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Fresh Prints of NYC

John Robshaw is now lending his stunning designs to furniture



Photos courtesy of John Robshaw

The enchanted life of John Robshaw is best summarized in the words lovingly scribbled on a postcard from him to his team in New York: “Dear Dears, Have been run over by boys racing donkeys. Fear it is an omen. Watching belly dancers with dinner. Think office should take it up as a hobby. Colleen and Axl will excel. — John.” 

It’s this insight, along with many others that light the pages of his 2012 book, John Robshaw Prints: Textiles, Block Printing, Global Inspiration and Interiors, that prove Robshaw has superbly mixed a highly uncommon life with a hugely successful business. Built on the centuries-long, scrupulous labors of Eastern block printing, Robshaw’s textiles bring bright hues from far-off cultures to Western homes, each print artfully candid and crisp. And despite his charmed upbringing, advanced educational pursuits and enviable travel logs, Robshaw is as gracious and down-to-earth as he is witty. We caught up with him in his New York City office. 

"My home is very much like a teahouse in Damascus." — John Robshaw

Tell us about your Greenwich Village apartment. How does it reflect who you are?

A lot of it comes from places I’ve been throughout the world. I have lamps from Syria, plates from Uzbekistan, tables from India and carpets from various places. I have a lot of artifacts of travel. There’s a lot of deep blues and dark woods—and birds. My girlfriend came with a bunch of live birds; they’re all over the place. [My home] is very much like a teahouse in Damascus; it’s very exotic. All the windows have Indian blinds that filter the light in a way that makes you feel like you’re not in the city. It’s a fun escape; you need it in New York.

How much time do you spend in the office? 

I go to the office after yoga but before squash. I’m there most days, having a normal schedule when I’m in town. I visit India in spring and fall, usually about three weeks each trip. That’s generally enough time to get me going, first to see production, visit workshops and look around.


Robshaw's current inspiration board

Could you describe your current inspiration board?

My inspiration boards are made up from places I visit. When I go to India, going from town to town  or villages, I’ll go to the local markets, the temples, to wherever fabric weaving is happening in that area, and build a story from it. I’ll gather pictures and colors and fabrics. It’s a process, or an outline, that gets my design team moving and focused. My last board is made up from inspiration from  the flower markets in Mysore. 


Duralee ottoman covered in a Robshaw design

You’re a well-traveled guy who grew up in Buffalo. Is there anything about you that reflects your roots? 

Buffalo was a big city at the turn of the [20th] century, and where I grew up in downtown, there’s a lot of old mansions. There’s five Frank Lloyd Wright houses around, so there’s an old layer of culture. I went to a little private school that was a converted mansion. There’s a great contemporary art museum and history museum, so the city has a rich sense of history and culture to it that I’ve always appreciated. Also, there’s a Midwestern mentality there; people work really hard, and there’s a sense of humility in that strong ethic. When I was growing up, the city was trashed because of the huge snowstorms. You couldn’t have a big ego coming out of Buffalo because everyone made fun of you. 

 
Two samples of Robshaw's fabric designs

When was your first trip to India, and how did that evolve into a design business?

My first trip was in my mid-20s—I was at Pratt [Institute in New York] working on an MFA. One of my teachers was a partner in a sequined-dress-making company. He gave me a gig where I would take dress patterns from New York, stop in Paris to pick up sequins, then deliver it all to Bombay. I’d stay there for a week while craftsmen turned my deliveries into couture dresses. 

As far as it all evolving into a design business, I studied print-making in Italy in college, then in China after, so I knew a bit about block-printing in India. When initially going to India, my intention was to do research and print paintings—something focused on the art world. But then I got there and started making textiles. On my second or third trip, I found a workshop and started printing fabrics and bringing them back to New York. I kept them in my studio, strewn out all over the floor because I didn’t know what to do with them. Decorators would come to buy paintings and notice the fabrics. They’d place orders for upholstery and curtains. Then the lightbulb went off, and I said to myself, “Oh! There’s a nice little business going on here.” It was all a bit random. 

