In the mid ’90s, John Robshaw was just another artist trying to make it in New York City as a painter. To pay the bills, along with student loans, Robshaw did a myriad of jobs. He was an assistant to artist Julian Schnabel, an art handler a truck driver for Gagosian Gallery, a tugboat deckhand, and a sequin courier to India. It was the latter job that led him to learn the art of textile design and block printing in India.
Robshaw returned to New York with stacks of fabrics he created, storing them on the floor in the corner of a group gallery space where his paintings were display. However, what caught the eye of designers and buyers weren’t John’s paintings, but his eye-catching, vibrant, and globally-inspired textiles.
Robshaw happily left the art world behind to build a thriving furniture and textile business with current revenues of over ten million dollars annually. He is still an artist and the visionary behind every design working closely with international artisans, but now Robshaw has a more lucrative medium than his paintings. Robshaw shares his career journey and how he has scaled his business, partnered with brands like UNIQLO, Lucky Jeans, Swell, all while never needing outside investor capitol.
Sara Bliss: Your textiles are inspired by India and Southeast Asia. When did you start traveling?
John Robshaw: While I was in college at Franklin & Marshall, I went to Italy to learn printmaking and painting. My senior year, I received a grant to go to China to study Chinese block printing. Later I went to Pratt for my MFA in painting and one of my teacher’s friends had this sequin company that did runway dresses for the fashion companies. They were looking for students to bring sequins and dress patterns to Bombay. That led to traveling throughout India. After I graduated from Pratt I went to Ahmedabad where I took classes at the National Institute of Design, considered the best school for textiles. I learned from and worked with artisans who were masters in block printing.
Bliss: How did you pivot from painting to textiles?
Robshaw: I had a little studio down on Broome Street with some other artists where I was selling paintings to decorators for showhouses or spec houses. I had stacks of my fabrics that I made in India on the floor. A few of the decorators noticed them and asked if they could buy them for upholstery. That was the beginning.
Bliss: So, your move into textiles was an accidental one?
Robshaw: A complete accident! I had another friend that worked with Calvin Klein. He saw the prints suggested I sell them to the brand. I had a meeting with an assistant, and slowly more senior people came out until finally the senior director looked at everything, and said, “I’ll take all of it.” That got me rolling into this whole world of textiles. The art world is so weird and wacky that it pushed me off from the art stuff to the textile world.
Bliss: Did you see textiles as just another form of art?
Robshaw: Yes, I did, even though there was this big snobbery between design and art at that time. However, fabric had all these qualities that art didn’t have. It had all this context where the art world you had to sort of up make up your own context and backstory. Textiles had thousands of years of history, symbolism of the designs, and stories about culture and artisans.
Bliss: What about financially? How did you start making money from your textile designs?
Robshaw: When I realized fashion houses had an enormous appetite for prints the light bulb went off. That first time I went to Calvin Klein, they paid $500 a print. I sold 20 prints and made $5,000. That’s much better than driving a truck or working on a tugboat, or all the odd jobs I did while I struggled to sell art and get paid. Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Polo and everybody bought them and I was able to live off just selling individual prints for that year.
Bliss: How did you make the shift to the design world?
Robshaw: The fashion world is a little dodgy. Some of the brands would keep the prints for a week or two and copy them. However, a few decorators and their clients started buying my work too. They were a lot more fun to collaborate with and they actually paid me.
Bliss: How did you scale into a business?
Robshaw: I design everything thanks to my art background. I figured out the sourcing and production in India. The next step was where do I sell? That took a little while. I had no money, so there was no financing. It was all bootstrapping. Very early on, I was featured in House Beautiful and a decorator brought a client who ordered $40,000 of fabric on the spot. I was able to pay off my student loans. Her husband was a big finance investor and he came to meet me and asked if I wanted financing or had a business plan. I was like ‘What is a business plan?’ I think he sort of rolled his eyes. It was a good thing that I didn’t take some money early on, I could have easily signed a bad deal giving him half the company.
Bliss: Did you ever have outside investors?
Robshaw: No. I just started slowly. I had a showroom. I went to trade shows. I got enough money together to hire somebody to help. It was organic, which is both a good and a bad way to do it because you learn slowly, but make smaller mistakes than if I had a lot of initial investor money. I’d also come from the art world, which is sort of a nasty, tough environment. Dealing with art dealers and people not paying you, that’s not a bad introduction. It toughens you up for other businesses. So between all that I figured out enough to get rolling in my business.
Bliss:How long did it take be profitable?
Robshaw: I started to make a little bit of money right away from decorators who paid decent money. One advantage was that I had really low overhead. My Lower East Side studio was cheap and my showroom was on 29th, one of the cheapest streets in the city at that time. The dot com bubble burst in 1999 and I remember looking at office space after people basically left in the middle of the night.
Bliss: How did your brand evolve beyond just textiles?
Robs haw: I started with fabrics by yard then moved into pillows, quilts, and into bedding and upholstered furniture. I have been roaming around a lifestyle world since then as we are also a print company. I have done print collections for UNIQLO, Lucky Jeans, and Swell bottles. We also license fabrics and furniture with brands like Duralee and Robert Allen. We collaborate with a lot of brands–it is all so much fun.