Thomas O’Brien Gives Us an Exclusive Look at His Very First Apartment

July 15, 2020
For the inaugural piece in our new series about “firsts,” we talked with groundbreaking designer Thomas O’Brien about his seminal first apartment, and why it remains such a potent touchstone for how he decorates and lives.




New York-based designer Thomas O’Brien.Laura Resen

In late 1980s New York City, a starry-eyed Thomas O’Brien would soon transform contemporary decorating with his fresh take on American style. But first came the rented fifth-floor walk-up where his extraordinary vision took shape.
Part thrift, part genius, O’Brien used a sheer silk drape on one long brass rod to cover unsightly windows. The effect was of a continuous, glowing wall of light.Laura Resen

The Beginning of Defining Duality

“There’s always this perfect room in my mind—it exudes a certain quietness and warmth—and that started here, in this apartment, when I was making my first home and finding my city identity. Whatever the elements are that I’m mixing together in my work, whatever the different textures and cultures and stories, underneath it all there is still this yin yang of natural and urban, rustic and refined.”
An Indian daybed bought at auction was used as a table, and later served as a desk for many years at Aero.Laura Resen

Curation as Creative Expression

“It was a time of big collecting for me. I came to New York City in the early ’80s to study art, which has remained a core part of everything I do, and the collecting very natural merged with that. I was and am deeply interested in the design, craft and quality of beautiful things, but also in the lives they’ve lived. There’s so much spirit to them. Things have meaning, and they are a way to hold onto memories and to tell stories. Whether something is an ancient talisman or was made very recently, incredibly intriguing things are being produced all the time.”
Things of both fine and anonymous provenance add to the sense of serene luminosity that has become a hallmark of O’Brien’s work.Laura Resen
Early on, O’Brien felt an affinity for pieces with an industrial-vintage flair, such as his grandfather’s Art Deco wristwatch.Laura Resen

A Palette Comes to Life

“I was very drawn to certain colors—naked leather, bone, wood, earthen ceramic—and I made them real in this apartment for the first time. They still infuse my work to this day. I’m definitely a dreamer. I believe that if you let your imagination go, you can dream something and then you can do it. Even with clients, that continues to be my process. We begin somewhere, we dream about what we’re going to make—and then we make it.”
O’Brien’s nuanced understanding of neutrals and his self-described palette of “colorless colors” was already on display.Laura Resen

Navigating Change

“People today often want a home to be instantly done, but there is something wonderful about putting it together over time. That’s certainly how this apartment came into being. I love the weird poetry of time, and things that have been touched by it and that have a patina. Spaces don’t happen overnight. They need to evolve. But they also can’t get stuck in the past. It’s important to engage with the moment that you are in, and to bring forward with you the things hat have meaning for you. Even at this stage in my career, I’m still always looking and learning and refining what I care about and know.”
O’Brien stashed his design magazines in shelves he found on the street and repainted.Laura Resen

A Visual Language in Process

Eventually O’Brien purchased an apartment on 57th Street, where he still lives. Cherished objects continue to inform the space, even as his approach to using it evolves—what was once the bedroom is now a sitting room, and vice versa.
Tall paned windows shed light on the assembled collection of objects artfully scattered throughout his current living room.
On the other side of the living room, a gallery wall of photographs, prints, paintings, and mirrors frames the fireplace and secretary desk.
In the sitting room, O’Brien continued the gallery wall from the living room with artwork in a myriad of shapes, sizes, and hues.
Shelves overflow with all sorts of objects O’Brien has collected over the decades, from an ancient bronze helmet to a svelte water jug and howling dog sculpture.

Obsessed with Thomas's Style?

Check out his soulful collection of rugs for Patterson Flynn Martin: