An Interview with Todd Oldham

Apartment Therapy Design Evenings

What: Apartment Therapy Design Evenings
Who: Todd Oldham
When: November 8
Where: ABC Carpet & Home

It was a packed house when featured guest, designer Todd Oldham, joined us for our recent Design Evening. See the full evening's transcript and video below, and come join us for our next Design Evening in December!

We continued our reader presentations this month with two renovations that are both entirely from Ikea. Check out Christina's rental studio makeover, as well as Ian's Ikea Kitchen remodel.

Maxwell Ryan

Welcome back to our 62nd Design Evening. Thanks to ABC! Since we moved here a few years ago our crowds have gotten bigger and rowdier, which is good. I'm glad that we're all here and you're surrounded by beautiful things.

I also want to thank Pasanella & Son who is our wine Sponsor tonight. Their shop down in the South Street Seaport was buried under six feet of water (from the hurricane). They're a great wine store. Definitely visit them in the South Street Seaport.

A quick bit of news tonight. We've got a Holiday Giveaway that kicks off on Wednesday, November 14th. We have two design items a day that we give away for a month. This year we actually have a little leverage so we're giving away sofas. We're giving away refrigerators. All sorts of things. That starts Wednesday the 14th. We're saving the world one "thing" at a time.

I also want to celebrate our new traffic goal. Thanks to all of you in October we've passed 11 million monthly readers. We were on a four year mission to reach 10 million. We got there two years early. So thank you.

We also finished last week our 2012 Room For Color contest. We do it once a year. We have people submit from all over the world the most beautiful colorful rooms in their homes. Our winner this year was Kellie from Marina Del Ray, Callfornia. She beat out 120 entries. The runners up were from Centerville, Ohio, Kansas City and Chicago. The other three runners up were all blue. And she, as you can see is red. So if you're thinking about what the trends are, it is that things are getting brighter and bolder. A couple of years ago orange was popular and lime green. Now it's red. And, in the international division, same thing again. Bright red. Jane from Low Bentham, England is our winner and she beat out 27 entries. If you have friends who live outside of the U.S. please tell them about this. We'd love to have more international people. We can't give out prizes to people outside the U.S. for tax reasons but we'd love to have them.

MG-R:
It is my great pleasure tonight to introduce someone who I've been wanting to meet for a long time and who I'm not going to have enough time to talk to tonight because he is so complicated and he's done so many things. So I should just get started. Todd Oldham is a well-known designer whose career spans more than 20 years and is the founder of Todd Oldham Studios, a multifaceted design studio based here in New York. He first launched his first clothing line in 1989 and won the Council of Fashion Designer Perry Ellis Award for New Fashion Talent in 1991. He served as creative consultant to Escada in the late 90s', launched a perfume line in '95 and designed clothing for Target in 2002/2003. In '95, he produced a clothing line associated with the Warner Bros film, Batman Forever. From 2003-2007 he designed furniture and home accessories for La-Z-Boy, which is when I first got to know him. He also served as creative director for Old Navy. He's become wildly known to American TV audiences through his many television appearances, most notably as host of Todd Time on MTV's House of Style in the 90's, which has just come back again and had an episode last week for Halloween. He hosted Fashionably Loud on MTV in '99 and recently served as a mentor to contestants on Bravo's Top Design. He's currently working on his 19th book, Charley Harper's Animal Kingdom. And more recently Todd debuted a collection of art supplies for kids - books and events called, Kid Made Modern, in Target. Please welcome Todd Oldham.

MG-R:
Your resume goes in so many directions and it's so long. First, did you grow up in Corpus Christi, Texas?

Todd:
Not really grew up. I was born there. My parents were kind of traveling around and I popped right out in Corpus Christi along the way. So we were there for a very brief time.

MG-R:
How did you get to New York? Why did you come and what was first thing you did?

Todd:
I was living in Dallas at the time. It was a really fun community and a really fun time. Then this sort of financial collapse happened in the 80s.

MG-R:
In '87?

Todd:
Yes, exactly so everyone had to skedaddle. It was no longer a place for creative folks. So I started coming back and forth to New York in the 80s and then moved here full time.

