Interviews, Essays, Etc.
Indefatigable designer, writer, and reader Todd Oldham talks to design editor Wendy Goodman of New York magazine in an interview for Designers & Books—about what (and how) he reads and writes. Authors Dorothy Parker and Amy and David Sedaris, artists Cindy Sherman and Tim Hawkinson, film director Sidney Lumet, and designers Roberto Burle Marx, Tony Duquette, Charley Harper, and Alexander Girard are all part of the mix.
Wendy Goodman: I notice you’re reading two books at the same time now—a classic (Flannery O’Connor) and a contemporary book (Mikey Walsh). Are you always reading a lot of things simultaneously?
Todd Oldham: Yes, I usually read a lot more than two books at a time. I often like to pick up Flannery O’Connor or Dorothy Parker or Tobias Wolff—who is kind of meditative for me. I reread quite a few books, which is ridiculous, considering how much there is to do. The first reads are so engaging for me and I love looking at the technical and structural parts. The third and fourth readings for me are just as enjoyable, but I’m understanding what the writers are doing. I’m very interested in the frameworks and the way people compose books.
WG: At any given time, then, how many books would you say you read?
TO: Between three and four, depending on what they are. Sometimes you can read morsels of things. Some stuff I’ve read so many times, I can literally just pick the book up anywhere and get into that same zone. I like challenging books, and I like lovely books, too—things that are exquisitely crafted, and often hard to find.
WG: It must be impossible to think of a favorite writer, but do you have anybody who floats above all the rest?
TO: I would have to say Dorothy Parker. Both Flannery O’Connor and Dorothy Parker are on my lists for Designers & Books. Flannery O’Connor has melancholy and I really like religious-tinged things. I’m not interested in religion at all, but I’m always interested in how it affects others. With O’Connor, there was always that sort of Christian propriety running through very controlled, tense situations. Dorothy Parker is hysterically funny to me. So smart, I laugh out loud reading her writings. So for me it’s the complexity of their thoughts, the way it touches on all kinds of human emotion, often at the same time.
And then you get these masters who can really use words. I love words that I don't know. I love being forced to figure out something. In so many older books, I find words that have slipped away from us in new generations; it’s fun to learn the words, but in a contextual mode, as well.
WG: Do you read on a Kindle or on paper?
Books in Todd Oldham’s studio library
TO: I like paper books. I have an iPad and I have grown fonder of it. But what I don’t like is that I can’t take it into the bathtub. And one of my favorite things in the world to do is read in the bathtub. I read for hours in the tub.
WG: One thing that struck me was that your list shoots from Jean Roullier to Jackie Kennedy to Amy Sedaris to Roberto Burle Marx, Diane Arbus, and Sidney Lumet. It’s like a starburst. Your interests go everywhere.
TO: All these people are the same to me, though—really.
WG: Explain that.
Cover of Tony Duquette by Wendy Goodman and Hutton Wilkinson, 2007 (Abrams)
TO: They’re all extremely singular. They are unfettered. It’s like directors who make films that look like they’ve never seen a film. That kind of specialness. All of them seem to be people who have made new things without referencing other things, in most cases. Unless we’re speaking about Tony Duquette—what he was so masterful at was turning something into something else.
TO: They’re both sublime and supreme. That’s their commonality, and their DNA. But they really have different points of view. David said something about Amy once that I thought nailed it. He said that Amy has the ability to get even without getting mad. What an interesting way to go about life. But she never gets even. She’s enchanting. Her first book, I Like You, is very easy to breeze through, but when you really look at what’s going on there, and the number of custom-curated art pieces, you see that Amy’s like a puppet master. She can work with all kinds of artists and get them to do exactly what she needs done, and no matter what it always looks like Amy.
WG: I think the fantastic thing that resonated for me also about your book list is that so often I find that with the most brilliant artists, there just isn’t a big enough platform for them, so they have to make their own platform. Someone like Cindy Sherman, who has completely—as you noted—pulled her art out of thin air.
TO: She created a footprint that has been so influential. And what’s so interesting is that the footprint is clearly based in historic portraiture. And because it’s always been graced with that formality, the movement of the subject matter and the tone and the imagery always work. She and Amy are alike in a lot of ways. They both have a complete ability to not be dented by anything other than their points of view. It’s just so precise, but they’re both lovely, open, kind. So you get these extraordinary things. It’s no wonder that both of them have had pretty flawless trajectories. Cindy’s recent retrospective at MoMA is transcendent. What you realize is the consistency—it’s not better; it’s that she’s managed to dazzle us bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger. You never thought there was room for anything bigger, and yet somehow she does it, but not by making the image bigger or making it gaudy or louder or naughty. She just does it perfectly.
Wendy Goodman and Todd Oldham
WG: Yes. And then Tina Fey’s humor—her book Bossypants is on your list—is, again, on a different plane.
TO: It is. I don’t usually care for books that have any pop references. That’s usually the quickest way to get me to close a book. If I read the word “Kardashian,” I will close the book. Nothing against the Kardashians, but that’s not what my head reads comfortably. But in the case of Tina Fey’s book, I read it a few times. And going back to what I was talking earlier, about rereading and looking at structure, her book is an elegant comic masterpiece. She does classic things like callbacks, but the structure and the storytelling are as beautiful as Mark Twain or anybody who can spin an exquisite yarn. And her syntax is odd—well-informed, but peculiar. You can’t guess what’s coming next. I think that’s the common thread between all of these books. If I can guess what’s next, I’m out.
WG: You want to keep rounding each corner, and be surprised. Let’s talk about Sidney Lumet. I love that you have his book, Making Movies, on your list.
TO: Oh, it’s a fantastic book. I call it the gift he didn’t ever have to give, but did. You could be in film school, you could be a movie fan, or just interested in humans—you’ll be riveted. Lumet tells non-gossipy tales of the set, and then talks about working on Murder on the Orient Express and all the technical challenges, like building the train car another eight inches long because that’s what the sheen on the back wall needed to make the train opulent. That kind of thinking. It’s just thrilling, and it’s beautifully written and so charming. He was such a talented director, and daring and brave. And it’s amazing to read a book so steeped in Hollywood without any gossip.
WG: Yes, unique. He was such a generous person. Part of his generosity was just that giveaway—as you mentioned—which is such an interesting way to look at it.
TO: People don’t usually give away their tricks so easily. If you look at the list of the films Lumet made, it’s almost schizophrenic in subject matter. But that’s what was so great. That’s why you can give away the tricks—when you have the freedom to do whatever you want. It’s pretty cool.
WG: It occurs to me, as you’re talking about Sidney Lumet, that many of the books that really intrigue and captivate you are books about process.
TO: Oh, that’s fascinating to me.
WG: All of these books allow you to get inside someone’s world. Of course, every book is like that, but...
TO: But they’re not always as welcoming and vivid.
WG: Your books really are tunnels into a very specific mindset.
TO: It’s like getting to go into a room, getting to visit somebody who was spectacular at a particular time. You don’t want to visit dullards. I love that we can visit these extraordinary people through these beautiful books.
WG: Has your relationship to books and reading changed since you’ve become such a prolific author yourself?
Todd Oldham working on pages from Charley Harper: Animal Kingdom, forthcoming November 2012 (AMMO Books)
TO: It could have, but I think it hasn’t, probably because I’ve never not been in the middle of a book, and collecting books. It’s one of my thrills.
WG: Do you get obsessed with finding a book that you know is out there but you don’t have? The very rare something?
TO: I’m not interested in hoarding a first edition or that kind of thing. But if I want to see a book, I really do want to see it. I don’t have too much trouble finding things any longer. Now there are so many great book sites that we can dig through.
WG: Do you have a pile of books that you have not gotten to but are there waiting for you? Moby Dick has been on my “to read” list forever.
TO: There are definite piles of those books. I’ll get to them. I go to the Sundance Film Festival every year (this last year I saw 34 films), and I find I have good reading time there, because there’s a colossal amount of waiting. I’ve always been a little surprised at the number of questions I get about what I’m reading. Lots of things start with books.
WG: Are you the kind of New Yorker who will read on the subway? Do you always have a book with you?
TO: Yes, to some degree. I am pretty busy, so I don’t over-pack, but if I’ve got the room, yes. I don’t read well in cars, though—I get seasick.
WG: Tell me a little bit about another, very different book on your list—Plant Propagation.
TO: The Royal Horticultural Society, which put this book together, is a pack of geniuses. I find they sort out information about this stuff in a really great way. I put a warning on my book list comment that nothing will be duller if this subject is not for you. But if it is for you, it’s so exciting. I propagated about 80 Siberian junipers this last winter. If you do it properly, you have great success, and if you think you know and you don’t, you won’t. All of my propagation information has come from this book, and I have propagated a lot of plants. I’ve grafted stuff—I’ve done all kinds of things.
