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Deep-Seated Comfort

For Todd Oldham, the world is a kaleidoscope. It's all about color and pattern. But it's how he combines them that sets him apart.

Even a simple bar code translates as a rainbow stripe. In fact, stripes are an Oldham signature. So are dots and stars. Anything geometric or squiggly, animal-printed or tweedy is in his repertoire of patterns.

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That fresh, almost childlike aesthetic applied to furnishings is what stopped retailers and home design editors in their tracks when Oldham teamed up with an unlikely partner last October at the biannual Home Furnishings Market in High Point, N.C. It was the most successful launch in the history of a once-stuffy La-Z-Boy.

Along with a petite recliner called Arc, there are sofas, lamps, chairs, cabinets and tables in metal-accented wood, and hand-blown glass, candles, mirrors, throws, wood and metal trays -- a 130-piece collection now in stores.

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The resounding hit is a convertible sofa whose removable back and arms allow it to morph from bench to armless sofa to fainting sofa to chaise in a Snap -- which, appropriately, happens to be its name. Equally impressive is its upholstery, circus stripe in an amazing 16 hues. Best of all, there's the affordable price range, with nothing more than $1,000.

Aiming at affordability -- as Oldham puts it, "two sofas for the price of a Prada handbag" -- he calls it a "nifty trick to make something look twice as expensive as it really is." But the Gen-X appeal crosses over to baby boomers who appreciate the fun of it.

To be sure, there's playfulness to Oldham designs, and that was true when he created frocks for Julia Roberts, Susan Sarandon and Uma Thurman in the 1990s. His couture collections, some distinguished by fanciful beadwork and price tags in the thousands of dollars, were modeled by Cindy Crawford and Elle McPherson.

But the 42-year-old designer now seems happier trading trunk shows for showing trunks. (A La-Z-Boy ottoman called Toybox opens into a trunk with fitted storage for DVDs and CDs.)

What catapulted Oldham into star status in the home fashions mainstream was the introduction of a dorm room collection for Target in 2002. His characteristic imprint showed up on bedding, clocks, file folders, lamps and rugs. He followed up with a home collection, but he has since parted company with Target.

"I didn't want to be known as the dorm room dude," he says.

Although newest suitor La-Z-Boy noted in its advertising that buyers should "expect the unexpected," his debut astounded Oldham.

"I got smacked," he admits, acknowledging that he was overwhelmed by the response to his work. "I was just tinkering to see what might bring people some joy."

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As licensed collections go, his goal is to take the guesswork out of decorating by using hassle-free combinations of color wrapped around fun, fashionable and functional -- stress comfortable -- furniture.

"Color sits in our lives in such an interesting way," he says. "We look at it almost as a sense. We can appreciate it before we judge it, like smell. It can conjure up memories. It can be appreciated on the metaphysical to the physical level. It has incredible healing properties."

Oldham says he has been mad for color since he was about 3 years old.

"One of my first memories," he says, "was recognizing the color blue in the sky and appreciating how it looked with my tan pants."

He credits his very hands-on parents with teaching him and four siblings to be engaged -- and how to do things from scratch, from putting up drywall to baking biscuits. Yes, his family owned a La-Z-Boy recliner, which he and his sister adapted as a jungle gym. It was green, his favorite color.

His grandmother taught him to sew when he was 9, and he stitched dresses for his sisters. When he graduated from high school, he took a job at Ralph Lauren. He was fired three months later.

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"As much as I'm a fan, I could see how [the company] did not consider me part of his world," Oldham says. "I was a kid with pink hair trying to sell khakis. They kept me hidden in alterations. But I learned a lot about clothing."

Enough to put together a collection of hand-dyed knits that caught the eye of a Neiman Marcus buyer. He was on his way.

"Most of the things I do are a little bratty, but it works," he says. "I like extravagant, special things. Lots of odd details."

