The Trove: Erin Robinson
July 23, 2011

We’ve relocated! View Erin’s updated story at The Trove

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

With schoolgirls in Banda Village, Rwanda.
Erin Robinson loves summer thunderstorms and she got one as we chatted in her childhood home in Washington, DC over the July Fourth weekend, her sweeping gestures and sound effects underscored by the distant thunder and gentle rain. We noshed on fresh fruit and spoke of mutual travel glories: the spirit-lift from burning the Mexican tree resin Copal; houseboating in Kerala and bonding with rescued baby elephants. Her lovely mom Dianne played with Erin’s three-year-old niece Madison; her hospitable dad Harry made it back just before the rains after a round of golf. “We moved to this house when I was in first grade,” she says of the Tudor where she and sisters Kia and Leigh were raised. “I love the neighborhood we grew up in. All the kids would play dodge ball or foursquare or freeze tag and when the sun set we knew it was time to go home. I’d say 70% of the friends I have today are people I grew up with.” The Robinsons of Shepherd Park: Harry, Erin, Dianne, Kia Winlock and Leigh Warfield. When she wasn’t outside playing she was inside creating. From the age of two-and-half, her mom says “she would just sit and draw.” Erin recalls making shoes for her younger sisters out of the cardboard inserts from her father’s laundered dress shirts. “I would trace their feet for the soles, put labels in them and punch holes in the tops to lace them with ribbon. I was about eleven.” She declared she wanted to be a fashion designer, an illustrator or, like many children, a veterinarian. Her grandmother sent her to the Corcoran School of Art for Saturday classes from seventh to ninth grades. By high school veterinary science wasn’t a thought. “I had the Beverly Johnsons and Imans, the Gia Carangis and Janice Dickinsons pasted on my walls. I was obsessed with the movie Fame, saw it about 5 times. I really wanted to go to Duke Ellington School of the Arts but my parents thought I was going to be dancing on the lunch room tables, so I got sent to the nuns at Academy of the Holy Names instead. Upon graduation, Grandma once again advocated for her as an artist, sending her to Parsons School of Design in Paris for the summer. “I lived in the dorm and took illustration with Albert Elia, one of my favorite teachers.  I excelled in it. It was amazing.” Erin is ever grateful to her grandmother who passed away just days after she returned. She attended her father’s alma mater, Howard University, where he has held the posts of Vice President of the University as well as Dean and Professor of Urban Design in the School of Architecture and Planning. Her parents may have been cautious in their schooling preferences, but as Erin says “they were insanely nurturing. Markers, papers, triangles, whatever I needed,they provided.” That included a summer program the following year at Parsons in New York, where she’d wanted to live since she was nine. Deciding that Howard wasn’t the place for her, she set her sights on attending Parsons full time. “I was thrilled when I got that acceptance letter!” she exclaims. She lived with relatives on the Upper West Side and eventually moved with a roommate to a tiny apartment on Waverly and Perry in Greenwich Village. “It was a four-story walk-up, I had a fold-out chair bed and a little half-refrigerator and we thought, This is fantastic! ” She would then establish a long relationship with the great borough of Brooklyn where we met long ago through our dear friend Barb Chennault. Erin’s professional foray into fashion was designing sweaters for the Jaclyn Smith Collection, a Kmart property. Over a storied career with stints at the likes of Kikit and Abercrombie & Fitch among others she came full circle to become the vice-president of the baby division of Kmart/Sears Holdings, Inc.
With an eye on costume design, she decided to move to Los Angeles in 1992. “When you’re in your twenties you’re fearless, I didn’t have a pot to piss in, but I was going,” she says. Armed with optimism and a $500 parental subsidy, off she went. Soon after, she secured a job building costumes on the popular sketch comedy In Living Color where Barb worked in the wardrobe department.
From Fire Marshall Bill to Wanda, making costumes there “was like Halloween arts and crafts, ” she recalls. ” I mean it wasn’t couture, it was more like where’s the stapler? Hot glue gun? Maybe a couple of stitches?’ she laughs. “It was a career highlight, that job. I am still very close to the people I met there. There was a very small black wardrobe community in LA, we’d always look out for each other. The hours were crazy, but it was a blast! She left behind the grind of TV/film production to return to New York where she began her career in childrenswear with Baby Gap. Why kidswear? “Women’s is so nit-picky with 5 million different opinions,” she says. “Baby is sweet, cute, a lot of fun. You don’t have to be so serious.” That doesn’t mean she didn’t work hard. “I worked my behind off. It exposed me not only to some amazing, talented people but also to travel: Hong Kong, Europe and Tokyo.” During her seven-year tenure she designed newborn as well, but managerial differences sent her packing, at least temporarily, to fervent freelancing and traveling.  “I was hustling. I was like you’re gonna work this then you’re gonna get on an airplane.” Hired to revamp the Kmart brand, former Gap Executive Vice President Lisa Schultz tapped Erin to update the baby division. They literally did from the ground up out of Lisa’s apartment until the Midwest-based company secured New York offices. “It gave me this opportunity to utilize all my skills. It was insane at times but so creative. I’m proud of what we established.”

Beckoned by the bay.

As the business grew, so did corporate intervention. “I felt myself getting swallowed up, like I was drowning there and I just needed a change.” While in Hawaii for a wedding, she saw people cliff jumping in Waimea Bay and decided to go for it. She fretted a bit but found encouragement in the voices of kids shouting “lady, don’t look down, just jump.” She did. “It was like a cleansing, a baptism. When I surfaced I was on an adrenaline high and I set a date in my head and a plan in motion: this time next year you are going to be out.”

“My home is special to me, it is my sanctuary, It took me a long time to get it just as I liked it.”  But she packed up her life, gave up her space, and lived out of bags as she plotted her sabbatical to decompress, refuel and serve– perhaps in the Congo. She remembers sharing her plan with her mother. “My mom is really strong, protective and stoic. The look I saw in her face –the fear– broke my heart, but ultimately she offered her complete support.” Her father didn’t take to the idea as easily but once he came around he jumped into action suggesting items for her pack. “I actually found it quite comical and endearing. He made sure I was set and “saw me off at the airport with my little orange backpack.” Banda Village, Nyungwe Rainforest. She flew into Kigali, capital of genocide-ravaged Rwanda. “You feel the veil of heaviness of what took place. It’s hard to come across anyone that was not affected in some way.” Thwarted by advisories to stay out of the region, her plan to serve in the DRC was reconfigured to join Peace Corps workers by volunteering with Kageno.org in Banda Village. Walking through town. Aware of and grateful for her life’s privilege she wanted to somehow give back and as an African American woman to dispel the notion of the white savior. With her light complexion and green eyes the villagers called her mzungu— white person. For a girl raised in 1970’s Chocolate City, to be considered anything other than black took her aback. “Nitwa Erin,” my name is Erin, she asserted. Sustenance. During her stay, she assisted in any way she could from serving nutrient-rich Susomna to the malnourished children to painting illustrations of vocabulary words on the walls of the schoolroom. As she painted she played Brazilian music, a Pied Piper’s call to a quartet of young village girls, who came and doodled on the blackboard as she worked. Moved by the rhythm, their tiny hips started to sway. Erin will never forget the children’s stories of survival, like that of eight-year-old miracle, Rebecca. The back of her head is deeply scarred from a long-ago baboon attack. She’d been in the fields with her older siblings when aggressive baboons descended from the forest. Frightened, her siblings ran to get their parents, leaving the three-year-old behind. When they returned to the scene, Rebecca was gone. The beasts had carried her off, mauled her and left her for dead. It’s incredible that she survived and that her parents were able to find her. Of her new friends Erin says, “I want them to know I care, that it wasn’t a one-shot deal.”  She plans to return with clothing, necessities and prints of the many beautiful images she snapped. Bandan beauty. Heading north to the Virungas, a cluster of volcanoes bordering Rwanda, Uganda and the DRC, the trek was literally and figuratively breathtaking. The high altitude left Erin breathless as did the incredible vistas and the origin of the Nile. “We hung out with the gorillas– the original fam. They were picking and scratching and farting,” she chuckles. Up Virunga Mountain. Next stop, Nairobi, Kenya where she visited the animal orphanages, getting up close and personal with the endangered monkeys, giraffes, cheetahs and elephants. She then went to neighboring Kibera, originally developed by the British as a forest settlement for Nubian soldiers returning home after service in World War I. Today the impoverished residents live in squalid conditions. As Erin’s guide led her through the muck and filth to the slum’s center, she felt afraid for the first time on her trip.  