The Pied Piper of Craft

Photo: Danielle Levitt. Styling by Doria Santlofer and Eve Bertin-Lang/New York Magazine. Topman button jumper from Topshop and T-shirt from American Apparel.

About eighteen months ago, the former fashion designer turned TV host turned bookmaker Todd Oldham moved his office from Soho, which he finally admitted had become “too like a shopping mall,” to an erstwhile law office in a building across from St. Paul’s Chapel in lower Manhattan. The main rooms have fantastic windows: They stretch nearly from floor to ceiling, providing spectacular views of both the chapel’s cemetery and the hive of cranes and activity that’s begun to fill up ground zero.

Oldham was there on a recent afternoon, dressed like an 8-year-old boy in blue jeans and a slim piqué polo shirt covered in a pattern of grizzly bears. The only visibly adult touch is a bushy and graying beard, the sort sometimes seen on religious zealots who gather in Union Square. He is unfazed by the morbidity of his new view. “Calatrava’s designing the PATH station!” exclaims Oldham, who is prone to exclamations. “It’s going to be so beautiful.” And, indeed, suddenly the whole scene does look almost jolly, like something from a Richard Scarry picture book.

The floors of the office, which he shares with his business and personal partner Tony Longoria, are covered in Pop carpets from the T.O.D.D. collection: graphic shapes and an orangey seventies palette. Along one wall of the main room are shelves of art books and their kitschier cousins—books on monkeys and caring for houseplants, for example. A cafeteria-style table with attached orange plastic stools sits in front of the windows, and the combined effect is rather suburban public school, or maybe suburban public school after a modest hit of acid. There is, after all, a big Wayne White painting on the wall that spells out SUGAR TIT in perspective text.

“Feel free to check anything out of our library!” Oldham offers. In the center of the room is a giant, dusty dictionary covered in a wan swath of pea-soup corduroy. It’s open to a page of words that share phleg- as a root. “It’s the biggest book in the world,” Oldham says enthusiastically, and he pets it a bit.

In the back is his personal office, the walls of which are dominated by artist Kiel Johnson’s elaborate system of cardboard-covered wooden forms painted to look like lo-fi versions of industrial speakers, fuse boxes, and such. Every square inch of the room is covered in art, including two photographs of apple-cheeked Aryans taken by Leni Riefenstahl. “She can be polarizing, I know!” Oldham says, and wags his finger. Exiting his office and moving along: There’s a wood shop, which is quiet and heavy with the delicious smell of fresh-cut wood, and then a crafts room, with shelves of felt and buckets of crayon and, one imagines, a bucket of glitter or two. The whole enterprise smells ever so slightly of glue.

For twenty years now, Oldham has worked in and around some of the city’s bitchiest precincts without ever, seemingly, losing his stride. Ask about his departure from the fashion world ten years ago and he says, “I just looked at the clothes as a medium, so with that as a motive you get interesting stuff, but no one’s going to put it in every Saks store, so to speak. Which was fine. And I met loads of nice people in fashion! But most of it felt a little counterintuitive to my DNA. I don’t have the pretentious gene.”

He became more of a name on TV: first on House of Style, which he co-hosted with Cindy Crawford (and a hot-glue gun), and more recently as a “mentor” on Bravo’s Top Design, which didn’t sit so well with him. “Being a fan of design, I loved watching people create things, but reality TV I am not a fan of. I like old-school PBS and CBS Sunday Morning. Fifty-five seconds of a quaking-aspen leaf looks good to me.”

What’s distinguished every phase of Oldham’s career is a complete lack of snobbery—like some of his heroes, he works hard to make design accessible to all—plus a sort of starry-eyed optimism about the possibilities of art. And he may have found the perfect niche with his current obsession. “Books have always been a great passion of mine since I was very little,” he says. “They kind of ruled my life. And now it’s my favorite thing that I do.” They tick all of Oldham’s boxes: They are a vehicle for promoting the sometimes-ignored artists he finds inspirational, and they are road maps and guides for people like him. In essence, the books have elevated Oldham from enabler of the crafty to patron saint of “art nerds.”

And with the release this month of his new book, Kid Made Modern, he’s also hoping to create little art nerds. Oldham talks about “building” the book, and it is a fabulously bright and layered thing; reading it is like entering a superfun clubhouse. Kids get introductions to the mid-century’s great designers in rhyme (“Alexander Girard made it look not very hard”), plus projects to match—mobiles in the style of Alexander Calder, a Fornasetti-inspired découpage desk set. All of them were road-tested on children in his crafts room.

Oldham crafting clothes with two young friends.Photo: Danielle Levitt

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!”

Kid Made Modern
By Todd Oldham. Ammo Books.

The Pied Piper of Craft