Friday, April 25, 2014

John Robshaw

By Sian Ballen & Lesley Hauge
Photographs by Jeff Hirsch

Although it says on textile designer John Robshaw’s website that he initially went to India to find natural indigo dye for his (rather good) paintings he told us that he originally went as a “sequin courier” for someone who wanted to get expensive sequined dresses through customs, presumably without paying any import duties. Students, which is what he was at the time, will do a lot of things for a free trip to somewhere exotic but these days India is kind of business, if not business only, for Robshaw whose hugely successful block printed textiles are sold at major department stores and other retail outlets all over the country.

Okay, I’m going to throw something at you that I found out when I was researching you ...

I’m ready!

Well, it was this: “You’ve been known to start a conversation drawing upon your knowledge of French birdcalls.” Er ... is that true?

Ah! A friend has a shop [gets up and takes down from a shelf a peculiar small, flaccid, leather bagpipe-type object] and she sold these. [The object, when manipulated, makes hooting noises]

So have you learned how to make French birdcalls yourself?

No, I can buy them. There’s this creepy French guy that makes these.
Open views toward City Hall can been seen from John's Lower East Side apartment.
In the front entryway a vintage wall textile from India hangs opposite a British campaign chest from Calcutta.
A peacock blue lamp from friend Christopher Spitzmiller is surrounded by art and objects collected during John's travels over the years. Hanging next to the lamp is a baby photo of John.
Do you just bring this birdcall pipe-thing out at random moments in order to start conversations?

It does help. You can just say to a lady, “I’ve got these French birdcalls, why don’t you come over?”

It sounds like a euphemism for something else.

It does sound a little naughty …

So let’s back to your design career. You went to Franklin & Marshall in Lancaster—and then what did you do?

And then I was a year in Rome studying printmaking, painting and writing about stuff. It is such a fun city and it was grimy back then—it’s still kind of grimy. I also studied at Pratt.
John worked with designer Sara Bengur, choosing a warm terra-cotta color to highlight his diverse collection of art and artifacts.
Tribal headdresses are arranged upon a half wall dividing the kitchen from the living room.
The living sofas are topped with a mix of pillows, including fabric from John's collection and ikat patterns from Bermingham & Co.
An inlaid bone side table and a German silver chair from India display books and family photos. The mango lamps are topped with shades out of Abaca.
Looking into a corner of the light filled living room. The curtain fabric is by John.
And you went to China too, didn’t you?

Yeah, that was later. At that time everyone was riding bicycles in Mao suits. It was like ’88 and ’89, coming right into Tiananmen Square but for me, you know, I was 21 and we rode bikes, traded on the black market in alleyways ... it was fun.  I studied Chinese and printmaking—I worked with a Communist propaganda artist who did these great posters using traditional Chinese printing.

They’re quite sought after now, aren’t they?

I know. I wish I’d had money then. They’re beautiful.

How easy was it to communicate with Chinese people at that time?

No one spoke English and sometimes they would slip you letters about the camps—most of the professors had been in “re-education” camps. So they were friendly but they would try to get these letters to you.
A large canvas out of ink and gesso painted by John during his art school days leans against a living room wall.
A burl wood mid-century console holds the requisite flat screen TV.
A round ottoman made out of vintage Indian fabric serves as the living room coffee table.
A gold headdress adds a bit of glitter to the living room console.
Looking into John's kitchen. The hand-carved wood cabinets were made in India and the overhead light fixture was designed by Harry Allen.
The wall between the old galley kitchen was removed, though the plumbing pipes stayed 'as is'.
A close up of the intricately carved kitchen cabinets. The tantric drawings are from northern Rajasthan.
John's home bar.
More tribal headdresses.
You seem to have never stopped traveling—where do you go now, and how often?

Usually I go away in spring and in fall and I go [each time] for about three weeks to India. In Jaipur I stay at the Diggi Palace, which is great. Almost ten years ago, when I started in India and it was cheap, I almost bought a little haveli with some friends. The problem is, if you’re not there, they make a brothel out of it or something.

What was your first trip to India like?

Well, I started going to India during art school as a courier—a sequin courier— because one of my teachers’ friends had a company that did [those  kind] of runway dresses. You bring the patterns over and I would stop in Paris and get the sequins from some surly French girl. Then I would go on to Bombay, drop the patterns off and a suitcase full of sequins and they would make these $10,000 runway dresses.
German silver chairs covered in John's Gent's Stripe clay fabric from India surround an octagonal inlaid dining table from Syria purchased from Wunderley Imports.
An oversized African statue from dealer David Spetka stands guard in the dining area.
Peeking into the dining area. John's ink and gesso painting dominates the far wall.
The bedroom hall is lined with old Tantric paintings from India.
A shell inlay mirror from Syria hangs above the master bath sink. A plant standing atop the shower windowsill is positioned for easy watering and light.
It sounds vaguely illicit.