He sensed her fear, looked at her very directly and said “Don’t be scared. We are not criminals, we are just very, very poor.” She was deeply moved and tried to hide her tears.  “Will you come back? “ he asked.  He found something on the ground to write down an email address.  She’s since written but received no reply. One of the many beautiful children of Kibera. From the motherland to Indonesia, the leg of her journey designed to “get balanced again… Bali is spiritual, so beautiful it’s ridiculous.” She began each day in meditation; on Mondays and Saturdays she took life drawing classes, something she hadn’t done since her Parsons days and she spent her first ever Christmas away from her family. “I stayed a month, but I could live there,” she says dreamily. In Bali, I cared for myself inside and out. I had an aura and I truly felt beautiful.” A morning prayer; a beautiful drawing. She left the calm for the cacophony of Delhi, teeming with people, livestock, dust and risky driving. “India is where I confronted myself and it was hard. A Delhi wedding. “They party!” She was glad to connect with her friend, travel writer Jonathan Yevin who traverses the globe with all he needs tucked into the pockets of his cargo pants. They took the no-frills option from Delhi to Agra, the second-class train, made the requisite pilgrimage to the Taj Mahal and were invited to the nearby ultra-luxe hotel Oberoi Amarvilas for a tour and lunch. “ So we walked into the Oberoi, these two little raggedy vagabonds.” As at the Taj, there was a glaring juxtaposition of opulent beauty within the gates and extreme poverty just outside. Jonathan and Erin auto-rickshaw through Agra. A Brahman bull and petals at the feet of Ganesh at the Taj Mahal. In Jaipur, she felt a surge of creative energy. “It inspired me. Between the gold leaf and the textures and the walls, I designed a line of dresses. Jaipuri adornment on walls, domes even the camels. On the backwaters of the southern state of Kerala, home of “the nicest people ever,” she and a friend rented a houseboat under the palms as everyone back home in the eastern US was inundated with snow. Glimpses of Kerala. At the start of her adventure some questioned the wisdom of giving up her VP gig and fabulous two bedroom loft with Dad’s Eames chair, but the universe rewards the courageous. She’s returned to the team she loves at Sears Holdings and soon moves into a new apartment in the same beloved Brooklyn loft building…but with a firm commitment to giving back. Her Gemini twin selves seek beauty in the ethereal and the earthly, bound in loving sentiment by both. Here’s a look into some of the things she holds dear:  1. Daydreaming. “Anyone who knows me knows that I love to daydream.” The daydreamer and her untitled painting. 2. G10 Camera. An avid photographer and sentimental documentarian of life experience, she is seldom without it. The Canon Power Shot G10. 3. Tulum. It has become an annual ritual to visit the pristine beaches of the Yucatán peninsula for her late spring birthday or new year retreat. She looks forward to seeing the friends she’s made at Sueños Tulum, the eco-friendly Mexican resort. 4. Bali Rituals.  Fueling her pre-existing “incense junkieness,” she took on the clarifying morning practices. “They get up in the morning, gather the frangipani, the plumeria and they offer something to their gods whether it’s a Ritz cracker or a cigarette. And they light the incense and meditate with the Buddhas and the Lakshmis…” Aromatic, personal, spiritual. 5. Fragrant Florals. Her favorites are peony, tuberose and lilac. She tries to buy herself flowers once a week. She enjoys making her own arrangements.