"Travel is almost like a hip opener in yoga. It opens up your thought, your philosophy, your design ideas and your humanity. — John Robshaw

How have the places you’ve traveled and the people you’ve met influenced you as a person?

Coming from Buffalo, travel is almost like a hip opener in yoga. It opens up your thought, your philosophy, your design ideas and your humanity. I think that’s the greatest thing about getting out of the U.S. and going to third-world countries: traveling in mixed environments where you meet incredible people and you learn so much from them. It’s a great reminder of how fortunate we are in so many ways. And for me, coming from a design perspective, it’s refreshing to get into different design cultures and the histories behind them.

 


Robshaw's fabrics dance well together and add a prodigious pop when they're alone.

With all of the brilliant prints offered in your collection, can  you give us advice for mixing and matching? 

I’m sort of a mix of all crazy colors, so I’m not color blocking so much. I would say just go with whatever works for you. Colors are so personal and individual, [influenced by] whatever memories you have—say, if you spend a lot of time in Africa, you’re going to choose different colors than someone who spends a lot of time in France. It’s all about your journey and experiences that shape your taste. Don’t take it too seriously.


A recent pillow design for Anthropologie

How did you decide to pursue other segments, such as furniture? 

It’s actually really easy to have furniture like cabinets, day beds and tables designed and made in India. I used to design off-the-cuff pieces for my showroom and apartment in New York and for my home in Connecticut, so I was making stuff all the time. Plus, when traveling, I used to stay in really run-down palaces that had quirky Napoleonic/Colonial, weird hybrids that were made as sort of a historical mishmash. 

Here in the U.S., I developed a fabric line for Duralee. They have a furniture factory and came to me with an opportunity around their first licensed furniture line. They felt I’d have a more exotic collection in mind than what they were already doing. It was really fun to develop; it took about two years to get it all together. It was great to work with different media; you learn a lot.

Since you’re a global design observer, please tell us about your favorite shop/market.

There’s a really great market in a town called Karaikudi, in the south of India. The town was once occupied by bankers from the British Empire who traveled all over, bringing back with them [goods] from places like Burma and Europe, basically wherever the empire settled. They built huge, beautiful mansions that, over time, were deserted, leaving behind glassware and enamelware that can be found in antiques shops. You can find some amazing stuff. 


The man himself (with hankie) in his teahouse-inspired home

What’s your must-have token when you’re on the road?

As I’m always looking at textiles when I travel, I’m drawn to the handwoven handkerchiefs that are everywhere. Every town in India has its own hand-mill emporium, making shirts and other things, but I’m always drawn to the hankies—I have a ton of them. 

Do you see yourself ever settling in India, or will New York always be home?

I really love the south of India. I’ve worked mostly in the north, but over the past couple of years, I’ve been spending more time in the south. The south is a bit older, slower and more traditional. I wouldn’t mind being there for six months a year in an ashram-type situation, spending the other six months in New York.

Describe your personal style. Do you wear a lot of pattern? 

Yes! We always have leftover sheeting in India, so every season I have shirts made from the leftover sheets. I’ll also make blazers from our fabric-line linen because it’s a perfect weight for them. I also love the safari/military look, English tailored—sort of a “lost on the grand tour” look. Also, I don’t work in finance, so I can wear whatever I want to work. 

What discovery in your career has surprised you the most? 

The biggest surprise is that it all worked out—that I could move around and travel and still have a job. Coming from the art world, when you enter the fringes of society that way, living sort of on the edge of it all, it’s interesting to become someone successful. My dad is a lawyer, so when I was initially traveling and pursuing this path, he’d say, “You’re crazy. You’re never coming back from India.” But then all of a sudden, when my business became real, he was like, “Oh! That was a great idea.” I’m in The Wall Street Journal now, so it’s funny how it all worked out.

MORE at: johnrobshaw.com

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