Traveling to the Source of Artistic Inspiration
Four globe-trotting American designers tell how they team up with indigenous artisans
"I've been in business since 1993," says the phenomenally successful New York ceramist Jonathan Adler. "I used to make my pots myself until I got involved with Aid to Artisans, a nonprofit that hooks up American artists with craftspeople in developing countries. Now I go to Peru three or four times a year. I rent a beach house near my workshop in Los Pulpos, twenty miles south of Lima. While the morning's pots are drying, we eat lunch–an incredible vegetable quiche or sole ceviche–on the beach. I've always been influenced by Scandinavian design, but now my style is more Marimekko meets Machu Picchu. I buy 1960's and 70's Latin American decorating books from Librarie Epoca, a shop in Lima; as they say, originality depends on the obscurity of your sources. I'm also so inspired by Lima's brutalist architecture from that period–like the Museo Nacional. And I love the elaborately decorated buses in Lima–though I wouldn't recommend riding in them."
A monk turned devoted furniture designer, Tucker Robbins makes pilgrimages along the equatorial belt to gather wood and collaborate with carvers. Check out his anthropomorphic chairs at Ian Schrager's new London hotel, the Sanderson
"In many Philippine villages, electricity arrived only within the last ten years," says New York furniture designer Tucker Robbins. "People are now building new houses, so I buy their old ones and use the floorboards and paneling to make my tables and chairs. Until the 1950's, Filipinos built houses out of precious woods. Much of what I work with is actually hundreds of years old and is hand-cut, which gives the boards a beautiful texture. I make many of my pieces in collaboration with artisans from mountain tribes, such as the Igorot. We carved chairs with arms and backs in the form of their rice god. When I'm making furniture in villages, I usually stay in huts as a guest, but in Manila I get a room at the Manila Hotel, which has Stanford White–style proportions. I also like the Mapiyaaw Sagada Pensione, a $20-a-night hilltop chalet in the Central Cordillera mountain region of northern Luzon. The place to shop in Luzon is along the San Marcos Highway, between San Fernando and Baguio, where Ifugao craftsmen sell furniture carved out of rosewood and acacia tree roots. The Maharlika Livelihood Center, on Magsaysay Avenue in Baguio, is another great stop for well-priced carvings, art, and antiques."
One of Ralph Lauren's and Calvin Klein's secret sources for fabrics, John Robshaw has his textiles produced by age-old methods – ikat weaving in Bangkok, batik in Java, wood-block printing in Jaipur. Now debuting: Swami, his line of batik surf wear
"By producing my textiles abroad, I get to become a minor character in the lives of the people I work with," says fabric designer John Robshaw. "I go to their weddings, celebrate their festivals, eat in their houses, and inspect the new washing machine they bought after I placed a large order. In Jaipur, India, I stay in the Hotel Diggi Palace, which is a sort of designer's ghetto where foreign artists hang out. I have breakfast every day on a terrace overlooking the garden courtyard, filled with peacocks, monkeys, and birds stopping on their migration to Siberia. You pay as little as two dollars a night for one of the spartan stone rooms, which have marble floors, ceiling fans, and lots of windows and balconies–very Moghul-modern. I love Indian snack food. The best lassi [a cold yogurt drink] I ever had is at one particular stand in Jaipur that sells it in clay cups. When you're finished, you just throw the cup down in the street, and it crumbles and then dissolves in the rain–insta-recycling. I always travel with a snorkel and mask, my fifteen-year-old Nikon, and very little clothing–I make myself new shirts and pants along the way."
Born in Casablanca and raised in France and Morocco, Nadia Nassif recently opened Thé À la Menthe, a New York shop filled with her own made-in-Morocco designs – embroidered velvet slippers, tiled tables, and armchairs woven out of palm straw
"Tradition and modernity mix well in Morocco, because the skills of the craftsmen are incredibly refined," says Nadia Nassif, a designer of home furnishings and accessories. "Workshops in Essaouira make my wooden frames and bowls; my ceramic tiles and clay pots are produced in Salé. On pots and lamps, I often use a finish of tadelakt–a mix of Marseilles soap, crushed slate, and egg whites, which is traditionally applied to the walls of Moroccan houses. I buy kilims from Berbers along the road in the Atlas Mountains; in Marrakesh, prices are at least twice as high. Then I use the rugs to cover furniture, like my cube-shaped poufs. In Marrakesh I stay at La Maison Arabe, but I also recommend Dar al Assad, a four-room, $75-a-night bed-and-breakfast in the medina. It's owned by two Frenchmen who transformed an old palace. Its terrace overlooks a central courtyard with a fountain and beautiful cacti."
Designers Buyer's Guide
JONATHAN ADLER: Ceramics available at Jonathan Adler, New York City (212/941-8950) and East Hampton, New York (631/329-6499); Barneys New York (212/826-8900); Henri Bendel (212/247-1100); and www.eluxury.com.
TUCKER ROBBINS: Furniture available at Tucker Robbins, New York City (212/366-4427); Casella Interiors, Winnetka, Ill. (847/446-9388); and Elements, Chicago (312/642-6574).
JOHN ROBSHAW: Textiles available to the trade through Kevin Jacobs Studio (212/593-3353) and Charles Jacobsen (310/652-1188).
NADIA NASSIF: Furniture, accessories, and slippers available by appointment only at Thé À la Menthe, New York City (212/675-4651); and Felissimo, New York City (212/247-5656).