6. Browsing Interior Magazines. Elle Decoration UK, Living etc. and the decor8 blog, Love these!” For inspiration…

7. Sasha Dolls. Introduced in the 1960’s by Swiss artist Sasha Morgenthaler, the dolls were intended to depict a universal image of childhood. Dianne Robinson made certain that her girls played with dolls of varying skin tones, not just the blonde, blue-eyed offerings that lined most shelves at that time. Now collectible, the dolls can be found through sources like Ebay. Cora; and Palila from Allegro Melody Art Dolls.

8. My Mayan and Aztec Calender Necklaces.  “I like having the sun close to my heart.”

You rarely see her without one of the two.

9. My Sketch Books. Repositories of her incredible talent, they hold her inspirations, her imaginings and creative intentions.

The fruits of her Jaipur musings.

10. Daddy and Me at Dulles.  One of a couple of treasured photos with her Vietnam-bound father. “I look at that photo and thank the creator for the opportunity to experience my father and have him nurture me to who I am today.  I don’t have to make up stories or daydream about who he was because he came home.”

First Lieutenant Harry G. Robinson III returned from Vietnam with a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart to raise a beautiful family with wife Dianne and establish a long and illustrious career.

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The Trove: Malene Barnett
April 18, 2011

Malene and her limited edition “Tap Tap” carpet. Inspired by the colorful buses of the same name in Haiti, she donated the profits from the sale of this carpet to Aid to Artisans Haitian Artist Recovery Fund.

Since the 2009 launch of Malene b Custom Handmade Carpets, principal Malene Barnett has enjoyed enviable and well-deserved publicity including features in Interior Design and New York magazines, the Los Angeles Times and widely followed websites Design*Sponge, Apartment Therapy and The Selby.

It was the inclusion of the “Tap Tap” carpet in the catalogue for The Global Africa Project  (GAP) at the Museum of Art and Design which brought me face-to-face with the entrepreneur whose handmade carpets were generating considerable design buzz.  We’d been introduced virtually by artist Cheryl Riley but it was at the magnificent exhibit’s opening last fall that we actually shook hands and committed to meeting for a one-on-one chat (which would reveal we’d met many years earlier.)

Her own work imbued with illustrative motifs, Malene found herself in great company amid the artists and designers included in the GAP, such as Kehinde Wiley whose work graces the catalogue cover and interior designer Sheila Bridges (far right) whose “Harlem Toile” suite of home goods is featured.

An ardent traveler, Malene’s life and work are woven with the inspirational threads of her global journeys.  She collects local teas from every region she visits so when we sat down for tea in her inviting Bed-Stuy townhouse, the choices ranged from Jamaican Hibiscus to African Rooibos. Furnished with a refreshing economy of possessions, her home, designed by Henry Mitchell, is airy and expansive. Punctuated with the artifacts of her travels and just-enough furniture, the rooms, with their jubilant colors (turquoise, sunny yellow, relaxing lavender) evoke sunshine and trade winds even on the grayest of days.  She envisions an eventual return to her Caribbean roots; her mom, Cynthia is from St. Vincent, her dad, Franklyn from Jamaica. Her goal is to own a home high on a hill.  “I don’t have to be on the ocean, I just want to see it.”

Malene’s serene, sun-drenched master bath. Photo: Henry Mitchell Interior Architecture.

