The Design Legacy of Jean O'Brien
Someone asked me the other day about my creative influences, and I found myself immediately taken back to my high school English class in Pacific Palisades, California. Every afternoon in Miss O’Brien’s classroom, among the open breezeways and palm-lined courtyards of the modernist masterpiece that was Palisades High, I was encouraged to read critically, write thoughtfully, and to pursue my increasing passion for antiques and design.
Miss O’Brien had noticed my interests, probably because she shared them, and she urged me to think and incorporate them into what I wrote. She taught me to have confidence in my taste. As I learned to compose my thoughts, I sought to emulate her ability to be serious, humorous and ironic—often all at the same time.
Symmetry, creative balance, considered content—all of these were important to Miss O’Brien, and so they became important to me. I’ve often thought that good decoration is very much like a good essay, a belief I formed in her classroom. A front hall is an introduction, living rooms and sitting rooms are the body, and the master bedroom and private rooms form the conclusion.
When I’m critiquing decoration, I still employ the editing notes she’d pen in the margin of our weekly essays as something of a nod to her: abbreviations like “AWK” for awkward or pithy phrases such as “lacks symmetry” or “lacks content.” Afterall, a room that lacks content and is AWK is not a good one.
Miss O’Brien taught history as well, and her influence on my habits and thinking extended to there as well. One thing she cautioned us against was being “overwrought,” which in the context of her classroom meant anything overly, unnecessarily dramatic, past or present. Every week, she would have us turn in our class notes in neat folders, and on the first page we were expected to write “notes,” along with our name, the date, and our class.
We also had to title our notes, which we considered an opportunity for creativity, but which was also a pit fall for those with a tendency to be overwrought. Titles like “Toward Independence,” “Thoughts from the Round Table,” and “War!” were acceptable to Miss O’Brien. But when a friend titled hers “To Hell and Back," she received a note from Miss O’Brien in return stating, “The sound you hear is not laughter."
Miss O’Brien and I remained friends after I graduated. Today I call her Jean, and we see each other about once a year. When my mother died, she immediately came over to our house, offering a calm presence and sage advice. She discreetly asked my partner if we had enough money for the costs at hand and was particularly helpful with the notes for mother’s eulogy.
I like to think that my designs positively influence my clients’ lives, adding beauty and order and ease. But when I’m in a new space, walking from entry to living room to bedroom and considering the décor, or when I look in the margins of my own notes today, I see instead the enduring influence of Jean O’Brien.
Images from top: Palisades High School, Pacific Palisades, California; portrait of Jean O’Brien from a Palisades High School yearbook; shots of a house in Southampton decorated by Thomas Jayne illustrate the lessons of Miss O’Brien.