WG: So a lot of these books actually are giving you instructions or information?
TO: Whether it’s plant propagation or it’s Tony Duquette—where it’s an instruction on how to live a vivid life without the constraints of other people’s ideas—it’s a theme in all of these books. But there are also things that are more like anthropological efforts, like the old Montgomery Ward and Sears catalogues I mention in my book list introduction.
Page from a vintage Sears catalogue
These documents are rare air. I’m only speaking about those from lower-priced stores that were synthesizers of the zeitgeist or of certain design motifs. That’s the part that’s interesting to me. I know who really designed these things. But I’m much more interested in looking at them as a reflection of the moment. So you can see in the late 1950s and ‘60s more modernist approaches started coming around, but then there was some weird Victorian flourish within it. So it really lives on its own island, this kind of budget mass-market stuff that never was authentically what it was. It was always trying to reflect a higher idea or a whistle-stopped idea. The furniture and the clothing are fascinating, but so is the ephemera, like the fabric. You could order fabric from these places. I’ve never not been inspired or intrigued, or amused, too, by them because they’re very funny at times.
WG: Let’s talk about artist Tim Hawkinson—the subject of another book on your list.
TO: Once again, here’s somebody who is beyond original. He’s got both the skills and the ideas—in spades. With most people, you get one of these attributes larger than the other. With Hawkinson there’s the freedom mixed with the execution, and his incredible, bizarre, impossible-to-understand framework. He shifts it all around, and you think you understand and then he confuses you and thrills you at the same time. You never know what you’re going to see, but you can count on being slack-jawed when you figure out what you’re looking at.
I will never forget going to his retrospective at MOCA in Los Angeles. There was one room of clocks. One clock was made out of a garbage bag with a twist tie as a hand that slowly moved around. Another clock was a hairbrush where one single hair was a hand. They were all active, moving things and I could not discern what was going on until I looked them up in the catalogue. How often are you gobsmacked by such ingenuity and skill?
WG: Do you think that books, considering the time that it takes to read one, are going to be with us forever, now that things are moving so quickly and young generations are getting so much information so quickly? Do you think that it’s a natural inclination of our brains to read?
TO: I don’t have good feelings about this. I think we may be partly responsible, too. I used to work at MTV. We started shredding visuals and it got faster and faster, and I really think we retrained young people’s brains to spit and sputter. And now there are things like Twitter, which is only reconfirming the spits and sputters.
WG: Your list in particular brings me back to the treasures of reading—that you can instantly be transported deeply into another place.
TO: It changes your DNA.
WG: It really does.
TO: I bet readers don’t have heart attacks. I don't know this to be true at all, but I know the way that your body morphs when you are in a moment. It does something different. It’s healthy. It’s healthy for your brain; I’m sure it’s healthy for your body. Plus it makes you brighter and richer and smarter.
WG: I just finished reading Proust. I’m a little bit tortured about translations because it makes you realize the very essence of language. It’s one of those “where does the universe begin and end” kinds of questions for me. Are you still getting the same essence of what the writer meant if you’re reading a translation?
TO: You’re trusting someone else’s hands—in the case of Proust, I’m sure he wasn’t working with the translators—but you just hope that the material is so significant that it attracts a person who understands why and how it must be woven properly.
WG: Speaking of translation, since you are the decipherer and translator of Alexander Girard, can you talk a little bit about the process of uncovering his body of work, because it’s such a revelation.
Cover of Alexander Girard by Todd Oldham and Kiera Coffee, 2011 (AMMO Books)
TO: It’s a vast amount of work that has really remained unseen. It was a wild ride, as with most books—you think you know, and then you don’t know. You have to be prepared to keep your seat belt on and figure out how to make it work. For instance, last month I had to turn in Charley Harper’s Animal Kingdom [forthcoming, November 2012] to the publisher, and we got word a couple of weeks before the due date that a new trove of material was found. We didn’t know what it was, but we knew we had to do some redesigning to fit it in. But that’s what you do.
WG: That’s part of the process.
TO: The same thing with Girard. There wasn’t a list that said, “Find these things.” It was a forensic approach. We did go through what had gone from the Girard estate to the Vitra archive in Basel, which was the most intact material because it was the result of Girard’s curation of his files. That’s where he was masterful. He was like 12 librarians in one head. But then we had to go through all the projects.
