Oldham’s book projects began with Kid Made Modern’s adult precursor, Handmade Modern, a project published by ReganBooks in 2005 (unprompted, Oldham says he has nothing but warm, fuzzy feelings for former publisher Judith Regan). It’s a fairly intense DIY guide to designers like George Nakashima, Charles and Ray Eames, and Isamu Noguchi, and it’s not for the clumsy. Nakashima’s bio, for example, is followed by a fourteen-step “illuminated end table,” which involves “drilling through conduit.” Oldham insists, with the confidence of the truly craftsy, that it’s not that hard to do.
After publishing Handmade Modern, he began to work with Ammo Books, a small arts publisher that more or less gives him free rein. “If no one’s telling me what to do and I’m just getting to do things, then I’m happy,” he says. His first project with them was a monumental endeavor: a twelve-pound, $200 monograph on Charley Harper, who illustrated the textbooks Oldham read as a child. Oldham didn’t know who was behind the illustrations until years later, when he came across Harper’s work in a thrift shop and fell deeply in love. The bold, graphic, and accessible illustrations, much like Oldham’s own work, took him back into the comfort zone of his childhood. (Oldham, 48, is one of four children. His mother is an artist, his father a computer scientist and, according to Oldham, the only linear-minded member of the clan. They moved around a lot—including stays in Los Angeles and Tehran—and were, Oldham says, a happy, crafty bunch. “I have memories of going to love-ins in Griffith Park. My parents weren’t hippies at all, which makes it really cool.”)
Once he had Harper’s name, Oldham contacted the artist, who was living in Ohio, and began the painstaking process of restoring and archiving Harper’s work. It took years—from 2002 to 2007, when the mongraph was published. “Everything was crumbling,” Oldham remembers. “But what was great was that he never threw anything out, so it was all there waiting to be fixed.” And fix it Oldham did. The book is meticulous and reverent, all twinkling illustrations of marine life and scientists and an especially beautiful series on birds. “It’s a love letter to Charley,” Oldham says. “We love love letters.” Harper died a few days after Oldham showed him the completed monograph. (Ammo released a $49.95 version of the book last month.)
Two more love letters are in the works: one to Joan Jett. “There is no definitive book on Jett’s magic charms and skills,” enthuses Oldham—and, it is hoped, a tribute to Alexander Girard. In the meantime, he’ll be curating a presentation for the Wolfsonian museum during Art Basel in Miami Beach, featuring site-specific works by Wayne White (Oldham released a monograph of White’s work this year), Brock Shorno, and Megan Whitmarsh, who makes whimsical art out of hand embroidery.
In a way, Oldham is creating an artistic commune, surrounding himself with like-minded enthusiasts, whether they be staffers or the artists whose work he promotes. “Anything or anyone or any effort that’s joyous is beautiful,” he says. “Everyone here is a really good artist totally on their own, and together we come up with stuff that’s better than any of us working alone. People coming together doing it better, that’s the way we work here.”
Suddenly, Oldham is distracted: Outside the window, schoolchildren are walking in a line, each clutching a pink or a white helium balloon. They are headed for ground zero, where they will release the balloons, along with, presumably, some sort of wish or prayer. Remove the context and it is completely Fellini-esque, so that’s what Oldham does, even adding a soaring score by the Italian director’s favorite composer. “I mean, look!” he says. “And cue Nino Rota!”