A Conversation With… Todd Oldham
In the 1990s, few names shone as brightly in the New York fashion world as Todd Oldham’s. Along with other style icons of the decade such as Betsey Johnson and Anna Sui, Oldham ruled the city’s fashion scene, sending riotous bursts of color (chartreuse, crimson, and teal) and pattern (garden flowers, wallpaper prints, and polka dots) down catwalks for the better part of the decade. Since he stepped away from fashion nearly 20 years ago, he’s kept busy with a host of design collaborations, including his pet project, a collection of crafting kits called Kid Made Modern and Hand Made Modern. Here, he talks to Michael Mundy about his design philosophy, gardening, and living the good life upstate.
Michael Mundy: It’s really wonderful to meet you. I’ve always been a fan of your work. I’ve always loved the fun you bring to things.
Todd Oldham: Thank you. Oh, it’s very joyous for me to make things. That’s my great pleasure in life, so I appreciate that you would enjoy what I get to do too.
MM: I think the whole world does. I mean, things can get so serious and you bring levity and allow others to have fun.
TO: Well that’s sweet of you to say. That’s funny too, because I think I feel that I’m a pretty serious person. It’s not scientific, but everything I do is very thought out to make sure that it can have maximum oomph, you know, at the end. So I appreciate that you would notice our efforts, thank you.
MM: It’s wonderful to see your current project, Kid Made Modern, and what you’re doing for children. This is going to breed a whole new generation of people who appreciate creativity.
TO: Well, making things for children or being a service to them is such an honor, and a pleasure, and a ferocious obligation too. I don’t take anything I do lightly. When you’re working with children you have to be exemplary and try to get something at the formation of their ideas. If you let them down—through maybe supplies not working as well or something—it would just be tragic. When we started exploring whether to go into this, it was very clear that there was nothing left to do. Like everything was out there. So we started looking in the cracks of things and thought, ‘We can make things different, but more than that, we can make them better.’ And that’s what was really exciting. So, we started sawing some of the children’s art making supplies, the pencils, in half and realized the lead didn’t even extend through the pencil. Their stuff was so crappy that kids weren’t even going to use it past a certain point. I thought, ‘Wow, that’s just the saddest thing in the world!’
MM: It is!
TO: So we don’t do that [laughs]. We find ways to make everything work at artist quality. We’re really the first that I’ve seen, to make artist quality supplies for young makers.
MM: How did this all start? Because it’s quite specific and not what we associate with your usual work.
TO: If you think about my fashion designs or the furniture, these are more of adult opinions, and you have a different kind of hat you put on when you design these sorts of things. But with children, you have to be very available. Whether you’re a cognitive learner or a visual learner or whatever your door is to creativity, it has to be wide open here. It’s more of a scientific, heart lead approach to service that gets us to these places. We have a lot of fun. We’re not childlike, but we understand that joy. And because of our taste level, and not wanting to wreak the planet, and using woods and biodegradable supplies—we’re just trying to be the best earth citizens. Because you can very easily see that the planet doesn’t need any more debris or misuse. If you’re going to make lots of things then you have to be conscious of that these days.
MM: You use the word “service” a few times, is there a sense of responsibility you feel?
TO: Oh, absolutely. You should not play in this arena unless you’re practically monastic about it. I mean that’s just my opinion. I did a book on a children’s artist named Ed Emberley, an astonishing man who taught most children how to draw. If you were born in the 70s and 80s, you had an Ed Emberley book that showed you how to look at things. Ed had the same approach that we had. He had a conversation with somebody that was like, ‘Well, it’s just for kids, you don’t have to go that far.’ And he was like, ‘What are you talking about? It’s for kids! They deserve the very best.’ So, I can see there is a lineage of wanting to hold this dear. It’s not shared by many, but for those of us that are sincere about it, it’s so important.
MM: That’s wonderful. It’s something that I’m just conscious of all the time, but I often feel the world doesn’t feel the same. So when I see people who do, it’s really inspiring.
TO: Well, thank you. I’m not one to lament a broken system. It’s just a waste of time. So there are many other people who sell these things. They sell crayons and those kinds of things, but it feels so much like they’re just trying to sell you something and not trying to create a new neural pathway, you know? We’re really trying to excite you and cause some sort of newness that is permanent. With creativity, it’s like stairs in my opinion. It always goes up, up, up. You don’t go down. There is no amount of knowledge that sends you back down the stairs. The more you know, the brighter and more vibrant you are. So we want to be a part of that.