Herman Miller has a very large chunk of the fabrics, but lots of stuff is floating around, and we would get piles of things about which we would have no idea. When you look at Girard’s work, you’re probably off by about 20 or 30 years of guessing when he did it—things that look like what we might think of as from the ‘50s, he was doing in the ‘30s or late ‘20s. And that makes for very confusing forensic work. We were measuring window mullions, trying to match whatever we could.
Vitra had mountains of press clippings that Girard had saved. So that was very, very helpful, because he was very well-reviewed. His Santa Fe house was in Vogue three times over a period of just a few years. So things were documented. In fact, they were especially well documented because of Girard’s long friendship with Charles Eames, who went everywhere with Girard and photographed his work for him—even down to the fabric-compacting test for Herman Miller. It’s just fabric pleated with a ruler, but those are Eames photos.
Pages from Alexander Girard showing a selection of Girard-designed fabrics and fabric-pleating “test”
So that was a real treasure, to be able to have all these beautiful Eames photos to illustrate Girard’s work. It was really fun and really crazy. And it took up colossal amounts of time.
WG: I can’t even fathom what you did.
TO: It went on for six months, day and night—literally. When I couldn’t stay awake any longer, that’s when I stopped. And then the retouching and restoration went on for many more months.
WG: Has the new Charley Harper book been that labor-intensive?
TO: The Girard book is 672 pages, with over 2,300 images. The new Harper book has 340 images. Charley’s work was much easier to restore than an interiors photograph. And we didn’t have to travel anywhere to get the files; we had them.
Cover of Charley Harper: An Illustrated Life by Todd Oldham, 2007, 2011 (AMMO Books), a companion volume to the forthcoming Charley Harper: Animal Kingdom by Todd Oldham (AMMO Books, November 2012)
WG: Do you have your eye on something a little bit out of this whole domain that you are thinking about doing for another book?
TO: Yes, but my books have the weirdest way of just plopping into my lap. Every one of them has had some weird way of finding me. Usually I come up with my books, but also AMMO asks me occasionally to do things, and just asked me to do a 2012 art yearbook. It will include work created in 2012 by 50 artists I get to choose. Each artist will have a separately bound portfolio and all the portfolios assemble into one box. It’ll be a survey of new works only. So I like that. I want to include all facets of the arts—performance and sculpture, everything we possibly can. What’s great about this is I can work with very well-established artists I’m in awe of, but also include all kinds of new bright lights.
WG: What a thrilling project!
TO: Yes, that’s going to be really fun. That’ll be out in the summer of 2013. And recently, Sundance Film Festival asked me to help with the reimagining of its mechandise. So we’re redesigning all of it. One of the new products is a Sundance ABC book, where B is Steve Buscemi. So that’s going to be fun. That debuts in January.
WG: We were talking about Girard channeling so many different lives, and so many different people. How could one person do all those things? But you’re that person, too.
TO: It’s just that I get to do lots of things and I have amazing people that I can count on in my office.
WG: I’m glad also that in the introduction to your book list you mentioned Nest magazine’s Joe Holtzman and his genius—beyond genius.
Covers of Nest magazine from Summer 2002 (left) and Summer 2000
TO: Authentic genius. While they didn’t look alike, Nest [published from 1997 to 2004] shared with Flair magazine [published by Fleur Cowles in the 1950s] the same ambition, originality, and exquisite level of taste. I think more people know about Flair than Nest, so that’s a book I’m trying to do—“Best of Nest.” I want to edit down every issue to about 16 spreads, but not mess with them. The book has to have all the dye-cutting and the burning and whatever Joe did. We’ll get there. The book needs to be. When things need to be, they tend to work.
WG: When their time is right, they happen. I just hope I can interview you for your next list. Because, obviously, you should be doing a list every five minutes.
TO: I could just keep going and going and going and going.
Todd Oldham’s studio library
Note: Todd Oldham’s next book, Charley Harper’s Animal Kingdom, will be released by AMMO Books in November 2012.
All images courtesy of Todd Oldham Studio
- Rare & Beautiful: Ladislav Sutnar: Visual Design in Action
- Designers Who Read Letter and Image
- 3 Lists of Books Every Fashion Designer Should Read
- 10 Books on Branding and Brand Design
- 25 Books on Scandinavian Design