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Designer's Q&A: John Robshaw on "The power of pattern and color!"

Designer John Robshaw's fabric designs and home collections have been described as exotic and romantic, but he'll tell you that his world is all about eclectic comfort.

Designer John Robshaw

Designer John Robshaw creates amazing textiles, including napkins and tablecloths, shower curtains, sheets, shams, quilts, duvet covers, baby bedding and now even Christmas stockings and Christmas tree skirts. Every yard of fabric is blocked and printed by hand in Jaipur, India. But the handcrafted nature of his work recently got him in trouble with his mom.

"My mother had a gold bedcover we made and the gold was patchy in some places. She called and yelled at me on the phone. I told her to let it sit there for a while and get used to it and see what your friends think." That’s the nature of handcrafted textiles; the printer who was stamping the block prints may have taken a break and gone to lunch, and resumed his stamping slightly off-line. "You can see mistakes, see that something’s not quite even," Robshaw says. "It’s what makes it unique, like a piece of art."

Robshaw, a former painter, spends two to three months a year traveling the world for design inspiration. He treasures the unique, the quirky, the slightly off-kilter. In Asia he prefers to stay in "funny old hotels and beat-up palaces." His New York apartment reflects both his work ("it’s kind of a lab, like my showroom, with furniture pieces we’re working on and old textiles") and his travels (the windows are covered with rush shades from India that diffuse the light). "There’s lots of color, lots of blue and dark wood floors and dark wood furniture, with wall hangings and paintings and carpets and too many textiles, for sure."

Here, five things the textile designer has learned about design that you can apply to your own home:

  1. Be inspired, not literal. "Say you go on a trip to Mexico City. Instead of buying lots of mediocre souvenirs, take a color palette away and re-create that in a room at home," Robshaw says. For example, if you visit the National Museum of Anthropology in Chapultepec and fall in love with the turquoise, green and gold of the Aztec headdresses, figure out how to use those colors at home in your living room or bedroom. "It’s better than bringing back tchotkes that don’t really fit in your house."

  2. Embrace imperfection. Many products are mass-produced now because it’s cheaper. "People notice when you have something unique, something that’s different, in your home," Robshaw says. The imperfections that come with hand-produced products – like the patchy gold stamping on Robshaw’s mother’s duvet – are part of what makes them special. Stripes on Robshaw’s fabrics are often slightly off-line, with an occasional jagged edge, florals stamped with several colors may not line up exactly right; it’s all part of the fun.

  3. Layer. Different colors, different cultural influences, different patterns; they can all work together if you layer them right. Bedding is a great place to experiment, Robshaw says, because it offers so many planes (the side view, the top view) and a huge surface, so it has a big impact in the room. Get a lot of stuff together so you have plenty to work with, the designer suggests – sheets, quilt, throw, shams and duvet – then edit, adding new things, taking away old. "I love to make all the prints and designs then see what people do with it," Robshaw says. Buyers, decorators and customers often mix Robshaw’s textiles up in "combinations I would never think of," he says. "It’s like fashion, some people can wear some crazy vintage piece and some new thing and pull it off so that it works."

  4. Be whimsical. Robshaw’s new collection includes "crazy hand-painted birds on linen" and "crazy woven Bolivian tribal pillows." His baby bedding line includes bright green parrots with red beaks dancing across a cream background; another line, "Pichhwai," inspired by intricate Indian paintings of Lord Krishna, features pink trees and blue-domed palaces.

  5. Make small mistakes. Many large home furnishings retailers feature similar color palettes (beige, black, burgundy), textiles and shapes. Big retailers can’t "go out on skinny branches" with offbeat colors or patterns, Robshaw says, because they have to order 10,000 units and are stuck if they don’t sell. "We can do a crazy design because we only make a hundred." Similarly, you may not want to go out on a limb by purchasing a new sofa in shades of hot pink and Kelly green, but you could buy a duvet cover or quilt in those colors and see how you like living with them.

Kathy McCleary is a frequent contributor to She lives and writes in Falls Church, Virginia. Read more of her articles here.

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