MG-R:
When you moved here full-time what did you do? Fashion was what brought you here?

Todd:
Yes, I'd been focusing pretty heavy on fashion. I sort of came to it like...you know how when you do things that you don't have any explanation for why you do? That was my entire fashion career. I had a very easy hand at making patterns. I really had no idea how I knew how to do it, but it was something that came very easily and moved very quickly for me.

MG-R:
Were you making clothes in Dallas?

Todd:
Yes I set up the factory there because we were doing very complex things and there weren't really people there that had a couture approach to clothing. Our clothes were all handmade and unfortunately ungodly expensive. You had to create an environment and a team to create those sort of things.

MG-R:
It says in Wikipedia that you bought a long bolt of cotton fabric and made a collection out of that bolt and sold it to Neiman Marcus?

Todd:
That's true. It was a cotton interlock, which at the time only came in beige and white. My grandmother had encountered this drugstore that was going out of business and bought this huge box of dye so I dyed everything. My mom had made all her clothing herself so I learned how to sew when I was nine. And we dyed everything in the bathtub.

MG-R:
So you make clothes and just like that you got yourself fully employed in New York City. How did you do that? So many people come here and they get tossed out again.

Todd:
New York kicks your ass but that's part of the welcoming committee. So once you get used to that and embrace it, it will all work out fine. I realized very very early on that I was unemployable and it made Me very happy. It's still a motive that I have today and with that in mind you can do whatever you want.

MG-R:
Because you're basically unemployable and no one will have you? But Ralph Lauren had you.

Todd:
Yes for three months in alterations before I was fired. It was a wonderful experience. It helped me crystallize all the instincts and things I kind of knew inherently, but having the opportunity to take apart his clothes was great. At the time I think I had green hair and would roller skate to work. They'd hide me in the back I was forbidden to use the front door. They did not allow me to go and pin anything. But I was really good at sewing so it was really terrific. But I just didn't work with too many folks. I didn't really have time for that job after very short time.

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MG-R:
If you got fired from that how did you become the director for Escada?

Todd:
Oh that was just a creative director role. It wasn't that hard of a job to get. It was a pretty crappy company. But I liked the people and I thought I could make it less crappy.

MG-R:
You were in fashion for a long time. When I first heard of you I thought you were a furniture designer, so it was a surprise to discover that fashion was really how you made your career.

Todd:
I made a lot of noise in fashion.

MG-R:
What was the most noise you made? What were you most proud of?

Todd:
I'm proud of everything I did in fashion. I had a really good time doing it, but I think one of the most proud things when I look back is that I had the good graces to stop when I had nothing else to say. I take my efforts very seriously and I don't want to involve other people in my follies that I don't need. So I stopped when I really thought that I had expressed myself fully. I've always had a computer-oriented brain. I can create things very easily and see them 360 in my head. So fashion I could work out in my head and there was no reason to get it out. I just didn't want to take up anyone else's time with more.

MG-R:
You didn't want to make more clothes even though you can see it and do it?

Todd:
I had always made everything and up until then I felt I had something to say and it was meaningful and had duality and juxtaposition, new inspirations of technique, just lots of new. I had to constantly find a new way to do something and I mean, who needs another $10,000 dress? And I made lots of them.

MG-R:
So newness led you out of fashion and into furnishings and other areas. I know where you are now but what about that middle step between the green hair and where you are?

Todd:
I was doing lots of things simultaneously so to leave, the mediums had just changed in front of me. They kind of don't change they just drift in and out. I have the same approach to any project I do. I'm a very sensitive and empathetic designer so I like to do what I do very well and try to bring joy to myself through the process and bring joy to others through the outcome. If you have that as a motive, that's a very easy thing to transition between.

MG-R:
Did you find furnishings like La-Z-Boy or did they find you?

Todd:
That was an interesting project. I liked those folks. We did a charity fundraiser together. They asked about 10 designers to do ottomans. So we did this ottoman. I think I was the only designer that didn't torture them. They asked me would you be interested in coming to talk to us. They were really fun to work with so we did the collection for four years. They're a unique business model. I joined them when they were trying to move into the future a little bit and we helped drag them a little bit forward. This is situation with a lot of big companies. They have sort of complex distribution systems that aren't really very healthy. And that was sort of the hiccup. I really enjoyed my time with them. I think they did a really nice job with making my furniture.

