I’ve just finished reading American Modern by designer, Thomas O’Brien. Unlike many hardback design books which are overly reliant on photos and provide very little real information about the design process, O’Brien’s book is characteristically detailed (although the photos by Laura Resen are spectacular too). One of the things I admire most about O’Brien is the way his rooms look so organic, as if they have evolved over years. Although he’s a decorator, designer, and definitely an innovator, O’Brien is also a collector and curator and he uses items that reflect both his personal interests and those of his clients in his work.

There are many useful lessons to be learned from his particular approach to interior design, so I thought I’d extract a few of the ones I found most enlightening.

1. Pay attention to the background

A collection of objects is only as beautiful as its background. Even though furniture and furnishings are often the stars of the show, O’Brien pays extraordinary attention to detail with the architectural structure, fixtures and finishings that act as backdrop. Whether it’s altering the height of doors and alcoves to ensure they are all aligned,  designing kitchen cabinets to reflect the shape and size of a window, replacing every door handle in a house with vintage sterling silver ones, or lining a bookshelf in a rich eggplant paint to convey formality, he’s guaranteed to have thought every inch of a space through.

The room below, for example, features a series of doors in metal-framed wire glass, inspired by an elevator in a nearby hotel, which provides architectural interest and a vintage look, while letting light into the space.

These kitchen cabinets were designed to line up with the windows and there’s unique detail in the countertops which are marble set inside a concrete edge.

2. Neutral is a color

O’Brien’s spaces are often characterized by apparently simple, calming neutral palettes. But his selection of a neutral palette is as carefully thought-through as any color scheme. He chooses between mid-toned creamy grays:

Warm honey blondes:

And cool milky whites (I know, I know, I’ve posted this picture a million times but I can’t resist – it’s such an amazing room):

He adds interest with metallic, reflective and gilded surfaces, as well as with subtle pattern and lots of texture. And, of course his signature is a lot of contrast between dark and light. But the lesson here is to think about the color of a particular wood, stone, metal or any other apparently neutral material and make deliberate choices in order to bring cohesiveness to any collection of objects.

3. Get out the history books

Although O’Brien’s designs are always fresh and modern, they also pay homage to the past through historical reference. It’s a highly cerebral approach to design and helps to ensure even the most eclectic collection of objects works together. Time and time again you see elements that have been inspired by vintage pieces he’s collected over the years. No item is too small to influence a scheme: take the duvet cover below, based on a 1940s napkin, as an extreme but not unusual example!

His Long Island house, The Academy, which was originally a schoolhouse, is another great example. Part of the house was built in the 1920s and there are many elements either from that period or inspired by it, such as the tall backsplash, bracketed shelving and enameled pendant lights in the kitchen to the 1920s vanity in the bathroom. It’s inspired me to look at historical references when it comes time to renovate the kitchen in our own house, which was built in 1922.

4. Expect the unexpected

While O’Brien respects and refers to history in his designs, he’s not afraid to break with tradition either. He’s known for his Manhattan apartment which throws convention out of the window and combines a bedroom and living room into one.

On a smaller scale, he introduces unexpected elements such as a table lamp on the kitchen countertop, men’s shirt fabric as bedlinen and a vast library table in the middle of the living room as a way to create that ‘collected’ feel.

5. Repetition, repetition, repetition

Throughout O’Brien’s spaces, you see repetition of colors, textures and shapes. This helps to create a layered effect which ensures both consistency and interest. The palette of the marble fireplace, for example, may be repeated in an ottoman, side table, and a print. A mantelpiece may be given a more unified look with repeated use of spherical objects. It’s all extremely deliberate and yet looks so uncontrived.

Sometimes O’Brien’s spaces are more sparse, sometimes almost cluttered. But they always look welcoming, cohesive and truly personal. It’s a look I’ve yet to master (I have a long way to go) but will certainly be drawing on O’Brien as inspiration in the future.

Photo credits:

1 – via La Dolce Vita

2,3,5,7,10 – Laura Resen

4 and 9 –  William Waldron, from a feature in Elle Decor