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Date published: March 03 2016

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We learn from the traditional in order to create the modern says Thomas O’Brien

Over the past few years, in my own life and in the client homes and furnishings I’ve designed, I’ve been thinking a lot about the value of balance. There’s the balance of living in the city and longing for time in the countryside, and certainly the imbalance of work versus any leftover downtime to unplug. I think there is a balance to be regained in bringing essential domestic pleasures like cooking and householding into the equation with truly sophisticated living.

In design terms, this balance might apply to how we learn from the traditional in order to create the modern. I’ve always been interested in how modernism is an echo of previous periods and places. I see Georgian classicism and ancient Greek proportions, and the simplicity of traditional Japanese design, all occurring and recombining in many of my favourite eras of Scandinavian, French and Viennese, American and English art and design. And I’m still fascinated by what is to be learned from the fantastic craft and time that go into a perfect 18th century spoon, or a fine moulding profile, or a carved marble antiquity.

I study all of these sources to do my own reinventing when I design furniture, or lighting, or a room. I’ve always loved learning from collectors and gallerists, and from the in-depth, generous information that wonderful specialists and small shops preserve, like the dealer who focuses on the most special and rare Georgian ceramics and silver, or the merchant who has the eclectic, unexpected grouping of treasures in his decades-old antique store. The ingredients may be from the past, but the sum total of how they get put together is always for the time of now.

So it’s time that most interests me in this equation, and it’s time that feels so neglected in the way we live and work today. Curiosity and patience are being lost in the rush to acquire more, and do less ourselves. But it will always take real time to make real things. And almost any object or influence that we’re drawn to because it’s attractive is first a function and a literal record of the time and tastes it was made for. What I love is the story that each of these things can tell - who made it, and why, and how maybe it pushed the boundaries of what had been made before it.

Recently I’ve designed a library and studio next to my home on Long Island. This project was in part a response to wanting a new way to work, out of the city, using a whole house and garden as a creative laboratory. And it’s been a process of incorporating history so that both house and garden look as though they’ve evolved over a long period of time, even though almost everything is new. The trick and the fun is to use historical techniques and forms to actually make something completely original. And that’s equally the case with my new home collection for Century Furniture: the old is right there in the new.

Design, for me, is always about a respect for the world of ideas instead of flash and immediacy. It’s a quiet insistence on the details that make things work better, for longer; and it’s a stand for the disappearing arts of kindness and decency that make every creative transaction important to the end product, from the studio to the workshop to the front door.

In my work, and I think in the dreams of a lot of clients, this level of character is the new priority, more than spectacle and status. People want to feel at home and not on stage. I’ve always wanted to make beautiful, restful, inspiring homes and furniture, which are authentic in this exact way. And I want to help people prioritize real refinement and elegance without sparing a livable, comfortable, kind, welcoming environment. To balance design with meaning: that’s the practical beautiful life.

Author: Thomas O’Brien

Company: Century Furniture

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