MG-R:
It was great. I remember they had a retail store in Soho. I thought, La-Z-Boy is really changing. They're doing something different. They're tag line was "We're not your father's La-Z-Boy".

Todd:
But there was nothing wrong with that. I was always baffled by that. What's wrong with your Father's chair? Like a lot of people—it was hard for them to see the forest through the trees. They felt the need to change. How many La-Z-Boy butts of jokes have you heard? But there's a lot of goodwill for it even though they'd been taking it on the chin. It was an interesting partnership. I liked that it was a little bit cheeky. It kind of cracked me up and they're very sweet.

MG-R:
Television. So you talk about making things. You talk about seeing things in your head 360. Clothes. Design. When you're going in front of the television audience you're doing things totally different or are you?

Todd:
You're expressing differently. There are different tenets to be a success in that. But I like communicating; I really am very thirsty for information. That's never abandoned me since I was very young person. I'm just hungry all the time for any information.

MG-R:
Information...like how things are made?

Todd:
Oh yeah. I'm very fascinated with art. I love construction. I love science and all of it kind of blends together. I just like learning. I'm really keen on learning. That has never subsided in me.

MG-R:
House of Style, which I saw a bit of the Halloween one - from 90s - what was it then and is it the same thing now?

Todd:
House of Style was an interesting show. Cindy Crawford was the host and I did this goofy section called Todd Time. It was really a blast and I got to do it for 4 years. But what I loved about it was that I got handed a flashlight from MTV who said shine this on anything that interests you. The Producers at MTV were really great. It was all about—let's try and figure out how we can celebrate style without the kind of bullshit that makes it a drag, like it has to do with money, which is completely wrong. And lets show all this great stuff we like and see all these underground people who we were hanging out with in the East Village. Let's support them. It was a blast. It was so much fun.

MG-R:
It was sort of like a behind the curtain scenario a little bit?

Todd:
Yeah. It wasn't even like a curtain wasn't there. It was like another island. It was a way to expose something else that wasn't in any way out there. It was really fun to do for four years. But TV is really quite grueling.

MG-R:
That is a long time.

Todd:
And I produced, cut and edited all my own. We'd literally get told you've got four minutes. What are you going to do—and I would turn in my tape literally right before it aired and that's what aired. Clearly not the same now. Thank God. Here it is we're almost 20 years after that first House of Style that's come back on they asked me to join them. I was very happy to sign back up. This new team thinks exactly like we did the first time, which is that style has nothing to do with money. We have two great new hosts models, Karlie Kloss and Joan Smalls. I'm having a really nice time. My first segment re-debuted last week and I'm heading on Monday to do a piece on the LA art scene.

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MG-R:
When I talked to you on the phone I got the feeling of an educator or someone who likes to teach in a sense. And you then used the words, you "liked to shine a light" on other people as well.

Todd:
Well teaching and sharing is all kind of the same idea to me.

MG-R:
That is different from making fashion or even making runway clothes.

Todd:
I guess. It's hard to say it's just different- you use different tools and different supplies, but it's about sharing. I was very sincere in weaving together all the paradoxes that created the inspirations between my collections and I'm just happy to celebrate them. My instincts and inspirations were not like others - so that kind of made me different in that world. I'm not pretentious and that was confusing to a lot of people.

MG-R:
You also talk about analog. In the stuff that you're doing for Target, I don't know if it started with you and then they got into it. But Kid Made Modern is very analog. It's not computer. It's about craft materials, it's about using your hands, using your brain - having nothing between you and the thing you are working on. Tell the audience about that and how you started with adults and gravitated down to children.

Todd:
Well it was this giant world of kids creativity called Kid Made Modern. It started in 2009 with a book that I wrote. It was sort of a love letter to my parents. They spent a lot of time showing us how to do literally everything they knew how to do and together we even learned stuff that they didn't know. It was really nice after all these years to create a book that was a response to the information I learned and was very sad to see slipping away from our world - through our schools being stripped of art classes and libraries. I'm not one to lament a broken system. I'd much rather take a few steps to the side and create a new one. So this book came out. I also do a lot with design schools. And so with the exception of RISD and the Art Center in Pasadena and those sort of brilliant and supportive schools, there is a terrible blight racing through our systems where things are torn out of magazines and books and pinned on walls and duplicated. This is bad for many reasons. One is that it's just stolen ideas.

