- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 10, 2008

NEW YORK — Half the fun of meeting Todd Oldham is getting to hang out in his Tribeca apartment, a quirkyfunhouse of bright colors, high-end artwork and kitschy knickknacks.

If you want a window into the psyche of Mr. Oldham, the 46-year-old multitasking designer known for his modern and playful style, you need only scan the living room: The walls are coated in a pattern of yellow-and-orange vertical stripes, which clash harmoniously with the oversized pink-and-green rugs and an ottoman upholstered in a ladybug print. Artfully arranged stacks of books coexist with stuffed animals, including a sock puppet.

There’s a blue bowl formed by melted plastic soldiers and a framed Playboy photograph of a topless Bettie Page hanging a Christmas ornament, signed by Hugh Hefner.

The space is a little bit flea market, a little bit Pee-wee Herman - and all Mr. Oldham, who rose to fame in the ‘90s as a high-fashion designer before expanding his business into interior design and other endeavors. His resume includes designing hotels, restaurants and a line of dorm-room furniture for Target.

“I don’t try to describe it,” he says of his personal taste. “I guess if I put words to it, I don’t know, it’s maybe eclectic and comfortable. … I have more of a psychological and emotional approach toward design, just trying to make a place where people can feel fantastic or exude some part of their personality.”

He is the feel-good mentor to 13 contestants on the Bravo reality series “Top Design,” which tosses aspiring interior designers into a series of rigorous challenges aimed at whittling down the competition to one winning designer. The show began its second season this week. He says he wouldn’t have the guts to compete in the series, which follows the structure of Bravo’s “Project Runway” and “Top Chef.”

“I would not want to be a contestant on this show at all,” he says. “It’s just too brutal. I said it before, but this is the only show I know on TV that is a thousand times harder than what it looks. It was way, way harder than what it looked like.

“Oh, I could totally hack it! I’m just not up for it,” says Mr. Oldham, whose favorite challenge was one in which his charges were assigned to make over bomb shelters.

The season brings back judges Jonathan Adler, Margaret Russell and Kelly Wearstler. New to the series is leggy fashionista India Hicks, who replaces Mr. Oldham in the role as host and utterer of the elimination catchphrase: “We can’t live with your design.”

Mr. Oldham juggled hosting and mentoring duties last season and says his hectic schedule allowed him to reprise his preferred position as the show’s well-liked, neutral cheerleader - the Tim Gunn to Mr. Adler’s Michael Kors and Miss Wearstler’s Nina Garcia.

The chatty, sunny Texas native - a regular guest on the former MTV show “House of Style” - says he wouldn’t feel comfortable on the judges’ panel.

“I understand how subjective design is. … I could promote both sides and never come to a solution. I’m a bad fit for judging like that. Pecking orders confuse me, so I don’t think like that.”

One thing he is not confused about is multitasking. He has multiple plates spinning at all times, whether it’s overseeing the design studio he founded in 1999, appearing on TV or tending to his most high-profile gig, as creative director of Old Navy.

The clothing retailer hired Mr. Oldham last year to revive the Gap Inc. brand, which faces heavy competition from trendy mass-market stores such as Forever 21 and H&M.

“I have 160 designers that I work with, and it’s peculiar and challenging, but it’s working,” he says. “It’s very organic. You just try to keep people united and talking. … It’s just a matter of leaving out some less pretty colors and making sure it’s all nice. We’re trying.”

Mr. Oldham’s influence is readily visible in the fall collection in the design of a blue blazer with pink trim and has garnered positive reviews. He recently introduced flashier styles in the stores, with sequins added to minidresses, tank tops and vests.

“June was the first stuff I’ve worked on, which also was the first month we’ve become profitable in a long time. … I’m not claiming I have anything to do with it; I’m just noting the coincidence,” he says.

Mr. Oldham, whose grandmother taught him how to sew at age 9, was ready to return to fashion prominence after a long hiatus.

Last year, “I was either going to go to Europe and revamp a couture house … or find a way to reach people with something interesting that didn’t have anything to do with money or the spectacle of fashion. And so Old Navy, to me, looked like it was a very, very most interesting group that had the most possibility. A future-leaning success. So hopefully, I think, I chose right.”

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