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Meet the Designer: Thomas O'Brien

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In the early 2000s, Thomas O’Brien was a name that resonated primarily among New York trendsetters. As founder of Aero Studios, a retail and design firm in Manhattan, he was known as a “designer’s designer,” with a client base that included über-designers Ralph Lauren and Giorgio Armani.

That all began to change in the Fall of 2005, when he designed a collection of over 500 moderately priced furniture and housewares items for Target that quickly became one of the most successful product launches in the chain’s history.

O’Brien combines neutral patterns, pale colors and dark woods in a style he describes as “warm modernism.”
It’s a look many baby boomers associate with their childhoods in the ’50s and early ’60s and now is being widely revived by their children.

“It’s about all the unique things I love and live with,” O’Brien says. “I like to incorporate a bit of tradition; it makes modernism more approachable.”

HomeStyle recently spoke to the affable, easy-going designer about his influences and interests, as well as his role in the current style revolution.

You design for both the high and low ends of the market. Is there a difference?

 Not really. No matter what price level you design for, an object has to be functional and useful, as well as smart in a design sense.

You are often associated with reviving mid-century modernism. What’s appealing about that period?

It was a time when industry and design meshed in a really nice way and where beautiful things were being created and the point of view was very positive and optimistic. I think that’s important.

What designers from that period do you admire?

I love [accessories designer] Russel Wright and [furniture designers] Paul Frankl and TH Robsjohn-Gibbings. There’s kind of an honest earthiness to Wright’s things that I really like, and there’s something about the character and construction of Frankl’s pieces that is really appealing. I’m a big collector of all of them.

Where do you find stuff?

eBay! And junk stores and the Salvation Army. I love collecting. I’m one of those people who has way too many dishes, way too much silver. I always tell friends they don’t want to go with me to the Salvation Army store because I will drive them absolutely crazy. I’ll spend three hours looking at every t-shirt.

Is it about getting the best deal?

Not really. For me, it’s about the hunt. Collecting is fascinating because it’s inherently about learning and knowledge. No matter what you collect, it’s about having that little piece of knowledge about why something is interesting or valuable or beautiful – maybe only 20 of them were made or whatever. It’s about knowing that.

What colors are you liking these days?

I always love pale blue, ivory, eggplant and high-gloss black. I like that it has different associations. It adds a layer of complexity and meaning that I think is interesting.

I know you design a lot of houses. Do people come to you for a specific look?

I hope not. I think of myself almost as a consultant. My job is to make sure they are making a great investment in design. I’m not that interested when someone shows up with a picture of something I did for someone else and says this is what I want. I want to partner with clients more than anything else.

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[Image courtesy Aero Studios]