Monday, 11 August 2008

In Conversation with Thomas O'Brien

Thomas O'Brien is an accomplished interior designer and the founder of the renowned Aero Studios.

Thomas O'Brien is based in New York City's downtown SoHo artsy neighborhood. O'Brien divides his design practice among 3 areas: interior design for select clients-both residential and commercial; running his own one-of-a-kind store, Aero; and designing products for the home, including Groundworks for Lee Jofa, Hickory Chair, Target, Reed & Barton, Safevieh, Waterworks, and more.

Thomas O'Brien was born in 1961 in upstate New York. He received his BFA from The Cooper Union in New York City in 1986. He lives in Manhattan and in Bellport, New York.

Thomas O'Brien

Iván Meade - What was your first experience with design?

Thomas O'Brien - I would probably have to say my parents building our house about the time I was in 2nd grade. I distinctly remember from when the house was framed to when we moved in. My dad designed parts of it, and he and my brothers went in and cleared the trees each weekend before the construction began. It certainly connected design to the idea of home for me in an important way.

Thomas O'Brien Collection
Hickory Chair

Iván - What do you consider to be your greatest strength and weakness?

Thomas - For me these are really the same: a sense of complexity, but also, the complexity of it all. Having multiple interests requires a lot of multi-tasking. I’ve structured my company in such a way – from the store to products to the design studio – that I can work on all the things that intrigue me. That’s my world, that mix, and it’s thrilling, but it can be demanding to keep it all in balance.

TOB Crystal Candlesticks
Reed & Barton

Iván - You are considered as having an exquisite eye for collecting unique pieces – What do you consider to be your best find?

Thomas - Certainly the actual answer is every new one becomes the best find. But if I had to pick one thing in my life looking back, it would have to be my house on Long Island. It was built as a schoolhouse in 1833, and it had numerous uses; it was even a carpenter’s shop at one point. It was first lived in as a house in 1920. The building and the property have so many unique qualities – grand details and small ones. The singularity of the house and all the history in it is what is special to me.

Deco Plaid Area Rug by Thomas O'Brien

Iván - What is the most practical thing that you own and what is the most rare?

Thomas - On the conference table that I work on at Aero, I always have 11x17 paper, lots of sharp pencils, a scale rule, and measuring tape. These are the practical tools that I use every day, in every design meeting. Every single item in the studio is designed and drawn in full scale, and I look at it all in full scale. I use the measuring tape and the scale rule over and over again to check the dimensions on every product and architectural detail. As for something rare: I’m not certain it’s the most rare, but what’s special and dear to me is one of the Roman antiquities I own – a quite worn marble figure of a rabbit. The Roman rabbit is somehow completely charming to me – a real treasured thing that you might find in a novel, or a Merchant Ivory movie. It has this exotic narrative in my life. It’s the kind of thing that really gets me.

Iván - What makes a tastemaker nowadays?

Thomas - It’s always about personal style.

Iván - How do you define in your own words “warm modernism”?

Thomas - Well, it’s about having a modern point of view, together with a love of things historical. I have an interest in modern things, but I don’t like them being forced into a minimal style that is called ‘modern’. A blend of those pieces with traditional or vintage things is what makes it modern in spirit, for me. Because I think there can be this kind of elitism and starkness about modernism today that’s counter to what it was originally about – accessibility and ease. You can create a style that is warm and inviting and familiar with a modern backbone – not something that’s forced to be new.

Thomas O’Brien® Modern Upholstered Bench

Thomas O'Brien Bench from the Vintage Modern line available at Target

Iván - Once I read that your design philosophy comes with the principle that criticism brings the best out in you – How do you apply this principle to your work?

Thomas - What I mean by that is that I came through the world of art school, with the process of critique and editing as part of the work. I graduated from The Cooper Union in New York City, and critique was a huge part of the education. It teaches you to question, prepare, rethink, and present work. And this is where I learned to do those things. It’s how I function as a business person today. The way I present ideas in meetings or look at work in the studio is all about having lived through art school.

