Tuesday, May 18, 2010

An evening with Thomas O'Brien

Yesterday evening I attended yet another great lecture at the Corcoran Gallery. Thomas O'Brien was visiting for a book signing and to talk a bit about his work. I expected him to be knowledgeable, but what I didn't expect (and found pleasantly surprising) was his charming ineloquence. I do not mean that as a back-handed compliment at all! Rather, the lecture was informal and conversational: straight off the chest rather than totally prepared. Rather than stand behind the lecturne, Thomas casually perched on the edge of the stage and went through images from his book and talked about them in depth. Of course an over-arching theme was his interest in revival; looking back to move forward as he put it.. I was so glad to hear him say what I'm always thinking: antiques were the modern items of their time! Each generation makes its own modernism. Thomas is always trying to see an object in the light in which it was created.
If you haven't seen the book, you must soon - a requirement for any design library! The images are gorgeous of course, but the text is really helpful and an interesting look at his iconic work: from target to high-end custom residential design. As he himself stated, he's not a decorater, but rather someone who is interested in the complete idea: helping you find 'who you are'.
Thomas's work is collection based. He's always on the hunt for unique and special pieces, often at local thrift and junk shops! For this reason, I thought it a bit odd that he's against boutique hotels; I wish he had expanded on that point a bit more. For instance, in DC he's staying at the Hay Adams hotel, undeniably a gorgeous hotel, but I would have thought he would have loved something with more character like nearby Tabard Inn. I suppose it's because he believes design is personal: a boutique hotel is inherently 'fake' in that it represents no one while a true hotel is anonymous and luxurious.
Thomas talked at length about his own homes: both on Long Island and his now famous apartment in New York. I love his reasoning of putting the bed in the living room as it's the most amazing space which he found he wasn't using. This aligns with my philosophy of 'why have nice things if you don't use them!'. During the question and answer session following the lecture, a discussion was started where he states his love for marble. Many people are afraid to use the material as it's 'high maintenance' but he strongly disagreed. He pointed out many uses of marble where it ages and develops a patina that sadly, many Americans are simply scared of. So use those marble countertops: no more boring granite!
Thomas is constantly inspired by everything around him: his interest in movies interested me especially. Gosford Park inspired his use of high sheen and gloss: the long hallways of gleaming white paired with glossy black doors. This also ties in with his interest in texture: the pairing of old with new, the highly polished with the rough. He also mentioned the gorgeous movie 'Fanny & Alexander' (1982) which inspired his love of the enfilade in architecture and fine millwork.
I loved how he talked also of his interest in color, much like another designer who gave a lecture at the Corcoran last year, Jamie Drake. Now, obviously, the two designers are oceans apart: yet the same concept interests them both. While Jamie is interested in the dramatic affects color can provide, Thomas is more interested in the subtleties and ephemereal qualities of color. He's interested in the feeling the soft colors provide and the ways in which light interacts with them. In every project Thomas showed, he spoke of the light the space had: like a true artist. And so he is himself!

22 comments:

pve design said...

How wonderful! I am always so thrilled when things like this present themselves and then people like you can go and share with us. I must get this book today!
I love his work, and that he spoke of light which is so important!
pve

Kerry said...

Have it. Love it. I particularly enjoy that none of the rooms have that contrived look. The all have an authenticity that is difficult to also make appealling. I totally agree aboute using marble and nice things. I broke a Baccarat wine glass at my last dinner party but at least I knew what it felt like to use it.

Acanthus and Acorn said...

I REALLY wanted attend, but other things prevailed.

Thomas O'Brien is one of my favorites for many of the reasons you outlined.

I am so appreciative of your recap and each and every one of these details and your insights, thanks Stefan!

Will @ Bright.Bazaar said...

Hey Stefan. Thanks for this great round-up of the lecture. Being over here in the UK, I couldn't attend, but you have loved to. Off to purchase the book right away! Hope UK Amazon stocks it...Fingers crossed. Great post, as per.

Marija said...

