What’s Old is New (or Can Be), According to Designer Thomas O’Brien

Designer, tastemaker and collector Thomas O’Brien spoke to a packed house about his just released first book “American Modern: My Inspirations for Classic Style, from Modern to Traditional” at the Merchandise Mart’s bi-annual International Antiques Fair.

Whether speaking about one of his projects, one of his own homes or one of his lines for companies like Target, Visual Comfort or Hickory Chair, which just unveiled a new line of the designer’s furniture, O’Brien says he’s always looking for ways to take traditional things and make them feel modern and younger.

“Everything was modern at one time,” O’Brien says. “I’m fascinated with the newness in old things.”

O’Brien, who described the projects in his book as “cinematic,” “dreamy,” “flowing,” and “peaceful,” shared a number of tips about how he makes traditional spaces feel fresh and contemporary.

Details matter: O’Brien particularly enjoys it when clients are interested in finding the perfect flat wear, dishes and textiles—elements that often get overlooked but make a big difference in how a space ultimately feels.

Mix it up: To help a client whose “world was suffering from Prouvé furniture” (and visually heavy black leather sofas), O’Brien brought in less pedigreed American pieces, including less highbrow Eames shell chairs.

“Some of it’s important, some of it’s not so important,” explains O’Brien, who enjoys incorporating less serious, often less expensive pieces into more traditional environments.

Defy convention: When O’Brien realized he spent very little time in the bedroom of his New York City loft, he moved his bed into the living room, which he transformed into an artist’s studio, complete with a bulletin board inspiration wall, a portrait wall and a large table for working.

Moving furniture around to best suit his own lifestyle has resulted in a personal space that O’Brien enjoys and which feels new and vintage at the same time.

Don’t forget to surprise: When working with a particularly traditional client, O’Brien kept asking himself, “What’s the surprise?” Ultimately, he convinced the owners to place a portrait by photographer Irving Penn in the entry. Different shades of red lipstick smeared on the otherwise black and white portrait add a dash of color and modern energy to the room’s classic antiques and velvet Damask fabrics.

For more tips (not to mention eye candy), be sure to pick up Thomas O’Brien’s book American Modern from Abrams Books.