Friday, May 18, 2012

Tucker Robbins

By Sian Ballen
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch

We were intrigued with Tucker Robbins, once a monk, now a furniture designer. He rejected a posh upbringing of big white houses, boarding school and a life of ‘everything-just-so’ to examine the world inside himself. After ten years of devoting himself to the vows of celibacy and poverty in a group house outside of New Haven, he took himself off and started traveling the world. After helping a friend establish a weaving cooperative in Guatemala he returned home with furnishings and wall hangings that were promptly snapped up by Southport neighbor Albert Hadley. From there he started visiting other remote jungle communities where he continues to hire local craftsmen to help design and build his furniture.

Robbins has a gentle way about him that belies his natural abilities as an entrepreneur. Born into the Spalding sports empire, he can’t help but have ‘business in his blood’ but has deployed the skills in his own way to serve his idea that that which connects us is far more powerful than that which separates us. He also, we learned, throws famed Halloween parties … now that’s an invite – from the monk who loves Halloween.

So your work has been termed “modern primitivism,” which I think is sort of an interesting term. Can you tell me what that means?

For me I think Brancusi introduced it first. He has been an inspiration for me because he comes from Romania and is in touch with a vocabulary that is visual, that goes way back in history and it describes life as we know it in shape and form.
Storage benches made out of architectural flooring from the Philippines line the front hall.
A painting from the Alhambra was a gift to Tucker from his grandmother. Tucker purchased the hens on the eastern shore of Virginia.
The walls of the front hallway are lined with wedding carpets out of river stick and goat skin that once belonged to the Tuareg tribe, nomads of the Sahara.
Is it paring right down to the essentials?

Yes … um … right down to the essentials. Like an hourglass representing a woman. Brancusi’s  “Endless Column” representing both female and ascension—this idea of a ladder, something going into the heavens as an aspiration … so.

The challenge that I’m having is that your pieces are made by hand and they’re made in very remote parts of the world where, I’m not even so sure people know what “modern” means … it’s a term that we in industrialized countries have sort of invented …

Oh for sure.
A detail of the hall bench and storage cabinet.
Looking towards a painting of the Alhambra from Tucker's grandmother and a carpet bag from Tunisia.
Looking across the living room towards a painting by Espen Eiborg. The floor rugs from Turkey were originally created to wrap other carpets.
A red ceramic 'Spider's Nest' side table is come from a design in the Cameroon but is made in Peru.
An art deco French chair stands in front of a ladder from a trip to the Dogon area of Mali. A gilt 'Spider's Nest' stool from Tucker Robbins also works as a side table.
I mean do they even know that they’re creating “modern primitivism”?

No, they have no idea. I remember telling somebody that Calvin Klein was buying this work and he said, “What do you mean, Calvin Klein is the name on my jeans … I didn’t know he was a person.”

They’re just earning a living by creating this work.

It’s more than that. They know what they’re expressing and we talk about that. We talk about what is the meaning of this design and how they speak through it because it’s important to get the nuance of the design. It’s visual and it’s storytelling.

I suppose it is often an old story too …

Absolutely. It provokes the question: “what are we here for?” We’re [all] looking to know who we are, how are we grounded? What makes us significant? And I suppose those things that surround us are reminders of who we are.
Looking across the living room towards the kitchen. The Vigan bed from the northern Philippines is covered in a silk bedspread from Frette. The red ikat pillow is from Uzbekistan.
A 1930s Balinese painting hangs above a console made out of recycled wood from the Philippines.
I totally agree. But things have gotten to be so much more global. Is that changing how you approach this business?

Oh for sure. People are getting more educated. When I first started doing this it was a revelation for many people. Even Sotheby’s hadn’t seen some of the things that I was doing.

I remember coming to your warehouse on 9th Avenue … way back when you opened up that store in what is now the “hot” meatpacking district.