With a growing following in the '90s, Oldham was tapped to design a limited collection of Fossil watches, sneakers for Keds, a Barbie inspired by pal Cindy Crawford, outfits for Sarah Michelle Gellar in Simply Irresistible and Jennifer Love Hewitt in The Suburbs, and a wardrobe redesign for The Simpsons in which baby Maggie got a leopard print nightie.

Oldham hosted and directed several shows for MTV, all focused on style on a budget. He also wrote Todd Oldham Without Boundaries. And he's an accomplished photographer.

If that weren't enough creative versatility, one project, in particular, demonstrated a broad grasp of interior design. The Hotel in South Beach, a redesign of an art deco gem, featured his kicky, colorful style in bedding, tiles, pillows, plates and robes, some available in the hotel gift shop.

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With a design team of seven, Oldham works from a Soho studio where he stores the remnants of his couture collection. The rest was snapped up by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for its permanent archives.

He keeps sane by living half of the week in what he calls a modern country home in eastern rural Pennsylvania and the other half in a "goofy" modern city high-rise with beautiful views. Surprisingly, there's not much of a contrast in style between the two.

"I designed them the same," he says, "so there's a great ease of slipping in and out of them."

In both, he went a little stripe crazy -- in the country, with 12-inch stripes on the walls in orange and yellow, blue and tan, orange and brown, and in New York, azalea and pink mixed with light blue, lime green, shrimp and berry.

He describes his personal style as plain -- polo shirts, jeans, khakis and sneakers. Hooked on the clean lines honored by the mid-20th-century modern aesthetic, which he pronounces "perennially fresh," Oldham owns some originals, including pieces by Charles Eames, one of the most important architect / designers of his time. He feels the ease of the style suits a complicated time in today's world.

"What's luxurious to me is what sits well," he says. "I'm pretty keen on comfortable seating. There should be a tactile, plop-down quality that feels sumptuous."

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A vegetarian, Oldham loves to cook and especially is fond of one-pot dishes like risotto. Busier than ever, Oldham doesn't worry about down time.

"I don't do things to disconnect," he says. "I'm blessed. I love what I do."

SOURCES

* La-Z-Boy: 800-625-3246 or www.lazboy.com

* Todd Oldham Studio: 212-226-4668 or www.toddoldham studio.com

Playful pattern is part of the charm of Todd Oldham's designs. Style also is all about comfort, says Oldham, who tests his upholstered Viva corner piece. It sells for $599.

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ADVICE FROM AN EXPERT

Always happy to answer when people ask for advice on how to decorate a home, Todd Oldham offers these tips.

* "Find out what you love. We wardrobe our homes the same way we wardrobe our bodies. Are you a jeans person? Take a style cue from how you dress."

* "In choosing color, hold a swatch in your hand up to a mirror. I design everything with humans in mind. See if you look well. Isn't that the whole reason for doing design? But be brave."

* "When it comes to walls, one of the quickest ways to spruce up your life is with paint. Go for it."

* "As far as floors are concerned, sisal is one of the best canvases. It's clean and sets off furniture so nicely."

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* "The most important thing to consider with pattern is scale. Find out what makes you happy. A little ditsy pattern sometimes makes my eyes hurt."

* "Scale can be a big problem. Giant in a small space totally works. The opposite can make dark rooms smaller. It's more about the flow and function."

* "In designing a garden, think of it as painting with flowers. Mass plantings or create tiered beds. Those can create supernatural versions of flowers like clusters of Echinacea [cone flowers] because of the massing of levels."

* "With accessories, honor your taste. First decide if you love the object. A natty piece of bric-a-brac might be fabulous next to a wonderful painting. Think of stuff as jewelry. Clumping is a very good way to go about it. Honor the odd number. Threes and fives work better. That seems to be a natural rhythm in our DNAs."

* "How to edit? It's subjective, but you have to learn how to let go. Sometimes what you love may not be working. There's a sentimental reason that gets in the way. Remember, you don't have to put everything out at the same time."

-- Elaine Markoutsas


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