Photo: Rob Howard
It's 7:45 a.m. on a steamy Saturday morning in June, and Oprah's interior designer Ellie Cullman is scurrying to finish her homework. Cramming like a college student before final exams, she is studying the floor plans, fabric swatches and photographs that she keeps in a massive three-ring binder. She's reviewing every item that's already been purchased for the house Oprah is renovating in Hawaii, because the two women have to stay focused when they go shopping today at the Wilton Outdoor Antiques Marketplace in southern Connecticut. Oprah has decided to furnish her new home with folk art—decorative objects made by artisans with little or no formal training—and she's become quite the connoisseur.
Before Oprah arrives, Ellie wants to identify the booths that have the best merchandise. Ellie looks at her watch and worries that she won't get to preview all 144 booths before Oprah arrives. Nevertheless, the list of items that she's confident Oprah will want grows quickly: a worn wooden sign from a public library, a scrimshaw horse, a pair of shiny brass sconces, a stack of Shaker boxes in a rainbow of colors, a rooster weather vane.
"Hi, Ellie-belly!" Oprah says as she and her best friend Gayle King step out of her car. "We're ready to spend some money!" While museum-quality pieces can have "painful" price tags, shopping for folk art is fun. "It's accessible and affordable," says Oprah, who's not enamored of highfalutin furniture or knickknacks with pedigrees. "The dealers who tell me who had it, where it came from—I don't care. I only care that I like it."