Though she is Bronx-born, Malene’s parents “wanted to raise the kids in the suburbs” and pulled up stakes for Norwalk, Connecticut, where she grew up near the beach.  Teachers discovered her creative leanings early on and selected her for the school’s artistically talented program when she was in the third grade. She recalls being instructed that artists sign their works with either first initial and last name or first name and surname initial.  She at age eight, proudly signed, Malene B. “Malene has something special, we need to cultivate it,” her mother said.

And a brand was born: Malene’s first painting –with colorful carpet– hangs in her mother’s home to this day.

After her parents’ eventual split, Malene and her two sisters were raised by their mom with love and high standards.  “I have to feed you and educate you,” Ms. Barnett would say. A classical pianist and educator, she required her daughters to learn violin. Malene played for 6 years, seriously considering its pursuit until tenth grade when she had to choose between violin and painting classes. “I was playing softball and volleyball and painting. I was into my sports and into my art,” she says. “I said, ‘Mommy, I’m not into the books, I’m into the paintbrush.” Nonetheless Cynthia Barnett expected her girls to excel academically and to contribute to their college funds with summer employment when they came of age.  As a result Malene was “into my hustle –designing t-shirts, always thinking entrepreneurially.  I had to come up with monies for my education, $1000 a summer.”

Dr. Cynthia Barnett surrounded by her girls, Debbie, Malene and Nneka.

Her personal criterion for college was clear: “I wanted to paint and play volleyball and Purchase had both.” Though the SUNY school had a reputable fine art program, she “decided that I didn’t want to be a starving artist,” and considered the commercial arts.  Her grandmother had been a fashion designer so fashion illustration appealed to her and she transferred to another SUNY school, the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City where she soon realized that though she could draw, illustration was not her strong suit.  She chuckles as she recalls a conversation with her then-illustration instructor. Prof. Ishikawa: “Barnett, what are you going to do?” Malene: “A BFA in Textiles.” (she’d just discovered FIT’s Textile Surface Design program through hallway displays of student work) Prof. Ishikawa: “That’s going to be the best thing for you.”

Professor Ishikawa was right.  Given Malene’s love of texture and strong sense of color and pattern, she excelled in the major. Then her cultural heritage began to call: “The Autobiography of Malcolm X woke me up.  Public Enemy and X Clan were popular at the time.” She seized the opportunity for a three-week cultural exchange in Ghana. “It was my awakening, from then on every opportunity I had, I infused our culture, using our motifs.”  While still a student, she freelanced with the late Kerris Wolsky at Harlem Textile Works.

Her multi-disciplinary major introduced her to a variety of specialties, including rug and carpet design which suited her textural sensibilities.  One of the projects for an independent study was to create carpet designs for Carnival Cruise Lines. Ultimately, Malene received the department medal, graduated with honors and won the Stark Carpet Design Award for her design “African Folktale.” For graduation she treated herself to a trek through Ghana, Gambia and India.

Upon her return Malene began a two-year stint as Design Director of Afritex, designing African-inspired prints. (It was on a market appointment for Essence Magazine that I met Malene at the Afritex showroom) When layoffs ended her tenure there, she accepted a position as the first in-house designer at Nourison Rugs, one of the world’s leading producers of imported handmade rugs where she “stepped up my game with computer design.”  Her dormant entrepreneurial spirit re-emerged when on May 5, 2000, she boarded a plane to “backpack through Southeast Asia and find a manufacturer in India…At the time I was planning to launch a bedding line.” Realizing that she lacked import acumen, she shelved the idea.  “I knew how to draw a pretty picture but not the business side of production imports.”  When Nourison called her back to work on a project that would eventually last four-and-a-half years, she met Sales Manager Gary Shafran (who would later become her business partner.) Together they worked to build Nourison’s accent rug division, catapulting their business from $1 million in sales to $17 million.  “My design transformed their business,” but she ultimately hit a glass ceiling, “there would be no more growth…So I wanted to leave.” Gary found positions for them at another company, JLA, where they worked for two years before Malene proposed launching their own line focused on her design aesthetic.  Having created carpets filtered through the corporate points-of-view of the various lines she designed (Nicole Miller, Martha Stewart, Nautica, Liz Claiborne, Nate Berkus, to name a few) she was ready for her own expression.