MG-R:
Meaning design schools or design firms?

Todd:
We have to protect design schools.

MG-R:
You don't want people to be imitating something?

Todd:
Well it's an excepted path way now. What they're doing is losing the joy of being in proximity to passion and gorgeous stuff. I'm constantly sweaty palmed and hair raised on the back of my neck as I go through the MOMA or any art show. You're moved and you get that beautiful DNA shift that happens. That's being lost when you're not understanding how to take inspiration into yourself and turn it into something else. Today they take it and duplicate it.

The Book contains essays of 16 different artists that I find fascinating. People like Charley Harper, Alexander Calder. And slightly less known people like Anni Alberts, Josef Alberts' wife, who is just brilliant. She'd make jewelry out of sink chains and hardware supplies. So we do these love notes and then and then follow up with DIY projects that were inspired by but not copied from in the hopes that it starts creating a shift in the DNA pattern of learning and assimilation.

So anyway, the book came out. We started having these live events and I was expecting these crazy ear bleeding noises from having a hundred children in a room. I was very wrong. They were very focused and quiet. Everyone was engaged in making stuff so I started thinking wow there's room for really great art supplies for kids. Art supplies that are available for kids are pretty humbled.

MG-R:
They're preprocessed

Todd:
They are. They have closed outcomes. And the worst part is the materials aren't great. But this linearity of 1,2,3 and there you are is very wrong to me.That's not what we want to do. We will lead you to it if you wish but we're leaving it with enough open doors that you have to bring yourself to it. So we built out fully in prototype before we brought Target in. I had designed several back-to-school programs for them and had a really nice relationship with them for 10 years. In about 15 minutes we had a two-year commitment for all 1800 stores with no test. It went really fast. It started in May and it's going great. Now we are working on the next part, which is 3-D kid's art studios where you learn to make something. It's kind of an antidote to Build-a -Bear. We like a little more of an engagement.

MG-R:
But this is really like swimming upstream because what you're doing is appealing to that side that is being lost by the other stuff that makes a lot of noise.

Todd:
I don't think of it as swimming upstream. I just go out of the stream dig a new stream and swim in that—it's easier.

MG-R:
Let's see some of your pictures. Walk us through.

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MG-R:
I love seeing this. This is like a blast from the past!

Todd:
It is. What I enjoy is that we never were in style at all. We never were in fashion. We never followed any trends, so consequently these are things you're looking at from the early 90s to mid 90s and late 90s and they still look kind of fresh to me.

And we had really fun presentations. I worked with the best girls. We always had Linda Evangelista and Kate Moss. Cindy Crawford, because I got to work with her on House of Style, always did my show. So for no reason at all, we had the most superior presentations. We killed it every time. Our shows were really really good.

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MG-R:
Was this under your name, under Todd Oldham?

Todd:
Yes the clothing was always under my name.
The technique was what always interested me. We worked with couture beaders and 400 year old beading companies. We brought back sublimation printing— that old gas and ink printing from the 70's to create those fake photo prints. The second image there is actually beaded corduroy. We put bugle beads inside the wells of the corduroy so that it shimmered. We were always throwing curve balls. Fashion was super fun. I had a really really good time doing it. I haven't had the itch to do it at all in almost 15 years but something's brewing...I don't know what it is. I've learned, never say never.

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MG-R:
I love these rooms. Is this is your home?

Todd:
Yes that's my home (lower left). That's a hotel (upper left). That's something I did in California (lower right). I've gotten to do lots of interior stuff—which is super fun. I don't like shopping. I like to make things. We always just made everything. I do like experimenting. Like with this cactus, I removed the interiors and they just continued to grow. That cactus is now almost 6 feet tall and amazing.

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Todd:
This is a hotel I designed in Florida, which was super fun to do. I like being very empathetic in my designs. I try to create an environment where the interface with it is going to be really joyous.

