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Vintage meets modern in Thomas O'Brien's popular designs

New York designer Thomas O'Brien counts some of America's great tastemakers as clients, and some of the country's trendiest shoppers as customers.

But whether styling custom interiors for Ralph Lauren or Donna Karan, or creating towels and lamps for the masses at Target, O'Brien has a steady design compass: Respect the past while focusing on the future. In his first book, American Modern (Abrams), the 48-year-old O'Brien shows his vision in seven homes, from a country estate to a Manhattan duplex.

"Every generation is a creator of its own modernism," writes O'Brien. The book illustrates in crisp, clear photographs and prose his blending of casual and formal, old and new. He discusses topics such as arranging artwork and shows how stylish your accessories and books can look organized on trays.

The designer is most comfortable in a neutral palette of creams, browns and grays and has a fondness for antiques with a fine patina. His bedrooms are calm, bathrooms old-fashioned and kitchens practical. Budgets are big, but the range of collections is vast and intriguing: 1950s Georg Jensen flatware, 1820s Georgian chairs, Mexican folk embroidered tablecloths and Man Ray photographs all live well together.

O'Brien, who grew up in upstate New York, began his career as creative director at Polo Ralph Lauren, working on the firm's original home collection and decorating Lauren's home in Bedford, N.Y. In 1992, he opened Aero Studios, a business that today includes interior design, a retail store and product design. He creates furniture for Hickory Chair, tableware for Reed & Barton and bath fittings for Waterworks. He also styles hotel and restaurant interiors. For five years, he has been one of the designer names at Target, with his affordable, chic Vintage Modern collection of streamlined tableware, rattan CD baskets, cashmere and wool throws and oak side tables.

He spoke by phone recently from his SoHo studio.

What do you think is the most successful and lasting product in your Vintage Modern collection for Target?

There are always new generations of things at Target, but I think the most classic and perhaps most important of all is my towel. There was so much development to get the quality we wanted. I wanted an earthy, modern palette, so I have colors such as brown, navy, black and pebble. The tone of the colors was very important — they feel slightly vintage or earthy.

One of my favorite rooms in the book is the all-white kitchen in your 1833 Bellport, Long Island, N.Y., house. It has a very nostalgic look. Can you describe how you chose the elements?

I tried to use ages-old kitchen materials and make it utilitarian. I like kitchens with glossy, glossy paint, and I put it on the walls and ceiling so it looks more industrial. I actually used an industrial high-gloss enamel in Safety White by Benjamin Moore. I did white marble counters. It has sort of a European feel, luminous and elegant.

Where is a good place to begin designing a room?

Start with a sofa. It's the biggest thing in a space. Sometimes a carpet can be the beginning. The thing that most changes a space is fabric. The investment of bedding is one of the special and affordable ways you can completely change a bedroom. I recommend clients buy more than one set of sheets, which can be interspersed. Building a linen closet is like building a wardrobe; you invest in it over time. I mix my Target sheets with lots of things, including a wonderful pale blue linen duvet cover from Muji.

Your book has beautiful photographs but also more text than many recent interior design books. Why did you choose this approach?

I decided to do individual essays on my projects, with real content about how I refined them, discussing client relationships and what it takes to put a house together. I wanted to identify specific items as much as possible.

Some people say 20-somethings aren't into collecting. Do you think there will be another generation of collectors out there?

Yes. There is a huge phenomenon of collecting, and that is what eBay is all about. It can start with something as simple as Beanie Babies — you find out there is one rare purple one that you want, because only 375 of them were made. People crave knowledge about what they collect. You get that online and by visiting dealers. I remember going to auctions as a child with my grandmother, who collected early American glass.

Vintage meets modern in Thomas O'Brien's popular designs 05/28/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 9, 2010 2:11pm]

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