On the Scene

Q&A with John O’Brien

You could call him the poster child for “Do what you love, and the money will follow.” Or “Do what you like, and you’ll get work.” Or maybe even, “Take on projects that you’re honest about and feel good about, and you’ll get a really, really amazing end result.” However you term it, John O’Brien has been a busy guy since he closed his esteemed Dolphin gallery, the shuttering of which took the local art world by surprise. In the year since he closed his West Bottoms frame shop and gallery, which represented many of the area’s top artists, he’s bought two buildings in Independence, renovated them, and started a new venture, Hammer Out Design. Spaces caught up with O’Brien to see what else he’s been up to and where the road will take him next. Good news for those of us who don’t have an exact plan mapped out: a non-plan could be the best route of all.

Spaces: In addition to the two buildings you bought, you’ve been working on a few other spaces. How did you get involved in renovating?

John O’Brien: In 1989, I started the Dolphin after I left working with Paul Robinson, who was one of the founders of Gilbert/Robinson. A lot of people don’t know that I worked directly with him. He was a remarkable man. I’ve been really fortunate to work with some remarkable people over the years. He quit, and I quit a few days later. That’s when I started the Dolphin, not knowing what I was going to do.

I have, since a very young age, been very interested in art and design. I really don’t have a formal education. I did go to the [Kansas City] Art Institute, but I never graduated. I went through their foundation program and a little bit of their painting. Through the Dolphin, I’ve always worked on design things. But I’m not the kind of person who’d publish a website. There were many projects that I never even documented. But the process is something I’ve always been interested in.

It’s been a year ago August that I left the West Bottoms and turned that over to other people. As of Jan. 1, I have been trying to do business as Hammer Out Design. But it’s been a year of moving and trying to put together a building, putting together a new woodshop, and slowly trying to pull some ideas together of what I want to do. I’m not the kind of person who sets out a plan and says, “That’s what I’m going to do.” I’ve always been one to go down a path and then see where it leads. It depends on the people I meet.

S: And it sounds like you’ve met a few people?

JOB: I haven’t gone looking for any jobs at all. But I’m very busy right now. Most have been people who’ve just called and said, “Hey, can you come help me with this?” or, “I want to try to do this, could you come talk to me? Maybe look at the space, give me some ideas.”

I think maybe the best thing I’ve done is try to be honest with people and not try to sell them. I don’t take a job unless I feel like I can make something of it—not money, but really pull it together.

S: Tell us about the jobs you have taken on.

JOB: I’m finishing up a patio addition [at Boulevard]. I did the tasting room a long time ago with John [McDonald, the owner of the brewery].

I’m working right now at the downtown library on a technology center. Libraries are changing because of computers and the web. We’re working on a space that could be forward-thinking. The space is trying to marry the old building with a new space and new technology. And what kind of spaces we need within that.

I’m working on this beautiful space in the City Market that’s been empty for 10 years. It’s the Merchants Bank across from Bo Lings. I’ve been dreaming about that space for a long, long time. I think it could be beautiful. It’s for Harry’s Country Club but a different concept.

I am working on Aixois in Crestwood, too. I’m very excited about that. It’s a conversation that’s gone on for a while. We’re reworking the inside. We’re going to work on sound in the back.

S: What else is on the horizon for Hammer Out Design?

JOB: I have a very interesting clay artist, Andy Brayman, moving in to half of the building. I’m hoping to be around his energy and have him inspire me and possibly collaborate with him. He’s a big thinker.

There are many, many creative people that I’ve been around. Some of us as a group are talking about design and thinking about trends. I guess I’m kind of looking at the space as a think tank—not only for myself but maybe eventually for some like-minded people trying to push things.