Vintage Modern

Latest celebrity brand looks to past and future

September 25, 2005|By STEPHEN G. HENDERSON | STEPHEN G. HENDERSON,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Admit it. You're jaded about all those bold-faced names in your house. Once a thrill, now you're (yawn!) comfortable sleeping with Calvin Klein, showering with Isaac Mizrahi, and dining with Donna Karan. It's gotten so that you can barely bring yourself to make tuna salad in Aunt Dolores' old mixing bowl.

And why should you, when Thomas O'Brien is ready to move in with all those bowls, vases, silverware, lamps, and furniture he's designed for you? Dubbed "Vintage Modern" by Target, O'Brien's collection of nearly 500 items will appear in stores and on the company's Web site in early October. This, by the way, is the largest single launch of products in Target's history.

Such an extensive advertising campaign is planned, in fact, that O'Brien's handsome face could soon be more familiar to you than that of your spouse or dog. The latest example of what experts call "celebrity branding," soon enough he'll be appearing nightly on a potholder in your Home, Star-struck Home.

Why, you may wonder, are celebrities suddenly so keen to haul around casseroles? Jackie Hirschhaut, vice president of the American Home Furnishings Alliance, explains.

"Many consumers have a very difficult time trying to decorate, especially when it comes to spatial relationships and choosing colors," she said. To help people more easily design their rooms, home furnishings manufacturers and marketers once organized their products around themes such as famous places or historical eras: "Early American," say, or "Danish Modern."

"However, with the whole celebrity phenomenon in today's society," Hirschhaut continued, "it is now much easier for a consumer to relate to an individual and to the simulated lifestyle embraced by this individual."

Those captivated by a look that's to-the-manor-born no longer need study imperial Great Britain; rather, they can emulate Ralph Lauren. Forget Williamsburg; Martha Stewart does Colonial better and K-mart's a lot closer.

What style Thomas O'Brien's name will soon summon is previewed in a surprisingly fulsome feature in September's Elle Decor.

"We don't often give that much play to a new line, but we are enormous fans of what Thomas does," said Margaret Russell, the magazine's editor in chief.

Asked to define "Vintage Modern," Russell replied, "modern means new and fresh, but the word can also put some people off. Vintage means a softer sense of modern; a little patina, warm and cozy. It's a great, great collection."

O'Brien, 44, is founder of the design firm Aero Studios Ltd. and the Aero home furnishings store in Manhattan's Soho neighborhood. Raised in upstate New York, he cultivated a life-long habit of shopping at thrift shops and rummage sales early on, thereby developing a nearly encyclopedic knowledge of American furniture and decorative objects.

"I used to play store when I was a kid," he said, with a chuckle. "I'm a designer, yes, but above all, I'm a merchant."

O'Brien received a bachelor of fine arts degree in painting and photography from Cooper Union in New York City. After brief stints at Details magazine and with decorator Mario Buatta, he joined Ralph Lauren, where he worked on everything from styling fashion shows and Polo retail stores, to decorating Lauren's private residences.

At Aero, he quickly developed an A-list clientele -- including Giorgio Armani -- and later created furniture for Hickory Chair, lighting for Visual Comfort and a bed and bath line for Marshall Field's. Target approached him two years ago, and he began work on "Vintage Modern."

"There's an enormous amount of beautiful and fascinating things from the '40s, '50s and '60s," O'Brien says, "but I'm not primarily interested in style, per se. The basic principle of design is answering problems. Design is constantly evolving and that process is intriguing to me."

One of the biggest challenges he faced with Target was that all his furniture designs needed to be both collapsible and packaged to fit onto the store's shelves, which are uniformly 22 inches deep nationwide. Since O'Brien was insistent that his line include a dining-room table, he devised an ingenious drop-leaf model.

"We even invented a typeface for the numerals on our clocks," he said.

Will you allow Thomas O'Brien to tell you the time, lift food to your lips, and dry you off after the shower? Or, will "Vintage Modern" end up on the dust heap alongside failed bold-faced brands like those from Bill Blass and, yes, even the King, Elvis Presley?

O'Brien's attention to detail bodes well, suggested Hirschhaut. "A celebrity brand has to stand on its own, name or no name. If there's not good design, or good value, it won't be a success."

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