Gary, also ready for a change, agreed and they spent the next nine or so months developing the business that would bring globally inspired, hand-tufted, hand-knotted and flat woven custom carpets to the marketplace. As committed as she is to sharing a design aesthetic shaped by her exploration of indigenous cultures and an ever-broadening worldview, she is equally committed to ethical production and trade:

It is important for me to be socially conscious in all my endeavors. To that end, I proudly support Goodweave and Aid to Artisans in their quest to eliminate child labor practices, provide education and preserve handmade crafts in Africa, Asia and South America. -From the malene b website.

A work in progress:  A Nepali weaver crafting the “Market Women” pattern in wool and silk.

She found an early champion in the editor-in-chief of Interior Design magazine, Cindy Allen. “I met her on a plane in 2009.”   They exchanged cards and arranged an office visit in New York. Malene recalls the meeting, I brought six strike-offs  (2′ x 2′ samples) and Cindy said  ‘I like what you’re doing. I want to help you out, help jump-start your business,’ and gave me a one-page story in the magazine.”


Editor-in-Chief, Cindy Allen and Malene at the celebration for Cindy’s 10th anniversary at the helm of Interior Design Magazine.  The “Wolof” rug which commemorated a trip to Senegal, garnered the first major press for the fledgling malene b and inspired the design of the custom iron gates at Malene’s Brooklyn home — they mimic the silhouettes’ small heads and elongated necks.

The self-described techie continues to get the word out by utilizing social media (“like” her on Facebook; “follow” her on Twitter and check out her blog) making appearances at trade shows and “networking like crazy.”  She’s reveling in recent press in House Beautiful and L’Officiel Paris. And though she acknowledges that publicity isn’t “necessary for sales, but it validates,” the company (represented in showrooms in New York, Miami, Vancouver and Calgary) is capitalizing on the momentum and “focusing now on building sales.”  Her “Masks” design has been commissioned for the ballroom of a Georgia college. She is looking forward to next month’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair where she’ll debut four new collections based where she’ll debut four new collections based on more subtle, open designs in hand knotted and tufted techniques. The thirty-four designs are inspired by such diverse iconic images as the paper fans of Kyoto, the colored glass of Murano, the Turkish pottery of Istanbul and the lavender fields of Provence.

The “St. Vincent,” so named for Malene’s mother’s homeland, provides the backdrop for a spread on Beyoncé in the March issue of L’Officiel.

In addition to growing her business, she plans, eventually to teach. “I like sharing and showing,” which she had the opportunity to do in January when she gave a talk about her design process at the University of the West Indies in Trinidad.  What she has no plans of doing, however, is opening a store. “I don’t want to be tied to a physical space,” she says.

Over the course of a multi-hour visit with this vagabond spirit, we discovered a shared myriad of design pet peeves, a passion for travel (her “Kerala” and “Papunya” patterns pay homage to two of my favorite travel destinations, India and Australia) and a love of good food.  Vegetarian like her artistic father, she views cooking as “another form of art, another expression.” Her specialty is tofu. “I can rock the tofu big time…I love food so much it has actually inspired my design:” the skin of a coconut (“Bahia“) the hypotrochoid shape of star anise (“Anise”) and stalks of sugarcane (“Kingston.”)  She adds, “And I’m big on dessert.”  It’s no surprise then, that her voyager’s trove is bracketed with sweets…

1. Fudge by Burnt Sugar. Malene discovered the UK treat at New York’s Fancy Food Show in 2007.  She loves the tasty nibbles reminiscent of the fudgy goodness she purchases from “the lady on the side of the road, in the islands.”


Yum!