MM: So, you’re kind of laying seeds with all this, no?
TO: It is indeed seeds, yes. Creativity is a garden for sure and you have to tend to it, to use your analogy. We’re very serious about it, and because we don’t want to be very duplicative. Nobody needs anything we do, which is really a joy, because if you can just make things that are just for pleasure, then we can stir in learning tenets and all these other things. I feel like we’re making magic tricks every day.
MM: From what I remember now, I have always associated you using unusual fabrics or going beyond that as a fashion designer. You were always trying new things and pushing the envelope, I don’t think with the intention to be cool. It just seemed like it came from the heart all the time.
TO: Well, it was what was interesting, you know? I have a resistance to anything that is rote or done before. I know that’s a big idea, but I have a natural urge to want to do something irregular or not done before. That’s what feels well to me. So, it’s just kind of my natural turn to find the odd way to do it. Plus, I’m unschooled. I’m very skilled but unschooled. I have autodidacted through all of anything that was interesting to me. So, I have a lot of knowledge about anything that was interesting to me, and virtually none of the stuff that isn’t. I think that makes me uniquely good for getting to design this stuff.
MM: Let’s talk a little bit about your life outside the city. How long have you been going upstate?
TO: Since 98’ or so. Gosh, it’s almost 20 years now.
MM: And what brought you up there?
TO: Well, I wanted to get out of the city, and I was very stupidly arrogant and said I don’t want to live in New Jersey and I don’t want to drive past 90 miles. So, I had a friend of mine—at the time I was super busy, but I wanted to build—he went and found this town called Milford in Pennsylvania that he had had some friends in. I went up and I just loved it. And so, once I found that neck of the woods, it was easy. I bought land and I was going to build, and we just got busier and busier and I thought, ‘This is never going to work.’ So we just lucked out and found this house that had just been finished. Super peculiar, looked like things I had been drawing, just complete kismet. So, we lucked out and got it. We just continued to buy everything around it as it became available and planted over 600 trees. It’s really beautiful.
MM: Really? Wow!
TO: Yeah, it was a golf course that we reforested. It’s really nice. Still find the golf balls occasionally.
MM: So, what do you love about Milford?
TO: I liked that it was not the Hamptons and that it was the right kind of sophisticated, but also really low key. I just didn’t want to have a place where you go and have everybody you tried to avoid all week in the city, and they’re there. Milford is not that. I’ve seen Eric Bogosian in the line at the Home Depot, that’s about as far as like anybody [laughs].
MM: Home Depot is a good spot [laughs]. How do you spend most of your time up there?
TO: Well, I arrive on Thursdays and then I come back to the city on Mondays. I work out there a lot, so I mean, it’s my quiet time to get a lot of my city obligations taken care of. But I’m a massive gardener. I just built a new greenhouse this year that I’m loving.
MM: Really? What do you like to garden?
TO: Everything. I have a huge vegetable garden, but I love propagating. It’s really gone kinda crazy this year. I just expanded the side, so I have a big collection of South African and tropical plants. And then in the greenhouse, I installed a movie theater. So at night we go and watch films in there, it’s really nice. Then in February, you start your seedlings and then propagation. It’s been a good year. This whole side of the greenhouse is all of the seedlings and such. That keeps me pretty busy.
MM: So, with the vegetable garden, does that mean you like to cook?
TO: Yeah, I’m a long-term vegetarian, so it’s nice to pretty much grow everything you eat.
MM: So, do you actually grow nearly everything you eat?
TO: In the summertime, yeah. It’s really nice. I don’t grow corn because, you know, Jersey corn is so delicious, and five ears for a dollar so…
MM: I’m actually partial to Long Island corn.
TO: Oh yeah, I bet [laughs].
MM: So, you garden and then… is there a particular season that you prefer to be upstate?
TO: Oh, I love it all because I make such good use of the winter. There is so much that you can’t do outside, so I have my studio in my house that I usually work in. I have three kilns. I do a lot of ceramic work up there.
MM: What is it that you like about ceramics?
TO: Well, it’s once again the magic trick. You’re literally mushing dirt from the ground, and then you put it in this insane oven that is so bizarre and full of tricks, you know? That’s the thing, it’s very unstable, and I just love it. You never really know what’s going to happen. You have to be really process oriented because there is a great chance it’s going to explode in the kiln, so you just have to kinda go with it. I like it. It’s really fun.