Thai Dye with John Robshaw
How Thailand inspired the Prince of Patterns to build a textile empire—and keeps luring him back.
If you’re entranced by the idea of transforming your living room with exotic colors and patterns, let designer John Robshaw be your guide. Evoking the vibrancy of Indonesia, India and, most frequently, Thailand, Robshaw’s textiles have found their way into many a globally-inflected home, thanks to their extraordinary hues and intricate motifs. His pillows, bedding, and furniture have been featured in partnerships with Anthropologie, Bloomingdale’s, Uniqlo—even Swell water bottles.
Credit Robshaw’s well-trained artist’s eye for much of his success: After graduating from New York’s Pratt Institute in the 1990s, he launched a career as a painter, paying the bills by working as an assistant to Julian Schnabel and a truck driver for Larry Gagosian. In 2000, the struggling artist visited friends in Bangkok, where discovered Thailand’s unique fabric-dyeing techniques—and set a new course for his career. “It was an incredible learning experience for me,” he explains. “I met with vintage dealers who handled textiles from Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, and Burma to understand the breadth of local and regional styles.” On the same trip, he traveled north to Thailand’s Isan region, meeting with weavers to study the processes for block-printing and ikat (in which the yarn itself is dyed with patterns before being woven and sometimes dyed again).
Transfixed by the centuries-old methods he discovered in Thailand and around Asia, Robshaw began to incorporated the practices into his own signature style. He continues to visit Thailand frequently for inspiration and to find potential partners among the local artisans. We asked the designer about his enduring love for the kingdom, and his tips on what do—and where to shop—in Bangkok and Phuket.
How did that first trip help shape your career?
The style sensibilities brought my work in a totally different direction. After those first trips, the timing was right to bring the looks back to New York, where ikats were just gaining momentum. I began working with interior designers, creating custom orders for ikats and silks, and my business began to take off.
Has Thailand continued to inspire your work?
Thailand has an amazing aesthetic. It’s a very creative and design-centric culture, with a rich visual history. But it’s also a very modern country—so it has this mix of old and new. You have the fanciest shops and buildings in the world, and then you have these little mom-and-pop restaurants on the rivers with open kitchens. It’s all intertwined and works beautifully. It’s always very interesting to see what they’re coming up with in terms of textiles, fashion, and interior design. I’m continually inspired.
“It’s always very interesting to see what they’re coming up with in terms of textiles, fashion, and interior design. I’m continually inspired.”
How often do you go back?
I try to go to Thailand once a year. I love the excitement of Bangkok: the amazing street food and the weekend markets and cabarets. It has everything going on—sort of a cultural Disney World. I also love to escape to Phuket to hit the beaches, browse small local markets for crafts, and enjoy fresh seafood.
What is your favorite travel memory from Thailand?
Sitting on a dock in Bangkok on the river at night with lanterns all around. A group of us spent the evening on bamboo mats drinking Thai beer and eating way-too-spicy food. I loved watching the boats go by and the very communal, very relaxed atmosphere.
What is an ideal Bangkok day for you?
Going early to the Chatuchak Weekend Market to check out mid-century Thai furniture and antiques, vintage textiles, or handmade jewelry. New Thai designers have booths there too, so you can discover things you wouldn’t find anywhere else. When I get burned out, I stop and eat lunch at Soul Food. I always love the gift shop at the Jim Thompson House [a museum dedicated to the American businessman who revitalized the Thai silk industry in the 1950s]: It is the spot to find incredible silk products, gifts, and garb. I also visit the shopping malls to experience the more modern side of Bangkok: The centers have wonderful government-sponsored crafts and artisan stores, right next to high-end shops like Gucci.
And in Phuket?
The island is all about the beach, and one of my favorites is Paradise Beach. Phuket also has incredible diving, so spending a day out on a boat and diving is excellent. On land, I like to rent a motorbike to zoom around the island and stop at roadside restaurants for lunch—I love mango and sticky rice, or grilled pork and sticky rice skewers. The Phuket Elephant Sanctuary is wonderful. For shopping, go to the main street in town, and to the Phuket weekend market for fabrics, rattan furniture, bags, and flowers.
Who’s your ideal travel companion?
My wife Rachel Robshaw is an interior photographer, and will travel anywhere at any time with photo equipment ready. Like me, she also loves to eat and shop and explore, so it’s perfect.
Discover a Sense of Thailand
Explore more insider stories on Rosewood Conversations from Bangkok and Phuket, where Rosewood Bangkok and Rosewood Phuket welcome guests to explore both the country’s vibrant capital and its idyllic island paradise.