I’ve long admired Dabito’s fearless use of color and his effortless way of blending old with new. As the founder and mastermind behind Old Brand New, a creative studio specializing in design, art direction, branding, photography and brand partnerships, Dabito is a self-proclaimed modern Renaissance man.
Blogger, photographer, artist, decor guru, and passionate vintage hunter, he was the perfect guest for Secondhand Roadshow. And in honor of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, it was even more fitting.
For the full unfiltered interview, click here to watch it on my IGTV series.
Tell me your origin story. How did you become this modern Renaissance man?
I started my blog 11 years ago, and it was really just a creative outlet for me to get out of my funk. I was a flight attendant for an Asian airline, and I had all this free time during my days off.
I was living with my ex-boyfriend, and I was really excited to decorate for the first time. I started buying a lot of furniture from thrift stores. I wasn’t making a lot of money, so I had to get creative. There were days where I would hit up ten thrift stores, but I would do that within an hour because I knew exactly what I was looking for. I would walk in, then back out if I didn’t see anything: in, boom, out, next. In LA, there are so many awesome thrift stores.
Old Brand New was a way for me to document my decorating journey, as well as showing my printmaking, photography, graphic design and art that I really loved. I was hoping it would help me find a creative job. And eventually it did!
I was a graphic designer for a gardening company a couple years later. But I was still decorating a lot, and I still continued with Old Brand New. It wasn’t until about five years ago that it took off and I was making actual money. It took a while, and it wasn’t easy.
After leaning into this community of design influencers, I will never disparage an influencer again. There is so much that goes into even one post.
And I do it all myself, even the negotiating part which I actually love. (It’s kinda like haggling at a flea market!) I do all the conceptualizing, the sourcing, the shopping, the schlepping, the styling, the photography, editing, copyrighting.
Maybe I’m a control freak, I just love to do it all. I like to try and dabble in everything, that’s what keeps me excited. I get to learn and do everything on my own, and I love that.
Since it’s AAPI Heritage Month, tell me your immigrant story and if that affected you as a designer.
I grew up in a low-income immigrant family. I was born in Chinatown here in Los Angeles. My family immigrated here from Vietnam in the late 70s. My grandparents are from Hainan in China. We moved around from Chinatown to Highland Park and then to San Gabriel.
I remember living in this teeny tiny house, three bedrooms with ten people. I shared the same bedroom with my mom, sister and dad up until high school. During my senior year, I said, “I’ve had enough, I can’t be in the same room with you anymore!” So I moved into the living room!
A lot of times, I was home alone, growing up as a latchkey kid. In middle school, I was obsessed with space planning, we had two queen beds. I would move furniture around by myself as a little kid, even figuring out how to unscrew a bed, and trying to develop a better flow.
My dad’s actually a contractor so when I moved into the living room, he decided to paint it blue and then did the borders in pink to create faux crown molding. The color combination was questionable, but the idea was really cool. Now looking back at it, he was trying to create dimension and interest in this space that was very boring.
I remember a lot of clutter. We hoard a lot of things. As immigrants, we tend to hold onto everything because you don’t want to be wasteful. I would always try to purge. I was trying to make the space really cool by clipping plants from the garden and bringing them indoors.
I was very inspired by the IKEA catalogs – they were my Bible. I would comb through the pages for hours and just dream about having my own space. I was picked on a lot and bullied – I wanted to have a place one day that would be a safe, healing and happy environment.
I didn’t realize that interiors would be a career for me. I don’t think immigrants know about that. You either want to be in business or finance, a doctor or lawyer – those academic things that will bring in money. Anything creative is just very abstract.
Even to this day, my mom still asks, “What do you do? You take photos for a living?” I will show her a Macy’s magazine and tell her, “This is what I do: I conceptualize, photograph and art direct. I create this beautiful, magical content for people.” Then she says, “Oh, okay…they pay you for that?”
I’m so blessed and grateful. It’s been an adventure to partner and collaborate with all these big brands I never thought I would have the opportunity to do so.
Speaking of IKEA, why did you start using secondhand finds in your designs? If there were financial limitations, why not buy cheap IKEA furniture?
I started thrifting and buying secondhand because there’s something beautiful in the craftsmanship in old pieces and knowing the history. There’s so much personality, and you can’t find that at IKEA or big box stores.
It’s also the thrill of the hunt, and finding something for a song. My TV console that I bought for 90 bucks: I still remember where I found it, how I found it and for how much.
I’ve always thrifted a lot, even in high school. I went to Goodwill a lot for clothes – I loved blazers a lot, I still do. In college, I would buy a lot of weird stuff. I remember buying this orange bedsheet. (I know it sounds really gross, I made sure I washed it five times.) I pinned it to the wall to create this sculptural thing.
No matter where you live, you can make something. No matter how small your space is, or if it’s a rental, you can personalize it and really own your space. That’s really my thing now: empowering people to own their space.
People in rentals are scared of losing their security deposits if they do anything. But if you paint, just paint it back! Paint is the cheapest and easiest way to really transform a space.