2. The Color Turquoise. When asked to name her four favorite colors in a 2010 feature on photographer Todd Selby’s wildly popular, The Selby, Malene responded 1) turquoise 2) orange 3) turquoise 4) turquoise.

Her absolute favorite color welcomes all who visit her chic Bed-Stuy home. Photo: The Selby

3. Fulani Earrings. The nomadic women of the Fulani in West Africa receive the bold yarn-wrapped gold earrings from their husbands upon marriage or by inheritance upon the deaths of their mothers. Malene frequently rocks her Fulani-inspired hoops in homage.

Malene at home; a married woman in Senosa, Mali © 2004 Don Gurewitz; Fulani inspiration adapted for the Western market sans yarn and with small ear wires.

4. Jo Malone Fragrances. She enjoys the modern, unexpected blends of the celebrated UK brand.

One of her favorites, Pomegranate Noir.

5. Travel. It nourishes her spirit and informs her work.

Clockwise: chilling by the turquoise waters of Barbados; dried hibiscus in Trinidad; sand painting in Senegal; Bajan boulders; steel pan drums and Trini produce.


6. Spice Market Candle. From restaurateur James Boyce, the spicy aromas of cassia, ginger and ground cloves in an alluring collaboration with candle maker, Voluspa.

She keeps a large tin at the ready in her living room.

7. Isabel de Pedro Dress. A sleeveless, body-conscious column from the Spring/Summer 2007 collection, Harmattan features the Spanish designer’s signature use of photographic images as textile design.

A detail of the marvelous silk screened images from Africa.
8. My Moroccan Slippers.  She actually bought the vibrant raffia and leather babouches of Morocco from the Sandaga Market in Dakar. Senegal. “I bought many pairs but this one has become my favorite because they make a statement with any simple outfit such as jeans and a t-shirt.

“They are so comfy and I love the bright colors!”

9 Teal Wood Floors. White oak stained with the cousin of her beloved turquoise.

The subtle touch of teal graces the flooring throughout the parlor level of her townhouse.

10. Frosting from Butter Lane Cupcakes. Though she likes the cupcakes just fine, it really is all about the frosting and luckily for her, Butter Lane sells it by the shot, a buck a pop. A sweet, quick fix.

“I love pretty much all of their flavors but I will take a peanut butter or coconut shot any day.”


The Trove: Cheryl R. Riley & Courtney Sloane
December 2, 2010

An invitation and homage: Courtney Sloane & Cheryl R. Riley.

Gotta love a woman who whips up a few baubles to wear on her opening night from the discards of  “yesterday’s soup.”  And so it is that interior designer Courtney Sloane adores such a woman, her wife, Cheryl R. Riley. Cheryl, one of the artists included in the massive Global Africa Project now on view at the Museum of Art and Design, gilded 3 neck bones, suspended them from black cord and wore them–like funkified Olympic gold– to the exhibition opening on November 16.

The golden girl.  Elevation Mirror I: Arizona/New Mexico, 2000, Honduran mahogany, beveled mirror, brass tacks, found and made objects 85 x 48 x 12 in. Photo by Robert Baldridge.

Just a few weeks ago, with a similar burst of spontaneous creation, Cheryl, bearing a glue gun and materials found around the house, crafted five crowns for Cheryl and Courtney’s Artful Halloween Dinner Party should extras be needed. Guests had been asked to create a crown, in lieu of full costume, to don during the Basquiat-inspired festivities in their art-filled home. Upon entering the spacious loft in my coronet of autumn leaves, I missed the fluffy presence of Pia Zadora, the beloved Chow-Chow who held court in Courtney’s life from 1992 to her passing in 2009. And I smiled as I perused the space, an eclectic mix of personal treasures including Cheryl’s own beautifully imposing, “shamanistic” mirror, a piece I’ve always loved. Courtney speaks of design as conversation, a vehicle for telling stories. The story their home reveals is one of travel and exploration, honoring family and the passionate creation and collecting of art.

