Inside design: Thomas O'Brien
Style at Home: You originally went to New York to go to art school. How does that artistic background influence your work in design?
Thomas O’Brien: Obviously art is about beauty, but beyond that, I think it taught me to appreciate individualism. I like things to be authentic, and my interiors aren’t designed to be perfect. These days, design is more about being unique; it’s about having rooms with personality, not rooms that look like everyone else’s.
S@H: When you talk of bringing personality to rooms, do you mean, for instance, incorporating collections?
TO: Yes, but not just that. The art and furniture that people are drawn to say a lot about who they are. I start there. It’s important to include pieces a client already owns. Existing art, collections and special furniture pieces define a room and give it charm. There’s so much variety in the market now. It’s almost obscene how much there is to choose from. Customizing, or personalizing, is more and more important. My own furniture line [visit hickorychair.com for Canadian dealers] was designed with a blend of styles so it could work with someone’s antiques or other pieces the client already owns; it’s not designed to work only with my things, because I want consumers to be able to express their own personalities.
S@H: Let’s talk about the Thomas O’Brien range of products. Your look has been described as “soft modern.” Do you think that’s fitting?
TO: People have been calling my work soft modern, or warm modern, for a long time, and I guess it’s apt because, while highly stylized modernism doesn’t interest me, I do appreciate a modern attitude to putting things together.
TO: I love antiques and vintage things, and there’s a way they can be put together with more contemporary pieces that works. That’s modern.
S@H: That’s also a more practical approach, isn’t it?
TO: It’s more practical and it’s more green.
S@H: What role does practicality play in your work?
TO: A timeless look is essentially practical because you aren’t starting from scratch every time you want to redecorate. You aren’t buying all new pieces and reupholstering everything; you’re just working with iconic pieces and then adding or subtracting an item or two. I also think it’s important to be realistic about how rooms are used. In the dining room, for instance, it’s practical and normal to have a wireless setup and a laptop or computer: why not make the room useful beyond dining by creating a space that’s both an eating space and a work or recreation space? We have to get our mind around the fact that the way we use rooms is changing and that our design of those rooms needs to change accordingly.
S@H: What else do you think we need to get our head around?
TO: The staple-gun world is impermanent, and quick fixes aren’t what having a home is about. Some TV shows do a disservice by making [decorating] all about quick and easy fixes. Instead, I think there’s a new generation that’s learning how to give that special touch – that edge – to a room. That means embracing highly specialized trades, people with special skills. In recent years, craftsmen specializing in custom metalwork, for example, have been used in a very limited way. Now I think there’s a new demand for those trades. Those quality touches are what will really make a room unique