Textile designer John Robshaw is a wanderer, who spends months at a time working with artisans in Asia and India to create his widely anticipated fabrics. In between trips, he shared with us the inspiration behind his latest collection, and what’s next on his
itinerary. For many people, travel helps them find something missing in their daily nine-to-five jobs. For textile master John Robshaw, his extensive and extended journeys through Asia and India aren’t an escape from work, but a critical part of his process. He makes lengthy trips for his craft, block printing in China, vegetable dying ikat in Thailand and regularly scouting new artisans to work with. The Pratt-educated designer also takes his fine arts background and applies it to the prolific collections that make up his fabric empire. Along the way, he’s become well-known for his beautiful creations, which are hand-made and richly-dyed or printed in workshops throughout the world.
Robshaw’s vibrant fabrics and homewares have been featured in Vogue and Elle Décor, not to mention the Obama White House bedrooms. He’s forged buzzworthy creative partnerships, with high-end brands like Mondelliani, the Italian sunglass manufacturer; Tocca, the candle maker; and Cisco Brothers, the New York City-based sustainable furniture firm. We recently sat down with Robshaw to find out about his colorful new collection, his unrelenting commitment to supporting local craftspeople and how he’s preserving traditional techniques.
Serendipity: When was the moment you knew that fabric would be your life’s work?
John Robshaw: While in my twenties, I was in India, sweating under an awning in a small town, hand printing fabrics and spreading them on the ground to dry as goats walked on top of them. I knew I had found what I was looking for. After graduating from Pratt, I journeyed to India to find natural indigo dye for my paintings. Instead, I fell in love with the local artisans’ fabric-making traditions.
Serendipity: Why does fabric design continue to capture your attention?
JR: Hand-made fabrics from around the world always have a story. Woodblocks are hand-carved by fellows whose grandfathers were block carvers. The block printers come from the same villages, so there is a history in the craft. Then you move on to the cultural use of the textiles in ceremonies and weddings and the story never ends. Not to mention there’s a soul that lives in hand-printed textiles where the hand of the artisan can be seen.
Serendipity: Did you see this level of success ahead of you when you were
in art school?
JR: When I started making fabrics, it was all very abstract. I was in art school making tons of paintings and prints, and it was all about making, living and seeing. For better or worse, I didn’t have a clear plan in place.
Serendipity: What’s inspiring you right now?
JR: I always find inspiration, or rather enlightenment, when I am traveling, as I am usually on the hunt for textiles. This season it was in Ladakh, the remote eastern corner of India. The hills around town are filled with 15th-century monasteries; multicolored brocades cascade down temple walls next to soot-covered murals of demons and gods tended by monks in saffron robes.
Serendipity: How did this translate into your new spring collection?
JR: Our spring line is a mad dash of color. At the moment, I am in intrigued by the Mahzar bed collection—it’s an explosion of pink and coral. I like to toss a group of rag rug pillows on top to capture a faded hippy vibe.
Serendipity: Your work has a way of transporting us to another time and place. What’s your most memorable travel experience?
JR: In Burma, ages ago, I went to a cocktail party at the U.S. embassy, and I met [Burmese politician] Aung San Suu Kyi while she was still under house arrest. Somehow we started talking, and we had a detailed conversation about textiles, as her former husband had written a book on them.
Serendipity: Where should someone who has never been to India go first?
JR: I always tell people on the first trip to India they should hit Rajasthan’s “golden triangle.” Then Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Jodhpur and maybe Jaisalmer, if they have time. Stay at all the palace hotels and wander around the old red sandstone forts. There is a lovely set of guidebooks called Love Delhi, Love Jaipur, etc. If you shop, seriously beware that the fellows are sharks and bargain until you are embarrassed—it won’t even make the shopkeeper blush.
Serendipity: What surprises first-time visitors about India?
JR: I think what surprises people is how easy it is to get around with a good car and driver. A day trip only costs around $50. Also, India offers a lot of customer service at every turn and price point. Everyone in the towns speaks English, so you can have some really snappy conversations and get a feel for the locals, which is difficult in parts of the world with language barriers.
Serendipity: During your career, you’ve worked with Aid to Artisans (ATA). Why?
JR: Aid to Artisans is an incredible organization created to help craft makers around the world. When I was just starting out, they called from ATA asking if I would mind hopping on a plane next week to do a review of crafts groups in Zimbabwe… how could you say no? These surveys are amazing overviews of makers in different parts of the world and their struggle to create viable businesses and get their products to market.
Serendipity: You recently teamed up with Back to the Loom, too. What appealed to you about that project?
JR: Back to the Loom is [fashion designer] Len Cabili’s project, and she roped me in when she showed me a roll of incredibly detailed ikat abaca. She has found hundreds of weavers on remote islands and started a company to sell the designs that incorporate their skills into modern garments. I went to visit one of her groups on the island of Mindanao and realized what amazing work she is doing with these ladies. I helped build one of the weaving centers so the women can stay on the island and make amazing textiles.
Serendipity: Which have been your favorite collaborations?
JR: Recently, I made a printed line of sunglasses with a charming fellow from Rome. The company is Mondelliani, and I hung out with him at his favorite wine bars in Rome. Dana Brandwein Oates, the founder of DBO Home, is a pal from Sharon, CT, who makes fine porcelain. We did a collaboration printing my old blocks on her delicate plates. It has been a blast and now I’ve filled my house with block-printed porcelain!
Serendipity: You actually have a home in Sharon. What do you enjoy about that area?
JR: Sharon is an undiscovered gem. I have an old farmhouse and a barn I am using to make prints and paintings. There is a great community of designers to have dinner with, and I love the rolling hills just two hours from New York City. One of my favorite spots for swimming is Mudge Pond, because it feels like you are back in the ’50s.
Serendipity: What is one textile frontier you haven’t yet conquered but want to?
JR: That’s a tough one! I think I have dabbled in most fabrics, but if I could devote more time to truly hand-made artisan groups making small batches of fabrics—that would make me happy.
This Thursday, April 14th, join us as John Robshaw takes over Serendipity‘s Instagram account. He’ll give us exclusive access into his world as he shares his current inspirations while taking you on a behind-the-scenes tour of the vibrant world of textile design. Join us right here on Instagram!