AT Offline: John Robshaw

AT Offline: John Robshaw

Aaron Able
Mar 5, 2010

January Guest: John Robshaw
AT Offline: The NY Design Meetup
Attendance: 142

January's Meetup was with designer John Robshaw of John Robshaw Textiles. John talked about his background and how he found inspiration in ancient patterning and dyeing techniques of India…

MGR: I first became acquainted with John Robshaw Textiles when I received a tiny catalog from an office mate who had attended several of the John Robshaw sample sales. I found the patterns and textiles to be beautiful. After talking to John I know that he studied painting at Pratt Institute where he received an MFA. He traveled to India for printmaking and since 2001 has run a textile company that has grown to include an online store and flagship store at ABC Carpet & Home. John Robshaw Textiles products are currently in more than 400 stores around the country. Tell us how you got started.

JR:
• As an MFA grad, worked as an assistant to painters for a while.
• Worked in galleries as well.
• Started making paintings with textiles — started exploring the medium in this way.
• I seemed to be going in the direction of working with textiles without knowing it.
• Pratt Professor had a sequins business, where many of his clients were fashion designers.
• Hired students to be "sequins mules" — travel to Bombay with sequins, stay 2 weeks, and then return to the US with designer dresses in suitcases.
• Had a chance to wander around Bombay and start learning more about the artisans there.
• Interested in Chinese block printer and actually found some block printers in Bombay.
• Learned that artisans can be found everywhere in India.
• Low cost to hire and can order small quantities (unlike China or US).
• Returned to US with suitcase of fabrics he had made.
• Sold paintings to decorators, who'd see his fabrics in his studio and ask to buy them.

MGR: So you started to get an audience for your fabrics. How did it then evolve from there?

JR:
• In small villages, saw them making pillows, quilts, etc.
• Started buying them, and then started producing more of his own fabrics.

MGR: So how long did the whole cycle take, from first finding artisans to creating your own textiles?

JR:
• Spent almost 2 years traveling in India, Cambodia, and Laos.
• Asia was booming at the time (late 90's, when the dot-com crash was occurring in US).

MGR: There have been other designers who have found success in the east — Michael Aram in Delhi, for example. Can you tell us more about the draw to the east?

JR:
• Many people who studied design during those years were drawn to the east, and still are.
• Some went for research, and stayed.
• So much product being made there.
• Some set up export businesses.

MGR: So in the article House Beautiful wrote on your work, they quoted you as saying "the enemy is the white bed." It's interesting because it seems like there is a move again away from the clean Modern aesthetic.

JR:
• When I first started, Calvin Klein's clean, simple bedding was ruling the market.
• People were not seeing block prints as a popular style.
• Messy, Uneven, Not-White
• Noisy, Indian-Inspired Prints
• At first, just did what he liked, wasn't sure what others would like.
• With a young office team of those in their 20's and 30's, it's a good testing point to see how they react to the designs.

MGR: How have your patterns changed over time?

JR:
• Try to mix up scale and colors.
• Moved to a happier style — realize women (our main customer) want that.
• Started with vegetable dyes, which are a lot darker and somber.

MGR: So, could hotel chic be dead?

JR:
• Patterns are being embraced a bit more.
• "Eclectic" is more accepted.

MGR: It seems like one good side effect of the recession is that people want authenticity in their products — handmade is more embraced.

JR:
• Yes, it is, but still, sometimes it must be explained to designers and consumers.
• There are imperfections in our textiles due to the handmade nature of them, and people need to be educated on this.
• Office staff spends a lot of time educating designers who visit the office.

MGR: Speaking of, I noticed your shirt is lighter on one side than the other. Is it handmade?

JR:
• Yes, it is made of leftover sheeting fabric!
• Find that the eye can dance more easily over changing patterns, colors, and tones.

MGR: Have you found that you are good at running a business? Have you considered taking on a partner?

JR:
• I have no business training.
• Working in India, I was trained in a very old culture. They beat me down and I learned a lot because of that culture.
• Going back to India for several months every year helps with this.
• You make mistakes along the way, and you learn.
• I haven't found a business partner — very hard to find, but would recommend it if lucky enough to find one.

MGR: So, did you find that orders just grew over time? Did you just work with your partners in India as the orders grew?

JR:
• The line grew slowly.
• Worked with those in India as orders started to grow.
• Had to help with financing, and got credit fairly easily, as it wasn't a fast growing product.
• It would probably be harder to get financing now, so grew at a good pace and time in the industry.

MGR: Any bad moments that you would like to share?

JR:
• So many! You learn a lot as you go along.
• Had several instances of clients going into bankruptcy — shipping to retailers who go out of business and such.
• Luckily, my father is a lawyer so that helped in several sticky situations (he has the same name, too, so
made clients confused — which was not a bad thing!).

