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!

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