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The Many Talents of Thomas O'Brien

Meet the versatile designer who has worked his magic for industry bigwigs and for the rest of us (think Target).

Designing a great interior isn't always about how much you can spend. Sure, lots of cash helps, but it's the mix of things — antique, contemporary, expensive, bargain, old, new, elegant, kitschy — that really makes a room inviting, says Thomas O'Brien. O'Brien is a bit of a mix himself, a designer who has created spaces for high-end clients including Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan, and who also has a home furnishings line of more than 500 items for Target. In addition to his New York-based design firm (Aero Studios Ltd.), O'Brien has designed furniture for Hickory Chair, textiles for Groundworks, rugs for Safavieh and luxury bedding for Marshall Fields. So how does the man who designs everything from $14 throw pillows to multi-thousand dollar dining tables create elegant and inviting spaces without breaking the bank? Check out his tips here:

Casual, comfortable chairs and an ornate cabinet can share the same space with style. (Photo courtesy of Hickory Chair)

Mix It Up
Things look richer if casual items and elegant items are mixed together, O'Brien says. "In everything I do, I'll have some expensive antiques or more expensive upholstery, but then I'm just as sure I want a $20 basket in the room. When everything is really, really expensive it's so boring, just as it is when it's all inexpensive. It works both ways. Even if something is dressy, it needs to feel easy. That mix of things is chic. It makes the richer thing look that much richer and the casual thing look wonderful." It's not about scrimping, O'Brien emphasizes, but choosing a well-thought mix of items that will complement each other. "It's like the way I dress," O'Brien says. "I wear new things with vintage and casual things with suit jackets. I like that in a home, like a sisal rug and inexpensive coffee table with richer antiques. That point of view seems more knowing."

Spend More on Comfort
Upholstered items are one of the most important things to spend money on because they're "what you put yourself in; they're what you really use," O'Brien says. These are the tactile items that literally surround you. Whether you're paying a premium for custom upholstery or buying at retail, O'Brien recommends your sofa and chairs be "the first thing you invest in and the best you can afford. Over the years as you build your home those things will gravitate to other rooms in the house as you buy even better ones."

Embrace Your Finds
Don't put away the slightly kitschy, mahogany rocker you found for $35 at an estate sale just because you're trying to upscale your living room. O'Brien tells clients or friends to hang on to quirky items they love, "even the oddest and most weird thing. Those things can be tucked into a bookcase to give character to a room. Things like seashells and stones from trips go a long way in a room, not just as accessories, but mementos. But store-bought seashells and stones are kind of horrid. Life is real and you need to incorporate that in your home."

Everybody is proud of great finds, O'Brien says. "People love the fact that it's affordable, and they love that it's their choice, ‘I found this.' Those things are much, much more interesting in a home than things that have all been carefully edited. They're practical and real, like the wonderful antique table with a really inexpensive, flea market lamp."

Know What You Don't Like
"People are more sure about things than they think," O'Brien says. "Generally people are much more clear about what they don't like, than exactly what they want in a room and what they want it to be. Start with a really good list of ‘I don't want it to be this.' It's like picking movies – you know which ones you don't want to go see. People are often really scared they're going to make the wrong choice in decorating their homes, and what that might say about who they are. Clients say, ‘Is this chair really me?' And I say, ‘It's NOT you; it's a CHAIR!' It's a little reality check here."

This hickory armoire with mirrors redefines the space and doesn't make it conform to just one definition of style. (Phtograph courtesy of Hickory Chair)

Throw Out Definitions
Everybody has a different opinion about what is casual or formal or classic, says O'Brien. "For years it was thought that something traditional was more formal, but there's a huge amount of very refined, very precise, minimal kind of modernism that's more formal than traditional stuff." People with a traditional house might have a family room that's more clean and modern because that's their idea of casual while in another house it might be exactly the reverse, O'Brien says.

"Even the youngest kids working at my studio in New York are very focused on personal style, not necessarily the style. From tattoos to clothing styles, so much today is about personalization. There's a lot more freedom in the sense of feeling older barriers cut down."

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