MGR:: One great thing about textiles is that they don't break when you ship them, it's an easy product in that regard. Do you consider that a big plus in entering the textiles market?

JR:
• Yes. Tried furniture and it's a lot more difficult.
• Textiles can be folded small, and flat, so great for shipping.
• Product itself allows for a lot of flexibility and change, unlike furniture (much longer and expensive process).

MGR: So what are you making now?

JR:
• Quilts / Blankets / Sheets / Dhurries / Decorative Pillows.
• Dog Beds — new entry. Encouraged by a friend who said there is a market for them!
• Gifts — new entry.
• Fabrics by the yard — separate business; at D&D and other showrooms.
• Furniture — mostly in the JR showroom; so complicated (as discussed earlier) that it's not an area we want to fully explore.

MGR: Do you know furniture makers in India?

JR:
• There are many furniture artisans in India.
• Overall, it's easy to expand the line, as there are so many types of artisans in India. But we try to keep line limited and focused.

MGR: You seem very focused on your product. Some people are very intimidated by making a bed.

JR:
• We try not to help others with making a bed. It's a very individual process.
• Many on the office staff enjoy helping others with this process.
• It's a lot of trial-and-error; experimenting is good.
• You really can't make a mistake when making a bed.
• It can be very fun finding colors that relate well to each other (lavender goes well with many colors, for example).

MGR: Your online store has a lot of product.

JR:
• Yes, there's a lot of stuff in there. Not sure why it's so complicated.
• It can go on and on when it comes to bedding. People are very happy to make multiple purchases when it comes to our product, which is a good thing.

MGR: Do you have people come to the office to buy?

JR:
• Yes, especially before we had an area in ABC Carpet where consumers could buy our product.
• People would just show up at the office to see our stuff.
• We have a lot of vintage textiles in the office, too, which people love.
• It's a process to "build a bed", and people can spend hours talking about it — just ask our staff.

AUDIENCE Q&A

Q: Have you found communication in India to be difficult? Trying to translate your design needs for the artisans?
JR: Yes, in particular since communication and changes must be communicated via phone and email over several time zones, etc. After working with the same people for a while, they can now start to anticipate requests and needs, which is making it easier for when I'm not in India.

Q: What are some of your lessons learned in running a business? And in production?
JR: You make a lot of mistakes, that is just part of the process. It is best to stay calm during the production process, which is hard for Americans. I've Learned that Indians are much more relaxed. When they're in-person, things go wrong constantly throughout the day but they are very relaxed about it. In a business sense, I've learned a lot about handling the American consumer — they are very sophisticated, and I must live up to that.

Q: What kind of pigment do you use now? And what is your screen printing process?
JR: Discharge (extract) print & set with steam bath, which is the traditional way of printing. It's a tricky process, but makes for a much longer-lasting product. At one point in process, we "cinnamon roll" fabric to set it. Not many people do this — it's tricky and time-consuming.

Q: What do you feel are your ethical responsibilities to the business owners in India?
JR: Now, we are very close to factory owners. It helps us to feel tied to both owner and employee welfare — we're helping each other, so it is a mutual responsibility to one another.

MGR: It feels like many of the designers we've interviewed have been successful because of long-standing relationships.
JR: Yes, there is a community aspect to it — a sense of "shared ownership". We don't work through a 3rd party, like "big box" stores. Thus, the product, and those that create
it, are closer to us, and vice versa. We don't shop around for the best prices. We have culled the relationships over many years of shared work experiences.

Q: How did you originally find the artisans you work with?
JR: Big trade shows in Delhi and elsewhere — trade shows are the way to go. Good way to meet people and it's how many people find buyers.

Q: Have you looked to South Indian traditions at all for inspiration?
JR: The wovens in South India are amazing, but we do more block printing, which is the specialty in Northern India.

Q: Would you say your inspiration comes more from your travels, or from your local environment?
JR: Travels, definitely. You can't miss it in our patterns and colors.

Q: Do you miss the art world at all?
JR: Good question. I went to Miami Basel and thought that it was so nice that these people can do one-off pieces that they spend so much time on! It's a very tough world, though, so I don't miss that. The textile world is a lot easier — it flows quickly, great consumer base, designs keep rolling, and can sell much easier.

MGR: So perhaps your business sense is stronger than you thought?
JR: Yes! There is a lot more freedom in the textile business, and a lot more directions to go.

MGR: So in closing, what's next?
JR: I'm trying to keep it engaging and exciting. We're experimenting with some new products:
• Stationery — exploring handmade Indian papers.
• Bags — not interested, although staff is pushing. Tough business, though.
• Rugs & tabletop — still exploring.

Special thanks to Kayne Elisabeth Rourke for transcribing our Meetup!

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