MG-R:
It stands out to me that I don't recognize any pieces in your rooms. You're not collecting famous furniture from other places.

Todd:
No, we make everything. That's your job right?....so do it.

MG-R:
But not everyone does it though.

Todd:
I'm a big fan of Ikea, but I'd rather make it any time than buy it.

Todd:
I continue to make things but my only building design thing now is working with institutions. I just designed for Cooper Hewitt their new family space that's on 110th St. That was really terrific. I like that museum a lot and I like what they do for children.

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Todd:
I started doing books about eight years ago. This was a really fun series. It's called Play Space. It celebrated really singular spaces. The cover was amazing and unfurled and became a map. That's where the index was. I've done quite a few artist monographs.

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Most of the artists were still alive and I got to work with Wayne White who is an amazing man and who was one of the original creator's of Pee-Wee/s Play House with Gary Panter. He was also Randy and Dirty Dog. He was the voices as well as making all the puppets. There's a fantastic doc out on Wayne White called "Beauty is Embarrassing". He's one of the few feral people I've ever met. He has feral instincts. He's completely different from any human I've ever encountered and I love him. He's really special.

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MG-R:
Were you responsible for bringing back Joan Jett?

Todd:
Oh there was no bringing back! Joan Jett is a goddess. I've had a crush on her since I was 13 and it has not left me. It's very dangerous to meet your idols but in this case I loved her even more. So I did this book on Joan. It's Joan as art and she is art indeed. She has a career and a mindset that's unlike anybody. She's exactly the same now as she was when she was 14.

MG-R:
She performed a year or so ago and she looks identical.

Todd:
I went through 30 years of interviews to pull the text for the book. She is fantastic. I love Joan.

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Todd:
Charley was really special to me. Charley designed the Golden book of Biology I had as a kid. I was fascinated with and I memorized it. So I found Charley 40 something years later and spent the last 5 years of his life with him creating this beautiful monograph. He was an exquisite sensitive beautiful man.

MG-R:
Where did he live?

Todd:
He lived in Cincinnati.

MG-R:
He was an artist?

Todd:
Yes he was an artist. He started out as an illustrator. He did the Betty Crocker Cookbook for Two. He was just an amazing guy that had a skill set I've never seen the likes of in any artist. That was super fun to spend those last five years with him. When I got the first copy of the book, I flew to Cincinnati and he was able to see the book. He passed two days after. He did get to see it and he was very proud.

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Todd: So that's the cover of Kid Made Modern. It just came out in paperback.

MG-R:
Kid Made is a series now?

Todd:
It is. It keeps going on and on. We have a TV show. My friends Scott and Christian who did the show Yo Gabba Gabba! We're working with them to develop a Kid Made Modern TV Show. I'm super excited.

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This is the Alexander Girard cover. Alexander Girard is a superhuman deity that joined us on this planet for a little bit to gift with all kinds of inspiration. I spent three years going through 60 years of this man's work. There's 2300 images and it was a nightmare to get to that point because we had amassed over 35,000 documents between his written work and photography. He's an astonishing man that crossed endless boundaries. I'm kind of a busy guy and I am a lazy bastard compared to this man.

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Todd:
These are the new Kid Made Modern series books. Each one tackles a specific art or technique or movement. Demystifies it in a fun way. These four just came out in May.

MG-R:
You break them down into categories?

Todd:
Yes. As many as you can think of. "All about Tape" (forthcoming) seems little crazy but you can't imagine how many things there are to know. We're constantly learning and researching. I have no idea for example that the color of electrical tape has anything to do with voltage. It's just all the things we keep learning. Really really important.

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This is the brand-new book that just came out last week on Charley's (Harper) work. The first book made all of these things float up to the top. People started finding things that had been commissioned but weren't documented. We took over 330 images that hadn't been seen or printed to create this book. It's really really lovely.

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Todd:
This one comes out in January. I'm working with Robert Redford on redesigning all their merchandise for the Sundance Film Festival.

MG-R:
Isn't that a crazy left turn?