I told my father and he did say to open the suitcase to make sure there weren’t any drugs inside it. But I mean you would be bringing back $50,000 worth of dresses—they didn’t stop American-looking students at customs—at least not back then. And if they did stop you, you could just tell them that you were a designer.

Or a drag queen.

Yes, you could also have said that.

How good are you at the actual hands-on techniques of printing?

I started block printing everything myself and I’m a messier printer—the professional guys are very precise—but I wanted it be messier.

How do you introduce that idea, the charm of imprecision, so to speak?

When I first started, I used older people because their hands were kind of shaky.
John In the study a desk and chair are by furniture designer Richard Wrightsman. The curtains are made out of John's fabric and the shades are known as "Indian chicks."
John's desktop.
Vintage wall hangings fill the study walls that have been painted in Benjamin Moore's Bachelor Blue.
A custom daybed and pillows are covered in John's fabric.Metal bookcases overflow with books on art, design and travel.
An array of pillows out of John's fabric fill the custom daybed.
Yes, I read that and I couldn’t decide if it was age-ist or not.

I guess it’s kind of both. And at first they were kind of like, “you’re a crazy foreigner,” but the Indians are so used to exporting and they’re kind of like, well, whatever this guy wants.

What’s important to know if you’re going to be going to other countries and you have design ideas that you need to communicate successfully?

You definitely need time to hang out and, be there. In the early stages, I would go to India for months and I would go to the workshop every day. With the first printer, I would get a tiny Maruti car—kind of the first economy cars in India. We would be sitting there, squashed up together—I would have to shift over each time he wanted to change gear—and we would go to the dyers, the fabric suppliers, the printers—I went everywhere with him.
Peeking out the study windows.
A bone inlaid corner chairs is topped with a round bolster out of John's fabric.
The study bookcases are overflowing with books and more books, and trinkets from travels including a cap from Ache Sumatra.
A basket from a trip to Zimbabwe and filled with carved dolls shares space with novels and other reading materials.
So not having the Western sense that time is always limited and things should happen fast is important, is it?

Yes, and India is a very friendly culture—you know, with agendas, but they do like relationships.

I was just over there and I found that they just want you to negotiate forever!  I ended up caving because I just wanted to get it over with. It was exhausting!

Yeah, it’s cultural. They grew up with it and they have more stamina.

What was the kind of breakthrough for you? What turned your interest in textiles and printmaking into a real business?

I think I moved out of my East Village apartment to a little studio office. I had one guy working with me and I was like, “Oh, I’ve got an office!” I had a little shipment come in—it was right after 9/11—and I had no business—everything had stopped but I remember people coming over to buy things. And Michael Smith used some of my textiles in the White House.
A boar painting from an old studio in Jaipur hangs above a German silver canopy bed designed by John. The headboard fabric and bed linens are also by John.
An inlaid chest of drawers was purchased in Udaipur.
A table lamp by Christopher Spitzmiller stands atop an inlaid Syrian bedside table from Wunderley Imports.
The walls of John's bedroom are filled with art and photographs, including a series of miniatures by artist Alexander Gorlizki.
Lilac orchids stand near an African fertility doll.
Is it true that Malia and Sasha Obama have your fabrics on their beds? What kind of fabrics are they.

Yes—Michael Smith used my fabrics in their bedrooms. They’re just pinks and lavenders, you know, girly colors.

What don’t you like about trade shows—I read that that is a part of the job you really dislike.

Somebody said about the last one we were at that it’s like being on an economy flight for five days. It’s just the air and they’re in ugly buildings. And you’re looking at women’s chests all day because that’s where they have their name tags.

Doesn’t sound like you object to that …

No, I don’t really.
Looking across John's canopy bed toward the Indian inlaid chest of drawers. The walls are painted in Benjamin Moore's Kensington Blue and New Hope Gray.
Hanging above a pair of campaign chests from Calcutta are primitive drawings from West Bengal.
Photographs of Egypt by Francis Firth hang in a corner of John's bedroom.
Carvings of heads from Sumatra stand atop a campaign chest from Calcutta.
John's well-traveled passport.
Ganesh, the elephant-headed god of wisdom and learning stands prominently atop of John's bureau. Nearby are his bronzed baby shoes.
A copy of John's grandfather's merchant marine certificate is displayed next to family photos.
Stuffed animals, are all made out of John's fabric.
You once said, “The enemy is the big white bed.” I have a big white bed and when I want to go to sleep, I don’t want to be spending time taking dozens of pillows off it.

You just push them all off on to floor. It’s the bedding though—all the layers—it’s like a collage or something.

You’ve done well but you don’t live like you’ve made a lot of money— um … I mean that in a nice way.

[laughs] I like to spend money on travel and I do have a little place in Sharon, Connecticut.

How do you have fun when you’re back in New York?

I eat a lot. But when I’m here, I don’t really want to eat Indian food.