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April 14, 2002

The Mother of Reinvention

By BONNIE SCHWARTZ

Todd Oldham
Linda Oldham's master bathroom is a tour de force. Oldham, who designed and made the floor tiles, likens the design to a spilled basket of flowers and leaves.

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Slide Show: Linda Oldham's Desert Idyll


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When Linda Oldham was growing up on a farm in the Texas panhandle, trips to her Aunt Mabel's in the town of Hereford were ''like going to Disneyland,'' she recalls. ''She had a jumbled assortment of things in her yard, including a sand pile with a real cook stove in it where my cousins and I would make mud pies. There was always a hodgepodge of stuff laying around that she had rescued from the trash. It was the most magical place ever.''

Out of the discarded ingredients of other people's lives a childhood idyll was made.

Half a century later, Linda Oldham and her husband, Jack, both in their late 50's, have created their own desert idyll near the village of Abiquiu, N.M. Situated on a 30-acre ranch along the Chama River, the Oldhams' latter-day homestead is a playground for adults, replete with a hand-me-down tractor from Linda's dad, a couple of pickups and a wood shop for Jack. There is a storeroom full of multicolored marbles, mismatched china, glass tiles, colored beads and vintage flour sacks that Linda smashes, cuts, pastes, gouges, sews, grouts and generally transforms into tiled fireplace rugs, antique-looking flowers, fanciful birdbaths, unlikely sinks and intricate veneer surfacing. Linda's hunting-crafting DNA was clearly passed on to her and Jack's eldest son, the designer Todd Oldham, who helped to define the bricolage approach to fashion in the 1980's.

Two years ago, in the spring of 2000, Linda and Jack packed their possessions from their Dallas home of 21 years and moved them all to Abiquiu, best known as the place where Georgia O'Keeffe lived and painted during her most prolific years. The Oldham family, whose manufacturing business produced Todd's clothing designs, had sold off many of its trademarks and licenses earlier that year.

Todd Oldham Studio, for which Linda continues to function as a business partner, was reorganized to become a multifaceted design company, developing home furnishings for clients like Target. ''Once we sold the factory, I wasn't tied down to a specific place anymore,'' Linda explains. ''And since Jack works as a freelance technology consultant, all he really needed was a phone, a modem and an airport.''

Starting with a small, two-bedroom stucco-covered house designed from a mail-order floor plan, Linda and Jack soon expanded their home, with Todd's help, into a commodious, 3,000-square-foot abode. With an oversize family room that accommodates several large, sink-into-them pieces of furniture (''I like to be comfortable, and like my guests to be, too,'' Linda says), a study, an enormous master suite, two guest bedrooms and three bathrooms, the house amply suits the couple's easygoing, family-oriented life. (While the Oldhams' nest is empty, their children visit frequently.)

Although the house is only two years old, its plethora of handmade finishes and objects gives the place the kind of patina most houses take years to acquire. Linda's hands have glued, laid, cut and placed so many surfaces -- from her handmade floral kitchen and bathroom tiles (yep, she made 'em), to the wallpaper she fashioned of varnished color photographs from old Arizona Highways magazines, to the oddly shaped twin sinks in the master bathroom that Linda and her son Brad, a metal caster, made of copper sheeting -- you cannot help but feel the force of her magnetic personality in every gesture.

As richly detailed as the house is, the real playground is beyond its back door, in Linda's two acres of cultivated gardens (''like a green oasis plopped in the middle of the desert,'' Todd remarks), and in the large garage out back, which houses Jack's workshop and Linda's studio, materials storeroom and showroom.

An inveterate flea-market shopper (''I find flea markets practically everywhere I go,'' she admits), Linda collects American ephemera: outsize schoolroom maps, vintage children's games, homemade paintings and rough-hewn Pennsylvania cabinets. Her sizable holdings also include a veritable library of flour-sack fabrics from the 20's, 30's and 40's. (''I remember being mesmerized by the vibrant array of flour-sack patterns in the grocery store when I was a child,'' she says. ''And Jack can remember wearing shirts his mother made out of them.'')

Added to these are dozens of oil paintings by unknown artists, which hang in clusters in practically every room of the house (''Jack keeps saying I should mount a show of these,'' Linda muses), and stacks and stacks of vintage china, souvenir plates and ashtrays, which await smashing once plucked from Linda's well-ordered storeroom. In short order, these shards are likely to make their way into floor mosaics, picture frames, mirrors and table tops.

While most of her materials are smaller than a breadbox, Jack took pause when Linda started lugging home dozens of antique metal headboards and footboards from flea-market excursions. When he asked what Linda planned to do with them, she replied she had no idea. ''He just rolled his eyes like he always does and put them in the garage,'' she says. ''The truth is, I never thought I'd do anything with them, other than use one or two as a trellis.'' When they moved to Abiquiu, Linda and Jack finally found a use for those heavy iron headboards. ''We finished off one side of our 300-foot cottonwood fence with them,'' Linda says. ''That gave us both a break, since that fence took us three weeks straight to build, and we were tired by the time we got toward the end.''

Todd adds, ''What I've learned from my mother is that the process is always more interesting than the outcome.'' He spent endless hours as a child helping his mother roll, saw, mix and stitch whatever she happened to dream up that day (Linda's grandson, Presley, Todd's nephew, is now the happy recipient of such lessons). ''But the greatest gift she has given me is the gift of being able to figure things out, which gives you the freedom to try anything,'' Todd says.

''And because so few of her attempts are unsuccessful, she is always motivated to try new things.''

Revealing her penchant for careful analysis, Linda says: ''I find it fun to imagine something I want to do and then backtrack to figure out what the steps are. It's like an engaging puzzle.''

Her friend and neighbor Pat Frazier implored Linda one day: ''Let's get out the dictionary. Do you and Jack even know the meaning of 'procrastination'?''

Linda replied: ''Well, Jack used to, but I never did. I think, by now, he may have forgotten, too.''

Bonnie Schwartz is a freelance writer in Brooklyn.



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