EMPOWERED RENOVATION: Todd Oldham invites, guides the do-it-yourself ethic into modern design for the home
By Daniel A. Kusner
The word “modernism” can often conjure images of anapestic, barren living rooms that might look sleek in music videos or glossy magazines. But who really lives like that? And if they did, where on earth do they put all their not-so-camera-ready stuff?
Dallas-bred designer Todd Oldham (who now owns a homes in Pennsylvania and Manhattan) is hoping to reclaim modernism from the impossibly pretentious with his new book, “Handmade Modern: Mid-Century Inspired Project for Your Home,” (Regan Books, $19.95).
According to Oldham, the modern design aesthetic has strayed away from its true roots — that modernism isn’t just a store-bough concept. It’s always combined “hand-kissed sensibilities with technology and automation.” And by incorporating some tried-and-true design principals, modernism can even be cozy, warm and decorative.
In “Handmade Modern,” Oldham walks readers through more than 50 projects to create or embellish the contents of a lounge-age living room, a relaxing bedroom and a book-lover’s den. With a substance-meets-style approach, he also gives tutorials on design legends like Charles and Ray Eames, FlorenceKnoll and George Nakashima — modernists who designed, not just for rich people, but styles that everyone could afford.
If you’re stuck in a decor rut or you’re still waiting for a reality show to swoop in and furnish your humble abode, Oldham inspires with a fun-and-funky way to spruce things up around the home.
What motivates you to embark on home decor projects? Ever since I was a kid, we had craft encyclopedias around. I would just pore over them because they gave you instructions on how to do stuff. And they stretched my imagination. It was fun to learn the base of something, because then I’d flip it into something new. Now it’s so easy for me to get started on projects.
When first stared out, was there a frustrating learning curve? I’ve always enjoyed it so much that, for me, the process was always the success. I’m very unattached to the outcome. It’s the doing part that makes me happy.
You highlight the legacy of so many other designers. But can you boil down your own aesthetic? I’d almost hate to. I think mine is too multi-faceted to boil down into a handful of words. It’s almost the duality of a situation that I find most intriguing. Things that don’t necessarily fit together, but in new combinations, they look good — be it a color, idea or a form.
You used to live in Dallas. Do you have any nifty household items that you obtained in Big D? Oh, indeed. There was the downtown Kennedy Museum that went out of business in the mid-’80s. A friend of mine tipped me off that it was closing. So for a few dollar apiece, I got massive sets of president Kennedy plates: Jackie and Robert plates, Jackie’s kid’s plates. I also got salt-and-pepper shakers. I bought everything I could carry out of that store. And to this day, I still eat breakfast off or Mame Kennedy’s face. And it’s nice to have toast on Nixon.
Are you good at estate sales? Very good.
How do you know which ones to bother attending? Look for the more discreet ones. An ad that’s too fancy or has a big company’s logo — skip it. Look for the handmade signs that are nailed to a post. The ones that are organized by real companies tend to have crazy prices. Take the alternative route.
How often do you re-evaluate or upgrade your homestead? Constantly. We change our clothes all the time. We change our minds all the time. Why can’t we change our house? I got away from the thought of a room being finished and just think of a room of being in a constant state of transition. It’s fun to add new things. So I set my house up to be moved around. I don’t hang a lot of my art — I have artist shelves so I can constantly change them out.
What was the last piece of furniture you got rid of and why did you toss it? Last year — a sofa. I get rid of anything that hurts. I don’t care how beautiful it is. If it doesn’t feel comfortable, it has to go. That sofa that was too hard and too worn.
Have you ever used the phrase, “That looks cheap.” Oh sure.
What does that mean? Cheap is a sum-all word for when you’ve pooped-out on your idea. Cheap is fine as far as monetary value, but when you apply the word “cheap,” it means an unrealized or unfortified idea — something that didn’t make it all the way. Lazy and cheap work together.
So many areas of the American home are neglected. So how immaculate is your garage? I have a great garage. And I’m constantly making things, so I’ve converted my garage to powertool central. It’s about 85-percent organized. In a garage, you have to have that 15-percent of exploded chaos.
I like your floating-bed platform and headboard, but I’m worried about the proportions. I really want people to take the inspiration and adjust it. But the bed platform sits firmly under the bed, so if you’ve got a bed in the room, it will fit.
What about that enormous wood-tile headboard? I always think that really big moves in small rooms are far more successful than trying to do modest-scale things in modest room. I say make it count. That’s why I stretched the headboard to the ceiling.
Your book is awfully fond of plywood. We tried to use things that were easily accessible. It
would be easy to make something beautiful out of tropical hardwood, but that’s almost impossible to get and very expensive. All these materials you should be able to curate from your local big hardware store or craft store.
But you never incorporate medium-density fibrebaord. I don’t care for it — it has off-gassing problems and the smells come off it. MDF isn’t a very earth-healthy material. And the weight is too heavy. It’s also terrible when you cut it, you have to have proper masks because the fibers are so microscopic and can be airborne in your lungs. MDF is bad material all around.
Now that it’s springtime, so many people are outside and fixing up their backyard. Do you have any cool, weatherproof ideas for the outdoors? I sure do, and I get to that in my third book. “Handmade Modern” is a series. The second is called “Handmade Craft.” And the third is “Handmade Garden,” which I’m working on right now.