Aero Lavatory Faucet with Tri Spoke Handles

Iván - I remember 5 years ago when I saw your first collection for Lee Jofa Fabrics (Groundworks) that I was really excited to see something new and fresh – how do you keep current and what have you done to keep current – when I was doing my research for this interview I saw your first collection by Lee Jofa and it is as current now as it was years ago.

Thomas - Thank you so much. I guess I think one of the strengths of the work can be that it’s always referencing new things, even obscure things. I’m looking for the unusual or unexpected details that don’t feel directly like a fabric idea or a furniture idea, because those things can send you on a path to an original theme. That’s the design content that comes together in the spirit of any collection. So it’s being inventive, keeping your eyes wide open, to whatever catches your interest.

Thomas O'Brien II
Lee Jofa - Groundworks

Iván - I had the opportunity to see a spread of your own place in AD Spain – January 2008. Some of the things that impressed me most were a dossier of your particular taste close to the chimney. Items such as pinned photographs, a Celtic bust and a small painting of Francis Bacon. Do you consider your place to be a creative laboratory for future concepts? A space where seemingly mishmashed items combine to create a unique and beautiful style all their own?

Thomas - Well, I love things modern and things ancient, and that’s what I live with. History is very important to me. And so is being surrounded by art. One thing I’m particularly interested in is a collection of portraits that hangs on my fireplace wall. I have pieces by Man Ray, Alfred Stieglitz, Von Gloeden, Karl Moon, Loretta Lux, and Gary Schneider. And still, I find it’s really common that people don’t consider collecting portraits. For me, there’s something about this group of characters, these artful pictures that are beautifully crafted, that I enjoy so much. I like living with the images of all these individuals.

Iván - I believe that with your collections you have achieved the title “the designer to the designers” – How do you define your brand?

Thomas - I’d like to think that people experience my brand as being rooted in real things: design as part of real life. I work in a place that is a very active studio, with a store that’s open 6 days a week, year round, and we’ve been doing this for 15 years now. I blend the things I create in my day to day activity with the store being open to designers and the public. So people are involved in this place, they shop and participate, and we can respond to them. And we’re always evolving, to bring out new and surprising things for our customers. For example, I’m starting to work with media now, in publishing and digital worlds, that will fold back into the life of the studio in exciting ways. Conceiving the business in this way, with the store and the studio together, I think makes us fit into the world of design the way we do.

Thomas O'Brien Home - AD Spain

Iván - Why did you choose the name “aero” for your studio?

Thomas - To be honest, it was at the beginning of the alphabet. I did think about the idea that it would be at the top of the list. Short and memorable. ‘Aero’ also has a vintage modern aspect to it, obviously, that connects to a world of Machine Age design that I love.

Iván - Who would you like to design something for?

Thomas - Collectors of art.

Tiago 5-Piece Place Setting
Reed & Barton

Iván - What project has given you the most satisfaction?

Thomas - There are two strong answers here. Building a company of 30 that is 15 years standing, and personally, my home and garden.

Thomas O'Brien Home - AD Spain

Iván - Lastly, you have already created a stunning body of work with many mediums and styles, what would you like your legacy to be?

Thomas - My hope is to be consistent and creative even through the fashions of the day. To make good things and see the designs be collected and passed on. To establish a brand that’s important in a familiar and accessible way, and to be innovative, like the home furnishing world of the 1920’s and 30’s. To be that for a new generation. So really, to be known, popular, and real. I want the brand to have these honest, simple qualities and to be thought of for these good and solid values, that maybe remind people of a gentler, earlier time.

To learn more about Thomas O'Brien and his work please visit

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Anonymous said...

What a great interview, very insightful and of course, I love his work!

Laura Holland said...

Thomas is as warm and real in person as you portrayed him in this wonderful interview. I have had the great pleasure of knowing Thomas for about 12 years and he is true, honest and amazing. His furniture collection with Hickory Chair will celebrate its 10th anniversary in October 2009. Thomas is so talented that each time he designs products and selects time proven antique pieces that blend and accentuate each other that his collection is made modern once more!