Thoroughly Modern Tommy

Amidst the nuttiness of last week I packed up and headed to Chicago for twenty hours. Part of the fun of visiting Chicago from here is that the flight is an hour-and-a-half. That’s not even quite enough time for me to get hungry.
Thomas O’Brien is just as appealing in person as you would imagine him to be. It’s difficult to describe someone who is so passionate and so unassuming at the same time. There’s an energy there, but it’s easy.
O’Brien said a lot of things about design and collecting and living a thoughtful life. Every thing was modern once. Rather than collecting deeply, perhaps it is just as interesting to buy the one, one, piece that you admire the most. And, he likes laundry. Like, really, really likes laundry. He’d rather stay home and do laundry than go out. We may have to agree to disagree on this one.

But don’t take my word for it, hear him for yourself. O’Brien will be speaking about design and his new book, American Modern in the following cities:
June 10, New York, Hickory Chair at the New York Design Center
And, for those of you who are bloggers or regular blog readers, Marija is a delight and Magnaverde is a prince. A genius prince. Also, just as you would expect.
The image, above, is from House Beautiful, February 1994. Photographer Laura Resen took the picture. Resen was the photographer for the houses in the book and also a damsel in distress whom O’Brien saved from the big bad wolf in line at art school. As for the title, O’Brien mentioned in his talk that his father called him Tommy; it is not meant to imply that I do.
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15 thoughts on “Thoroughly Modern Tommy

  1. How I wish he were coming to Dallas! Guess I'll have to live vicariously through you. The book is on my list! Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thanks for highlighting Thomas I'Brien–definitely one of my design "heros"–the perfect mix of amazing talent and breadth with a submitted ego. Thanks for making him more "real".

  3. T.O. does seem to have a very easy going vibe. Thanks for sharing a little more about him!

  4. "…is just as appealing in person as you would imagine him to be. It's difficult to describe someone who is so passionate and so unassuming at the same time. There's an energy there, but it's easy." Perhaps the same said about you! Glad the Genius Prince has been so named.

  5. All I can say is that everyone is right about everybody. All wonderful.

    I resisted the temptation to do an end run around my local bookseller & shop Amazon in order to save a few extra bucks (and a few extra weeks' wait) for Thomas O'Brien's book, but now that I've got it in my hands–signed, of course–the results were definitely worth the wait. I've always been a fan of O'Brien's calm, undecorated-looking rooms, but this book is the first time he's had the chance to talk–in print & in depth, rather than in sound-bite quotes in shelter magazines–about why his rooms look the way they do.

    Near the front of the book, there's a photo of the narrow closet in a narrow hall in his upstare NY house, and what's there, on the floor in that closet, sums up his approach perfectly: it's plain, old printed linoleum–the no-nonsense budget workhorse flooring of a hunderd years ago–and its printed pattern of black-&-white checks is about half gone where the the edges of the old floorboards underneath are telgraphing through the linoleum. Ninety-nine people out of a hundred would have ripped out that beat-up floor and replaced it, either with something more traditionally 'elegant' or with something more modern & 'practical' but Thomas just lets it stay where it's been for the last hundered years. He didn't even bother touch it up to hide the wear, but lets it show its signs of use & age honestly. Sometimes, the hardest thing to do is to leave things alone, but that's what he does. In some too-roecious houses, this would look downright shabby, but here, it looks absolutely right. If I hadn't already thought the guy was great before, I would have realized it after seeing that picture. And that's not all: the cap he wore at four years old is hanging on a peg nearby. Here's somebody who'd get why my Cub Scout hat is hanging on my own hall tree, and why I use my silver baby cup to hold paper clips at my desk. And besides his respect for history (whether that 'history' amounts to several millenia or just a few decades) and the simple plain-spokenness (his talk was informal & off-the-cuff sounding–real–not mannered & stage-managed) he's a really nice guy. When Mrs. Blandings asked if I'd like to go to dinner with her & Thomas & his people, I gotta admit: I was a little nervous. Flattered, yes, but nervous. I mean, it's easy to sound like I know what I'm talking about in print, since I can spend as many hours as I need to, massaging a single paragraph into decent shape, but in person, if I get nervous I sometimes come across as a tongue-tied dork who can't even speak in complete sentences. But I shouldn't have worried. Thomas is a heck of a nice guy, and so were his people, Keith & Peter, and I already told them, if they ever want to open a Chicago satellite of Aero, call me up.


  6. Lunch was a lot of fun, too. After Thomas' talk at the Mart, Patricia, Marija & I cruised the antique show, then headed over to the Caffe Baci on Wacker Drive. This glamorous place used to be a Big Deal Restauarnt–mahogany walls banded in stailess steel, a round, black-granite-&-mahogany bar, black leather booths,a two story window, a ceiling mural, gleaming streamlined railings that follow curved dining terraces down & down, like the nightclub sets in an old Fred Astaire movie–but now it's part of an local cafeteria chain with cheap but really good food. But none of the other outlets are like this knockout of a space. Over the meal, Mrs B & Marija laughed & talked like old friends, which they are, although they hadn't met each other, either, till that day. I was too embarrassed to admit to Marija (and I don't think I did) that I had never heard of her or her blog until I read about it right here, but after meeting here and checking it out, from now on, it's on my regular reading list.

    MRS. B, of course, seems to know everybody–me, Marija, Thomas Britt, Margaret, Vicente, Eddie, Mayer, and who knows who else– which is, of course, how she could casually ask if I maybe wanted to eat with TOB.) Then Marija & I discovered that we had both gone to Bradley University & we both got our design degrees at Harrington Institute here in Chicago. Quite the small world. Anyway, it was the most entertining lunch I've had in a long time, and both women, my old friend Mrs B–if a year or so really qualifies as 'old'–and my new friend Marija were delightful.

    Mostly, though–OK, totally–the whole day is due to Mrs B, who not only asked me to lunch & dinner in the first place, but who only asked me to dinner with TOB because of what I wrote about his NY aprtment a year ago, and I wouldn't have written that if she hadn't asked me to write something for the blog during Guest Blooger week. This, that, everything's connected, and like she said, this time around, all the planets aligned (but didn't collide–which reminds me that I forgot to ask her at lunch about the story of Chicago, the Cash Machine & the Police. Oh, well: next time.

    Patricia, thanks. You are the best.

  7. Anon – It's sort of like dating. I might have gone out with him the first time because of his looks, but not again if there wasn't something there. There is a lot of there there.

  8. I don't know what Michael Kors looks like, but if I had sat next to Mario Buatta at dinner instead, the asnswer is yes. YES. And I'll be the first in line for his book, whenver he gets around to writing it.

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