Down on the prairie, something is stirring. A new style is coming our way faster than you can say ‘Yee-ha!’ Banish that celluloid vision of tumbleweed, bunk beds and bare board ranch houses - traditional home to the tough Wild West cowboy. This is a liveable look for today that embraces the softer side of rustic, with bleached wood and colour in woven blankets, Navajo rugs and reclaimed treasures.
“It’s a style that says ‘home’ wherever you are,” says author Fifi O’Neill, who celebrates it in her own house with folksy charm and an almost tangible welcoming atmosphere.
All the rooms in her converted 1920s barn, with its open rafters and raw wood walls, are decorated in a subtle dove grey and chalk white palette. Loosely woven linen curtains hang at the windows, filtering the bright sunlight, and it’s the reclaimed furniture and intriguing personal touches collected over the years that are allowed to star.
There’s no hall and the spaces flow seamlessly into one another. Everywhere there are examples of her creativity, from a fake plank floor - plywood given a distressed paint finish - to a carved mantel as a focal point with a grate filled with artfully arranged foliage and branches.
It’s a winning decor effect for those who are on a budget (and these days who isn’t!) and attracted so many fans that O’Neill has distilled the essence into a new book, Romantic Prairie Style.
Although French-born, 20 years ago she fell in love with vast plains and the sweeping grasslands of Canada and America, where originally many European immigrants created humble dwellings which, depending on their location, took on a variety of designs from ranches and cabins to cottages and farmhouses.
“Those homes all share common characteristics, among them a love and respect for traditions and honest materials, a need for tranquility and simplicity and a spontaneity of design, be it rustic, refined or understated chic,” she says.
“What’s so liberating and appealing is that prairie-style decorating doesn’t answer to a set of rules but spells freedom and creativity - the only essentials are conjuring a personal sense of comfort and beauty. What could be easier?”
Settler-style resourcefulness and necessity work hand-in-hand in O’Neill’s world.
“My own taste leans toward a refined rusticity, a look easily accomplished with pre-loved pieces, whisper-soft colours, romantic accents, eloquent objects and a ‘do it yourself’ attitude.”
Quaint shutters are made from the doors of an old armoire, pillow cases are hand-made from vintage fabrics and outdoor metal furniture is given a gleaming finish with metal paint, making it elegant enough for a bedroom.
“Peaceful, uncomplicated and comforting, this barn is my prairie escape, my simpler life,” says O’Neill. “I’m surrounded by treasures I’ve rescued from markets and second-hand shops.
“If you surround yourself with the things you love, you can’t help but have a home in which you feel content.” With O’Neill’s help it’s easy to create your own little house on the prairie.
This is a down-on-the-farm look, adaptable and versatile, which makes an easy marriage with an existing rustic scheme. “You don’t have to opt for a bare look,” says O’Neill. “Just don’t over-clutter and keep the palette subdued. I like to play with textures and then add colour in accessories.”
Emulate a chic pairing of vintage and industrial by featuring stout wooden furniture, hessian and linen fabrics that allow grain and texture to star and utility accessories such as farming tools or craftsmen’s implements.
Light and landscape were integral to the original prairie homes, meaning nature’s hues reflected in accessories, from pretty collections of glassware to posies of flowers, are all ingredients of a more decorative approach to the style. “I also like to incorporate French vintage charm into my schemes,” says O’Neill.
“Of course, objects must be practical and functional but a crystal chandelier suits the glamour puss in me. My friends always laugh at the fact that even when I build, paint or drill I always do it in high heels!”
White-painted wrought iron bedsteads, dressers and antique chandeliers can be combined to give a more flirty, feminine feel but keep the look simple and grounded with stripped floors, and textured, plastered walls or homely wood-panelled ones and fabrics such as denim and gingham.
Whimsical, small touches give the feeling you could step outside and ‘ride into the sunset’, no matter what your location, or spark a full-blown passion for life on the open range. “I like uncontrived arrangements - perhaps a collection of vintage tin containers, a candleholder and a collection of coloured glassware,” says O’Neill.
“I think the world is longing to return to a simpler way of life, surrounded by things we cherish, amuse us or make us feel secure. This is style where you can have fun and relax.”