Q+A with Thomas O'Brien:
What compelled you to pick Someone to Watch Over Me as your inspiration?
I was as much drawn to the Gershwin song of the same name, especially the 1950s Ella Fitzgerald version. As far as the film, I admired the style of the director, Ridley Scott, and the cinematography. There is a moody glamour and a modern way that he depicts New York City even though this is essentially a traditional story. That modern-traditional balance is very interesting to me.
What was the hardest part of translating it into a space? How did you go about designing it?
I thought about the title in a general way: that in the city I have always felt the notion that there are guardian angels watching out for us. It’s a romantic idea, and somewhat tied to the sophistication of vintage modern New York, from the time of Gershwin and Ella Fitzgerald. The setting of this apartment, near the theater district and Central Park, just fed into that easily.
Another special notion that is connected to the idea of a guardian for me is that when a project is at its best, I do play a role as a designer that is about taking care of people in a certain way, looking out for their interests, and hopefully guiding them to a set of choices they might not have otherwise made. One of the best things about my job is the opportunity to build relationships with people over time, to know them, and to be able to help them really invest in a whole way of living that can enrich their lives.
How was it different from or similar to your normal design process?
Everything I do follows the same design process, really. We considered the space and the imagined “client” and went through a process of design and sampling until we had a specific set of elements to work with that felt honest and elegant together. In a typical residential project, though, we work intensively with the interior architecture and with renovation, which we didn’t do here.
Could you see yourself living in a space like this?
I do live in a similar space. My apartment is stories up from street level, in Midtown near the park. When I came to New York as a design student, I always dreamed of having that kind of living experience, up in the clouds, so to speak. And the sense of being at the crossroads of the city in this area, with its confluence of architecture and business and culture, has always fascinated me.
Did you learn anything new about design while doing this project?
I really enjoyed getting to work with certain materials from specific sponsors; for example, the fabrics by Katie Leede. Her collection is wonderful. I used a number of patterns from a charming suite featuring Egyptian motifs.
Can you talk about the layering, whether of color, texture, or furniture?
Layering is something that I like to do in all my work. I think it is how people put real homes together. But it’s not so much about design ideas such as colors or textures. What’s more important to me is the layering of things that a person collects over time that serve the household and are the items one wants to be surrounded by: furniture, art, objects. This is where the mix of different traditional and modern things, fine and humble things, can assemble in a personal way that doesn’t feel false or decorated.
Aside from the movie's characters, what sort of people do you imagine living in this space?
I did imagine a sophisticated, composed, elegant woman who would live in a space like this, who is in tune with the style and elegance of VERANDA magazine as much as the idea of the character in the film. I wanted the apartment to be soft and beautiful, but also tailored and a bit strong, modern. Refined but not too formal, and not too stylized.
You were working with a relatively small space here. What’s your favorite tip for small-space living?
One thing that I like to do for large or small spaces, which I’ve talked about many times, is to bring a well-sized table into a main living space as more of a desk or multipurpose table. In open-plan rooms, you can do this with a dining table, but pull most of the chairs away against the wall or mixed in with other seating so that the table is more informal. You can position stacks of books and art like a library table, or work there at your laptop. It’s easy to clear those items to set the table for a meal, and you get much more use and liveliness out of an important piece of furniture in your space.