Todd Oldham’s story is one of rags to riches — literally.
In the 1980s, the design school graduate borrowed $100 from his parents to purchase 200 yards of cotton jersey. With it, he assembled his first apparel collection, which he immediately sold to a luxury department store.
“The colors I wanted weren’t available at the time, so I hand-dyed every single piece in my bathtub,” recalls the renowned New York–based creative. “I sewed each piece — there were about 25, I think — alongside my mom. Neiman Marcus wanted it for the opening of its Beverly Hills store. It sold out within just a couple of days after the store opened.”
Since then, Oldham has worn many “designer” titles: fashion designer, interior designer, textile designer, and graphic designer, among others. He’s hosted design-inspired television series and authored and designed books about design. This month, the head of Todd Oldham Studios is the inaugural keynote speaker at the 10th annual Modernism Week event, where he’ll talk about one of his industry heroes, Alexander Girard, about whom he created a 672-page monograph co-authored with Kiera Coffee (2012, Ammo Books). Like Oldham, Girard was a prolific designer whose oeuvre spanned several disciplines, from interiors and textiles to graphics and illustration.
What can we learn from your book and presentation about Alexander Girard?
This super-gigantic book highlights Girard’s many, many projects, from his iconic redesign for the Braniff airlines in the 1970s to his revolutionary co-designs with Charles and Ray Eames. He is inspiring on about every human level possible, whether it was his incredible interior design work or his textile designs for Herman Miller through the years or dozens of typefaces. The guy was just a genius.
What inspired you to become a designer?
I just always was. Whether I was building rooms onto the house or rewiring a lamp or sewing my sister a dress. It wasn’t until later that I learned there was a name — designer — for what I did naturally all of the time.
You made your first dress for your sister out of pillowcases when you were 13.
Yes, she was my muse in the early days and whether she liked it or not, I tortured her with many ridiculous, inappropriate outfits [laughs].
You haven’t had an apparel collection since the late ’90s, but many people still think you’re a clothing designer.
It’s probably because most designers leave the fashion world in cataclysmic disaster, and I sort of just quietly left and moved on to other things.
Your focus is now on products and books. What’s in the making?
I’m very excited about two collections I’m working on now called Hand Made Modern and Kid Made Modern, the first artist-quality art supplies for children. Both are available in Target stores. I also have two books that came out at the end of last year. One is on the [lesser known] photographer Gerald Davis, who photographed European and American situations for different tabloids. He was the editor of the National Enquirer for a time in the 1970s. The work has been completely unseen. The other is on the children’s book illustrator Ed Emberley. He’s done more than 100 books, with 90 of them out of print.
Your dream home?
My home must be cozy and comfortable, first. My design has a lot of exploration in it. I’m not stuck in a lot of fixed rules. I’ve always wanted to live in a quarry. That would be my dream, to redo a quarry. What would keep me from doing it is the scary off-gassing from disrupting the stone.
You visit Palm Springs about once a year. What do you like to do while you’re here?
There’s always some jaw-dropping retreat in Palm Springs. I enjoy taking in the flourishing midcentury aesthetic. I love how everything is so steeped in the design, even the 7-Eleven. I love the light and the way everything is nestled into the landscape in harmony. I’m excited to be coming in February when it’s wicked [cold] in New York. There’s a trail I like to hike — I can’t remember the name of it, but it’s got a lot of consonants — put like 14 consonants together and that’s where I go!
I got a tour of the Annenberg estate just before it opened, and I couldn’t believe how brilliant that was. I loved everything about being there, but the kindness of the Annenbergs — to learn how they donated all of those old masters paintings and weren’t selfishly hoarding them — I just thought was so unbelievably cool. That way, so many people can enjoy it. They seem to have been the right kind of rich people.