Perfect, thoughtful re-cap, Stefan. Having heard Mr. O'Brien's presentation in Chicago, it was a treat to re-live it through your eyes and ears. You honed in on things I didn't and it sounds like the presentations were indeed different. I subscribe to his marble philosophy and because he didn't discuss it here, it was great to get the info as part of your re-cap. I loved your honest and astute insight! Nicely done...

The Down East Dilettante said...

oops, somehow put my O'Brien comment on the stove hood post. Silly Dilettante.

But also forgot to mention how really wonderful that living room is. I've admired it ever since it's first incarnation.

La Petite Gallery said...

I haven't seen his book. Sounds great. I like the photo of the apt. It looks lived in, Ball and cat, etc. Most photo's look so staged. Thanks for sharing . yvonne

ArchitectDesign™ said...

Yes, thats one point I wanted to make that I forgot! The photography of his work all looks lived in - voyeuristic photography at its best. It really brings life to the interiors -and really -isn't that what interiors are all about: living? Dogs, cats, objects and all!

Toby Worthington said...

This was a genuine treat, Stefan.
Thomas O'Brien is the best of the breed when it comes
to designers with a modernist cast of mind. The apparent simplicity is deceptive, because however serene, the end product is the result of layers of elements combined with great authority. Nothing cold
or austere about those white rooms, is there?

ArchitectDesign™ said...

I think it comes down to a genuine talent and eye, Toby. You don't even notice the rooms are white! He does apply pattern and wallpaper but sparingly and where appropriate.

Miss B. said...

I'm so glad you went! I was totally wanting to go, but was on a bus coming back from NYC!

David said...

I keep meaning to buy the book, I've now written it down on my list for the week.

I've been looking for a star chart like the one in the 3rd photo ever since the first time I saw that shot.

24 Corners said...

He has a very refreshing voice & style. How fortunate that you were able to attend! I love how personable he was and I loved his take on marble! We've chosen to use in on every counter surface in our new house...against the better judgement of just about everyone...and I'm looking forward to "patina-ing" it up!

As always, thanks for sharing your experience with us! Going to purchase his book ASAP...(that office is amazing and deserves a much closer look) xo J~

Karena said...

Stefan, so glad you could attend, and just the kind of informal relaxed experience for one to enjoy.

O'Brien is supremely wise and talented.
Karena

Art by Karena

Lesley said...

Fascinating and insightful commentary of the talk.
So many design issues raised here.
Thanks
Robert

Leah Moss said...

Stefan, I am really really jealous of you!!! His style makes me weak in the knees, everything placement is interesting and his layered collections is absurd perfection--ahhh...

and his style happens to remind me quite a bit of one very talented young DC architect

Vitania said...

Thanks much for sharing this very insightful post. I will have to pick the book up next chance i get.

Vie

Jeanne-Aelia Desparmet-Hart said...

Thomas O'Brien is my very very favorite American designer. I find his eclectism well done and his choices of large pieces exquisite. His color palette is always so right. He has a sese of volumes and a sensiblity very 40's I wish I had gone to that lecture. He seems like a nice guy also, which is good news. Wonderful post, GREAT blog. Merci.

Lauren said...

reading it now and am just loving it!!! (and his voice!)
xoxo

great post

Mademoiselle Poirot said...

Bonjour Monsieur, what a pleasant and utterly unexpected surprise to find a male member of the blogging community commenting on my Ladurée post, merci. And (yes, I know I shouldn't start a sentence with "and") what an amazing find your blog is. Very in depth and with great subjects and photography (from what I've seen so far). Will have to read more now... Thanks for introducing yourself and I look forward to a pretty picture of your navy blue (wow!) Ladurée box ;-) Love from London x

Grant K. Gibson said...

This is one of my favorite new books!
I have loved Thomas O'Brien's work for years.
He is HIGH on my list of people I want to meet.
You are so lucky!

Gregory Piccini said...

So Jealous!

would have loved to attend this. He's my favorite designer (would die to work for aero).