Peter O’Brien: "I have always lived in empty flats – just a bed and books"

‘This is the first place in which I feel perfectly happy... I refused to put down roots in London, Paris and New York’

 Peter O’ Brien’s books at his home in Dublin. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Peter O’ Brien’s books at his home in Dublin. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

Peter O Brien is the only Irish fashion designer to have carved a successful career in haute couture in Paris with some of the world’s most celebrated international fashion houses.

O’Brien has designed the costumes for the forthcoming production (opening on July 12th) of The Great Gatsby at the Gate, which is his 11th for that theatre.

Following his graduation from St Martin’s in London, the Dubliner worked for Dior, Givenchy, Chloe and latterly Rochas where he was creative director for twelve years.

He returned to Ireland in 2004 and now works as a freelance designer and teaches costume design at IADT.

His collection of theatre and fashion drawings called Workbook was published by Stoney Road Press in 2012. He lives in Dublin.

Describe your interiors style:

What I love is what the French call confort anglais. I have no time for mid century modernism – give me chintz, Colefax & Fowler, needlepoint rugs. It’s either very Home Counties or Connecticut..... And bookshelves - as many as possible because I think you can never have a house without books. And I love light. I live in a functional flat with a great view and flat pack furniture. And enough books to open a chain of bookstores.

What room you do most enjoy?

My living room really because it is full of books and it is the room in which I draw looking at the Sugarloaf in the distance. Having lived in London, Paris and New York and having resolutely refused to put down roots, I have always lived in empty flats and basically it has always been the same flat despite what city – just a bed and books. This is the first place in which I feel perfectly happy.

A manikin with parisian costume jewellery,books and drawing desk.Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times
A manikin with parisian costume jewellery,books and drawing desk.Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

What items do you love most?

I am not really attached to things, but I love Drawing Fashion by Kenneth Paul Block who was an illustrator for Women’s Wear Daily for more than forty years. I was a fan of his and then a friend. Though it may sound very vain, I have a drawing of me that I love by Colin Barnes who was my teacher in Central St Martin’s which he drew in Provence in 1985.

I also love my little Victorian paste heart pin which I wear on occasion and which I got from jeweller John Farrington when he was in the Irish William Elliot Centre in Wicklow Street. And of course my drawing table with all its coloured pens and pencils.

Who are your favourite designers?

For interiors and set design I am loving the Austrian American architect, illustrator and scenic designer Joseph Urban – he was a real artist, an incredible draughtsman, and a brilliant technician. I studied his work for Gatsby.

As for fashion designers, I love Madeleine Vionnet, Madame Gres and Balenciaga and in terms of modern designers, the Spanish designer Josep Font Del Pozo whose designs are simple and architectural, his colours wonderful and his knitwear astonishing.

What artists do you admire?

My number one beyond all others and the greatest draughtsman of all is Egon Schiele – such mastery of line, he never used an eraser and his drawings are as powerful as the grandest of grand oil paintings. Also I have always loved society portraits of the early 20th century, so Sargent, Boldoni and Tissot – these guys could paint frocks. I love Diarmuid Kelly and if I were rich I would ask him to paint a portrait of me. (I would be heavily veiled!)

Who are your favourite writers?

I loved Edith Wharton and The Age of Innocence and I read and re-read the short stories by the English writer and painter Denton Welch.

Biggest interior turn off?

Feature walls (the fourth wall with ugly wallpaper alongside three solid plain walls), I loathe them. I dislike leather sofas and any room that looks as if it has been decorated by an interior designer.

I think it is the same as borrowed dresses for the red carpet – a sofa should look as if you have chosen it yourself. And I hate matchy matchy interiors and anything purple or black unless they are 17th century ebony frames.

Destination that stands out?

I may sound unadventurous but I love London. It has everything that I want and a city that has a National Portrait Gallery in St Martin’s Place, the Menier Chocolate Factory in Southwark and Hatchards bookshop in Piccadilly, what more can one ask for? It can be any city you want it to be.

If you had 100,000 to spend on anything for the home, what would that be?

I would probably put in a new kitchen and a new bathroom and if there was anything left a nice Georgian diamond flower shaped pin from S J Philips which would cheer me up. And if there was still anything left over, even more books.

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