The pieces were so rare that the people themselves [artists and craftsman] doing this were starting to reproduce from old wood and I said, “Let me work with you on this to create new things out of the old things that represent your sacred objects or things that mean something to you.” So that started a line of furniture fifteen years ago.
Tucker's living room is filled with western light.
A bronze rooster from Benin stands atop a stool from Indonesia. The leather chair is French Art Deco and was purchased at a Stella show.
Fresh flowers and some favorite objects are arranged atop the rosewood coffee table.
A bronze rooster from Benin stands in front of the living room bookcases.
And these pieces were mostly from Africa?

I started in Guatemala and realized a connection to Asia through Guatemala. The Spanish, who ruled the world in the 16th and 17th centuries had access to China through the Philippines. The way that they brought goods to Europe was overland through Mexico and Guatemala, so the Chinese influence in Latin America was a revelation to me. There are colonies of Mexicans, Chinese and Philippinos all mixed up. They found Chinese anchors off the coast of Guatemala that even pre-date the Spanish. There is an old connection there. You see it in the red and the gold that you find in both China and Latin America. And so that brought me into Asia, to the tribal people, the ancient people.

What part?

The northern Philippines where there is an aboriginal people that look Mayan and they have some of the same vocabulary as the Maya and the same sacred forms … those modern primitive forms.

So you went specifically to find furniture and forms to bring back?

Yes—and to connect these stories and to get it out of this “Oh it’s from Guatemala/Oh it’s from Africa” It’s something else … I’m continually trying to find those connections that unite us. You know, you’re looking at Persian carpets but for me, they could [also] be from Scandinavia, or an African form made in Peru. I just love that. I think we should break down our ideas as to how we compartmentalize culture and realize that we are living in humanity.
A group of Santos from the Philippines and stone objects collected on various trips fills a corner of the living room bookshelf.
Family photos, and objects from world travels are scattered among Tucker's book collection.
I don’t think too many people think that way.

It goes back to my life in the ashram.

Yes, obviously I want to get to that. Clearly you were raised in this really lovely environment that many of us aspire to live in … a beautiful house in Connecticut … is that right?

Yes, an ancestral home.

Which your sister has now taken over and refurbished, is that right?

Yes. My parents have built [another] home on the property.
Looking towards the rear of the living room.
A close up of the red ceramic 'Spider's Nest' stool made in Peru.
A mirror hanging above the sofa from Bright Chair was a present from friend and designer, Ernesto Concho.
So you grew up in what most people would think is a privileged background and you were shipped off to the requisite boarding school, then all that seems to have dropped by the wayside and you decided “I can’t deal with this. I have to figure out what all of this is all about.” Is that what happened?

Pretty much. That’s a good synopsis. I mean we talk about the 1% now, well when I was a child studying the Guinness Book of World Records, I realized that I am the 1% of the 1% … in the top house on top of the top hill with the view to die for … in a bucolic setting and trees gathered from around the world. And of course I was in line for the Vietnam War … I was really in search. We have all these ideas of what makes us different but that which makes us the same is so powerful.

It sounds like you wanted to drop out …

I wanted to get off the treadmill. I thought there has to be another way, many ways, not just one way. I felt that the only direction to go was within. It all begins within, not with attaining … having that Mercedes Benz or that gorgeous house. I felt having that as a foundation was better than going to Yale or to Harvard.
Peeking into the kitchen.
Tucker painted the kitchen cabinets in designs from Dagestan. The tea set was a gift from the royal court of Abu Dhabi.
So you went to college for a year and a half and then what happened?

I just started breaking down in my classes, honestly. I would cry. I said, I have been in this system for fifteen years and in my religious studies and humanities classes … the basic premise that this life is love, that there is a light within that resounds [was not there] and I was completely bonkers. I couldn’t take any more of the theory. I wanted experience. I wanted to know. I was unquenchable. So I went out on a search.

And you became a monk.

Yes. I renounced everything and took the guidance of a master.

And you moved to a monastery?

