At the NeoCon contract furnishings trade show in June, AN executive editor Alan G. Brake sat down with Todd Oldham to discuss the collection of wall coverings he developed for Designtex adapting the work of Charley Harper. Harper is arguably best known as an illustrator, but Oldham is working with the Charley Harper Studio to broaden Harper’s reputation and create new products using his menagerie of images of flora and fauna. A versatile designer of fashion, home furnishings, books, and objects, Oldham has a special interest in reviving midcentury designers and he previously worked with the Alexander Girard archive.
AN: Tell us about your interest in Charley Harper.
Todd Oldham: I had the great pleasure of knowing Mr. Harper for the last five years of his life. He was an amazing, magical man. I came to know his work when I was a kid. He did the illustrations for a book called the Golden Book of Biology, which was my biology text book in school. I loved it. So many years later I reconnected things and found him and forced my way in—he was very gracious about it
So you were a design stalker.
Yes, I was a design stalker. I don’t do that very often, but I’m in awe of Charley. It’s a dangerous thing to meet your heroes, but not in this case. It was wonderful.
What about his work drew you to him, beginning all those years ago?
The things that drew me to his work when I was five are the same things that I love now, which is his ability to communicate complex information to the most…I don’t want to say simplest form because that suggests it’s diminished, which it’s not…he was able to boil something down to the zeitgeist and never lose one morsel of it. It’s really something.
How did the collection come together?
Well, Susan Lyons is now the big cheese over here at Designtex, and I’d worked with her before on a project on Alexander Girard when she was at HermanMiller, so when this opportunity came up, we always wanted to try to find a partner to bring his work to life in a new way. We’re very excited about this opportunity.
We are always true to Charley’s designs. A lot of times when you are working with other designers, the Eames or Girard, you have a lot of objects you can bring forward. In Charley’s case, he was an artist, so you only have flat things, so making him live in the world in another way, you have to make sure they still represent Charley and what he was about. This medium with Designtex was just perfect.
We’re sitting here by the ladybugs, and ladybugs were always very dear to Charley, I think because of their graphic quality. In the early 1970s a Chinese beetle came over—and was known as the orange ladybug—it became a garden pest, Charley was very upset because his beloved creature was being maligned, so he always said, these are the bugs that bug no one, so the ladybug was always very near and dear to him. This was actually painted on the outside of his house in the early 60s and it remained there until weather took it off. It was replaced in the early 1990s. The mosaic that we walked past is an exact replica of the one that was done in the federal building in Cincinnati. It done was in one inch tiles, either whole tiles or bifurcated, and sometimes you’ll see the extensions—either the legs or antennae—were done in glass or plexi-glass inserted into the grout. In a repeatable image it had to be moved around a little bit, but all the colors, all the forms, the scale are all exact.
Why was Designtex the right company to make these wall coverings?
They’re coming at it from the right place, a very thoughtful place. They’re also trying to make the most conscious decisions about the manufacturing that they can. Charley was an early ecologist. He did amazing bumper stickers in the late 60s that said, “You otter care about water,” and it had a little otter on it. These things were very important for him. Since we represent the estate, going against what was important to him would be blasphemous.
Are there other treasures in the estate that will have other lives in future collections?
With Charley, they’re all treasures. There is no bad work, no off work. It’s just stunning throughout. Our biggest obstacle was editing it down. I like where we landed with this project, but this is just a sneak preview of what’s to come.
This tile-based mural is one of my favorites. It’s very unusual that it’s in a Federal Building. It’s not easy to get access, so I begged and begged for hours. It’s a in a public space but in a building you can’t get into. It’s amazing. It’s over 50 feet of non-repeating images.
There’s another that’s based on Charley’s representation of birch bark. Charley had this amazing sort of cubist take on birch bark.
That reminds me of your work.
My color scheme has been fully informed by Charley, way before I ever knew why. I like those odd colors, the printing techniques.
We’re really excited to be debuting with these wall coverings, which are durable enough for healthcare applications. Wouldn’t it be nice to be recovering and wakeup under one of Charley’s ladybugs?
Do you have any other archival projects in the works, after Girard and Harper?
I do, but I can’t talk about it yet. It’s not a designer, it’s a photographer. But I can’t say just yet.