A lot of people who live in apartments think it’s a temporary thing, they don’t plan to live there very long and don’t want to invest any money in furniture. Then fast forward ten years later and they realize they’ve been in this temporary state where a bed’s without a headboard or a bedframe, or the mattress is on the floor.
You have to start from day one, be intentional and make it your own. Have fun with it. Ultimately, you want to create a space that’s relaxing, where you can come home and be happy. Host your friends and family and create fun memories. Fill it with things that you absolutely love and treasure. Decorating a space is about celebrating your life. It’s about honoring your history, embracing your culture and bringing all those things into your space to remind you who you are. That’s really what’s so fabulous about decorating.
What is one design rule that you swear by?
I try not to think about rules when it comes to decorating. What’s important is figuring out the right flow for your space: how you move in that space and how that space dictates how you live. Sometimes you have to live in a space and try out different configurations or furniture layouts, and that takes time.
Bring in color – we don’t have enough color. I think color is so important in creating a mood and a vibe, and also a great way to personalize a space and make it stand out. That’s a good rule: COLORIFY YOUR SPACE!
Even white is a color.
But is it though?
It can be when you’re trying to pick a white and there’s a million shades of it!
There’s a Japanese designer who said, “White is a color before a color.” Sometimes I will paint everything white just to reset, and then go in and make it all colorful and vibrant. I have white walls, but I use bold colors to balance it out with a gallery wall or a beautiful, vibrant rug or sofa. White walls are fine, I just need stuff on them to balance it out.
Tell me about some of your favorite old things.
Dabito walks us around his living room starting with a $90 table he purchased in New Orleans and uses as a media console. He believes it used to be a bar cabinet. He shows us a vintage lamp, vase, African stool, (karaoke machine – because he’s Asian, ha!) and a decorative object from Thailand. He shows us more things in his kitchen, including a vintage rug that everyone asks about.
So basically: everything. Everything in my home is a favorite thing, otherwise why is it in here?
As it should be! You want to fill your home with beautiful stuff that reminds you of where you traveled. I always tell people you have to personalize your space with personal things from your travels, from family or friends. I have an abacus from my aunt, things that are passed down like jewelry boxes. You should absolutely fill your space with things you love.
We discuss how the secondhand culture has become normalized and the rise of “vintage vultures” circling for the same finds. Dabito divulges how the Rose Bowl Flea Market surprisingly has furniture for good prices. That is actually where my ibex coffee table came from, and I share how I love its patina.
That’s what people go after: imperfections are beautiful. I’m not very precious about my pieces, but I have friends and family who cover and protect everything. They use their silverware only on special occasions. But for me, everyday should be fancy. I’m going to celebrate every day. You have to celebrate life and just enjoy it. Make it fancy.
I’m not a very precious person either, I’m really clumsy. I prefer finding something that’s already dinged up.
Right! Then you’re like, “I didn’t do that, it already came like this!”
What’s the craziest thing you’ve done to acquire something or bring home?
I remember in the early days, there was one year where I had three or four different sofas just to try things out. I would buy off of Craigslist. Craigslist was the place to buy really good shit for nothing. There were so many desperate people who had to sell things and very quickly.
They would sell a brand new Crate & Barrel sofa for a hundred bucks and I was like, “Yes! Give it to me!” And then I would take it home and realize it didn’t fit. I remember lugging and schlepping a sofa in my station wagon, doing it all by myself. Those were some crazy times.
One of your friends mentioned that you had an estate sale in New Orleans?
I thought maybe ten people would show up. It was a Saturday morning and it started at 10. There were people lining up at 9. I didn’t realize how many people followed me and how much the word spread. I had so much adrenaline. It was just fun meeting people in the neighborhood.
After that, I realized I really want a shop to sell things. I had my Venmo attached to the speaker and the entire day, every five minutes, it went “cha-ching, cha-ching!” That was fun for me.
What are some of your favorite places to shop in Los Angeles?
I really love the Pasadena Antique Mall, specifically Bonita Interiors. She’s got a really beautiful eye and great collection of pieces for the home. The Luxe Lust Life in Highland Park is great, and so is Sunbeam Vintage.
Wherever I am or if I’m traveling, I use Yelp or Google to search for “thrift stores that are near me.” That’s the thing about treasures: I like to think that things find me and not me finding them. Although now that I’m pretty filled, I don’t want to hoard too much.
I’ve been acquiring things lately, and I don’t really need more things.
When I see something, I always have to tell myself, “If someone came right now and scooped it up, will I regret it? Will I be so sad about it?” That’s usually my indication if I need to get it.
Is there anything that got away, or is there something that did get away that you’re now searching for?
Not really. I’ve been interested in finding vintage Art Deco Chinese rugs. They’re usually very expensive and I have a lot of them saved. There’s one I had in my cart forever, but someone bought it. I’m not sentimental so I don’t get too attached.
Let’s wrap up with you telling me one thing that makes you proud to be an Asian American.
I love that I can speak another language, I can speak Cantonese. I love all the Asian food. I’m Chinese Vietnamese, so the more pungent, the more fish sauce and spices, the better! There’s dim sum – all the questionable food like chicken feet.
I just love all of our culture, and being unapologetically Asian and embracing all of that.