I moved to a monastic environment where I practiced meditation two hours a day and I served and I swore to speak truth.
Tucker's bedroom. A wall hanging from Sumatra hangs above the bed covered in a tapestry by the Ewe tribe in Togo. The velvet ikat pillows are from Madeline Weinrib.
Looking across the bed towards shelves filled with vintage fabrics and a photo of Tucker's master, Prem Rawat.
Tucker's collection of very dapper shoes.
It’s very rigorous—it’s probably harder than getting on the 7:42 train at Grand Central …

I’m not so sure. It was a great pleasure for me. I did it for ten years … and then I lost my voice and I started getting hot and cold fevers. It was like being in a coma.

You mean after ten years?

Yes. So it was like a reverse for me. I didn’t even think about leaving the ashram because I was so dedicated to it. I laid myself out on my dining table and went through a process for ten days.

I didn’t think they even had formal dining tables at ashrams!

Oh, I had set up natural foods co-ops … even in the ashram where there is money, okay I can make money! Let’s do this!

That was still in your system?

Very much so. It’s ingrained in my DNA. No problem. If we needed money … I could figure it out.
A desk and mirror out of solid reclaimed wood were made in the U.S. In the far corner hangs a silk robe from Uzbekistan.
Much of Tucker's clothing has been designed by Tucker and made out of hand woven natural fibers that he has found during his travels around the world.
I’ve never actually had a conversation with someone who has been in an ashram for ten years – how does the “before” and “after” Tucker differ?

It’s the knowledge that everything that we are looking for can be found within us. It’s simple.

But you went from that to making “things” that are not really from within …

I went through this huge quandary: how do you make this transition? I called my mother up and said I need a place where I can just deconstruct and kind of re-assemble myself. I  needed to go to a remote place.

But you were already in a remote place.

Well these ashrams were in the center of cities. I was five years in New Haven, next to Yale and the next one was in Miami, where I was encouraged to be entrepreneurial. So I started a restaurant and a natural food grocery store. I introduced organics in the 1970s.
Bedroom shelves are filled with vintage fabrics and a photo of Tucker's master Prem Rawat.
A view from the bedroom. French nuns wove the hemp and linen curtain.
The bedroom door is covered in a wedding carpet made out of river stick and goat skin from the nomadic Tuareg tribe of the Sahara.
Tucker's colorful clothing is neatly tucked into a cubby. A group of colorful ceramic plates hangs on a wall in the corner of Tucker's bedroom.
A toy Indian horse stands next to a Buddha from Burma. The small photo is a baby picture of Tucker's master Prem Rawat.
Hand woven baskets from the Philippines line a shelf above the bedroom window.
You mean you were supposed to start businesses in these ashrams?

It wasn’t explicit but individuals found their way … and everyone needs to eat! [Laughs] I was feeding people. I had a “beggar’s banquet” for $6 and you can get the “deluxe”, which included dessert for $9!

So how did you get from there to here?

I understood what people with money would be interested by and I also had compassion in my heart and a desire to honor people close to the earth. What greater privilege than to be able to find the diversity [of peoples] on our planet and go and work with them to understand that which makes them unique and to create that which celebrates them. In the United States, I feel we have a pretty limited view of what is beautiful.

You mean you don’t like plastic flip-flops?

[Laughs]  … er … It’s just that there’s so much talent out there!
The bath. A sculpture from a close friend stands atop the commode.
A vintage book cover fills a soap tray. A small bronze figure from Africa and a cotton and cloth doll stand inside a glass and toothbrush holder.
Are you still a religious person and if so, how does it play into your day-to-day existence?

Well, I wouldn’t call it a religion in that it is a practice. Religion is dogmatic and for me it’s about living experience, living people, not holding to pasts but living in the present. It’s living life. I’m also famous for throwing my parties.

I didn’t know that.

Yes! If you Google me, I’m either famous for my furniture or for my Halloween parties! [Laughs] … a monk that likes Halloween parties!