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 …
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.