Todd:
It's just what we do. We created it to celebrate the history. I thought it would be interesting to translate it in mediums that were different so we kind of took the approach of a kids ABC book. "A" will have five different films or authors or actors. We commissioned 27 different artists to do composite illustrations. "A" was done by Michelle Romero who I think might be here tonight. So that book is coming out really shortly and it's really gorgeous. There's a show that mounts at Sundance this year on the 10th.

MG-R:
It's a retrospective?

Todd:
Its sort of a new way to look at the history. It's much more interesting to allow these artist to do what ever they felt. When I work with people I don't like to edit them. I like to work with the best people I can and create a platform for them to do their work.

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Todd:
Here we're going into Kid Made Modern. These are some of the art supplies. I got to design duct tape, which just thrilled me.

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MG-R:
This is your duct tape? So what voltage is that?

Todd:
This is multi-voltage duct tape.

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It was very funny because no one needs another anything. I came to realize that many many years ago. So we found new ways to do crayons that have multi tones and levels. This works on lots of levels it's very ergonomically sound for small hands but it causes people to look at tone and tonality in very unique ways. Not to mention that your crayon has about 20 points on it instead of just one. It's a very lovely object.

Our pencil colors and paint colors are lovely and excessive. Our watercolors have seven greens in it. But you need them.

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We were able to fine-tune the quality to be all artist quality for children. Because it's artists for artists we bring in all these guest artists including Charley Harper—these are embroidery kits with pre-punched felt that you can make little pillows with. We just finished Halloween with the artist Patrick Ruby. He's a brand-new kid that I met when he was a freshman in the Art Center in Pasadena when I was doing a lecture there. And he's now turned into just being a mega everything. It's really fun to watch brain's explode and turn into wonderful things.

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These are some of the kits. There's a comic book kit that has interesting stamps and templates. There's one of Charley's bird kits that is die cut wood that you can paint. That's one of my favorite crayons on the far left. It has 64 colors in one gigantic crayon so the line is ever-changing in the color. The line is broken down into 50% art supplies and its all really good stuff and has been very well received. A lot of the things have $9 or $12 price tags.

MG-R:
It's sort of like going back to your mother's bathtub and making the clothing when you were first starting.

Todd:
Except that I had no focus on price at that point. Price is not so important but value is. For someone to not be included in something because they have no money is ridiculously sad and nothing I want to be a part of. It was important we deliver this stuff at a very friendly price. I recognize that even $9 can still be a challenge for a lot of families. But I don't want to be the cheapest thing I want it to be the best thing I can be within that. We're not the cheapest but I think the best quality.

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There are our watercolors with the seven colors of green. We're very conscious about the manufacturing. I don't allow shrink wraps or blister wraps. The giant swarm of plastic crap in the Atlantic Ocean gives me hives every day. If we're not part of the solution about manufacturing for these sorts of things then we'd be part of the problem. And Target said ok. Consequently it's caused them to address the way they package other stuff. So it's having a sort of nice exponential effect.

The far left—that's a jewelry kit. It comes in this cardboard lunchbox because we want to teach good working habits along with crafts. Any project that can't be completely assembled in one sitting has a box that it can be returned into. Having good working habits really allows you to be unfettered. I thankfully learned good working habits early on. We make sure there are complete three learning tenets with every single thing we do at Kid Made Modern.

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MG-R:
Have you studied or spent a lot of time working with children and how they learn?

Todd:
I like kids very much. My thirst for knowledge has led me to understand how learning can be absorbed— whether you're a cognitive learner or visual learner, there are millions of ways. I want to make sure that there was never a closed door in what Kid Made Modern did. I'm an odd learner. I am part visual and part cognitive. So we wanted to make sure we let all those kids in and not get in the way of them—it's usually the adults that screw things up so I want to make sure I was not one of those adults.


Congratulations to the winner of Todd's special edition book!

Special thanks to Neila Deen for transcribing our Meetup!
Special thanks to our volunteers, Kortnee Mcclendon!
Images: Apartment Therapy

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Thanks to our host and sponsor, ABC Carpet & Home

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Maxwell left teaching in 2001 to start Apartment Therapy as a design business helping people to make their homes more beautiful, organized AND healthy. The website started up in 2004 with the help of his brother, Oliver.