou Contessa

Designer Spotlight Julie Neill: The Bayou Contessa

All of the lighting fixtures that Julie Neill makes are produced completely in her hometown of New Orleans.

Julie Neill turns the sphere of blown glass over in her hands and says aloud, “Tell me what you’re going to be.”  Tapping into her intuition for creating innovative lighting pieces from scratch, she “listens” intently – not in a clairvoyant way, but with a designer sense that can be just as mysterious – to what the material might convey.

She puts it down with a sigh; the glass orb is not ready to speak. What is getting talked about, however, are the custom lighting designs she has completed for tony homeowners, restaurants, hospitality venues, and even a synagogue as far away as North Carolina.

Ever since she was a little girl, New Orleans born and bred Neill has been intrigued with design. “I made doll houses out of my bookcases as a child. I even made doll furniture,” she relates. When someone gave her mom carpet samples, Neill immediately put them to creative use. “I can make chandeliers out of the twist-ties that close a bag of bread,” she laughs. For this Fine Art major and decorative painter, no material is off limits – and her clients know it.

Julie Neill Designs hand blown custom lighting

She took interior design classes after graduating from Agnes Scott College in Georgia and began working at an interior design firm. “So many clients were looking for something [they could picture in their minds] that they couldn’t find, but I knew I could make it for them! That’s when I began making customers’ pieces.”

For more than a decade, she has been creating custom lighting fixtures at her studio, Julie Neill Designs, and also writes a design blog affectionately titled The Bayou Contessa in reference to her New Orleans roots and her love of the city’s blend of cultures.

Inside the Workshop

One look at Neill’s work table and you can see she’s not the AutoCAD type. Sure, she can use the software program, but she prefers art class methods for initial prototypes or to test out a concept. To her left on the table is a Styrofoam™ ball with a series of pencils sticking out to simulate radii. “I’ve used chopsticks, pieces of wire, paper cut-outs, you name it for my models,” she quips.

Julie Neill Designer of unique custom lighting

The walls and the table surface are covered in a variety of materials from metal forms to wire, chain, glass, and lots of pencil sketches. The designer will even draw on the wood floor. If someone wants a fixture in a 48-inch diameter, Neill will map it out right there to get a true sense of scale. “People will ask for all sorts of crazy things,” she admits. Apparently, word has spread as to where they can get it.

Neill’s business is mostly derived from word of mouth. After crafting a custom piece for a client, she would typically get approached later by one of the client’s friends who’d say, “I want what she has…but not.” As a result, this designer has become adept at creating pieces that are similar in spirit, but different enough in appearance to satisfy all of her customers’ desires for uniqueness.

She has even made fixtures for both the sellers and buyers of homes: as in, the buyers want the sellers to include the Julie Neill lighting in the home they’re buying and the sellers asks her to create fixtures for their new home to replace those they had to leave behind for the buyers. It’s an enviable position to be in, and Neill is grateful to be in that spot.

A Team Effort

Naturally Neill can’t produce everything by herself anymore. Gone are the days when she was applying gold leaf on the fixtures at home. “When my son was very young, one of his friends asked, ‘Are you rich? You have all this gold!’ when he saw sheets of gold leaf on my dining room table, which was my work area at the time,” she recalls.

Her son, Henry, grew up to join his mom in the business. He does all of the electrical wiring, handles the ETL certification, and helps with engineering. Neill has a handful of employees – some of which hold college degrees in architecture, decorative painting, or design and others who didn’t come with design experience but have learned skills on the job.

For example, when Neill had a request for plaster fixtures, she did research to learn how it was done. Then she taught an employee who did not have a background in art. “Jennifer had no idea she could do this [type of work], but it turns out she has an innate ability and she loves it! She now does the plaster for our fixtures,” she comments.

The multitude of hand-applied finishes is another distinguishing characteristic of Julie Neill’s designs. In addition to custom finishes, there is an array of “signature finishes” that have been developed through a combination of ancient techniques such as gilding, paint layering, powdered pigments, gesso, and wax. There’s no limit to how many variations on gold, silver, or other hues she has available either. “If we create a new combination that looks really good, we’re going to add it,” she explains.

Neill also credits the tightly knit community of craftsmen in New Orleans with her success. “We have highly talented fabricators in many mediums here as well as glass blowers,” she explains. “New Orleans is all about networking. If a customer comes into one of our businesses needing a certain type of work, there’s no one on this street [Neill’s studio is on Magazine Street in a section called “antiques row,” renowned for pottery, jewelry, plus Arts and Crafts] who wouldn’t send them to where they need to go for the best results.”

Satisfying Demand

Neill’s popularity as a lighting designer has grown so much that she opened up a shop a few doors down where homeowners and interior designers can come in and browse for that perfect something.

She keeps a stable of favorite shapes and signature styles of lighting fixtures on-hand in the shop that have proven to be consistent sellers. “Our version of ‘mass production’ is two at a time,” Neill jokes.  Since she specializes in fixtures, as opposed to portables, she fills out the shop’s selection with table lamps and accessories that she buys from upper-end factories. The wall art is exclusively from local artists; several examples of work are hung within each room as a “gallery” and rotated out after a certain period of time to give exposure to other artists in the community.

What gives Neill the most pride? “Being able to create something perfectly for the space, person, or the occasion it was designated for,” she states. “I love when clients say, ‘I can’t believe you got me.’  All of our production is done with peace, love, care, and skill. I like to think of it as we respond to the client’s soul with our soul.”

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