Visiting from San Francisco, fantastic chef and dear friend Cassandra Miles was putting the finishing touches on the delectable feast (including a tender pot roast and Cornish game hen with garlic orange-chili butter) as the hosts readied themselves to receive guests. Courtney selected one of the Cheryl-crafted crowns: a corrugated band decoupaged with Mbuti-patterned paper and topped with glorious blue and green tail feathers molted by a friend’s Macaw. Cheryl chose for herself the “Lady Gaga-inspired” clear acrylic spire she’d painted silver and accented with corkscrew willow.

A quiet moment before the revelry.

As the guests arrived, Courtney mixed pre-dinner cocktails with the refreshing, lightly grassy Żubrówka, or Bison Grass vodka she prefers. Its single blade of buffalo grass, she explained, is akin to the worm found in bottles of mezcal.  Soon delighted dining and lively conversation commenced. Desserts of apple spice cake and sweet potato chocolate-pecan pie followed. We rounded out the evening continuing the vodka theme but appropriately with the ambrosial, chocolate-infused vodka from renowned chocolatier, Godiva. The C’s really know how to host a salon: mixing it up with fascinating people (including established artist Ben Jones and emerging artists Nina Chanel Abney and Hiroshi Kumagai) fabulous food and relaxed fun.

Floating flowers and an acceptance speech. “We are shocked, and so humbled,” said Cheryl of she and Courtney’s first and second place win in the crown contest.  She offered thanks and praise to competition judges Riley and Sloane.

Chef Cassandra and Hiroshi.  The evening’s menu.

Organic Costa Rican coffee was served in the familiar stripes of Paul Smith. One of Cheryl’s “Legacy Bags,” personalized with her childhood cowgirl snapshot.

Strongly influenced by their fierce and fashionable mothers, both Cheryl and Courtney give props to Mom for inspiring them to become the highly accomplished women they are today. “When I was a child,” Cheryl says, “my mother was called the most beautiful colored woman in Houston. She was intelligent, talented and adventurous.” Cheryl’s earliest memories are of her art student mother’s supplies:  “clay, oil paints, turpentine… She allowed me to paint and draw on a wall in my room and taught me to read before I started kindergarten.”   Aesthetics were paramount in the Sloane household as well. “My mom always had a great sense of style–both fashion and interior, ” Courtney says, ” In fact, while I was growing up she actually worked with a decorator on our house.  I would get to tag along and be a part of those conversations.  Those experiences lead me to consider interior design as a career path.”

Texas beauty, Gladys Mae DuBois.  Ever stylish, Ruth Sloane with a serious little Courtney.

Gladys Mae DuBois surrounded her daughter with beauty, ignited a creative spark and sense of boundless possibility, Bennie Riley hoped to instill in her a sense of bootstrap pragmatism. Embracing a bit of both, Cheryl attended a private community college in Missouri, Columbia College but left after receiving her Associate’s Degree to pursue life “on her own terms in a new city.” She chose San Francisco “because I am good at making lists. I wanted a multi-cultural, cosmopolitan city with a strong city center, on a coast, no snow but a maximum three-hour drive from it, nature nearby and a public transportation system. I was right because the minute I saw that fog-framed city as I entered via the Bay Bridge, I was head over hills in love.”  She launched an executive career that would take her from positions with luxury retailer I. Magnin to advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi and Levi Strauss. Directing her creative energy toward her own home, she began designing furniture for her apartment. Her professional peers took notice and became her first customers. In less than a decade she went from corporate exec to fulfilling her artistic passions in 1986 with the launch of Right Angle Designs.

In 1999, with a dream collector’s list (Danny Glover, Terry McMillan, Denzel Washington, Robin Williams, et. al) several awards and exhibitions under her belt, inclusion in the collections of the San Francisco Museum of Art and the Cooper-Hewitt, Oakland and Mint Museums, multiple public and corporate commissions (including Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport) she moved to New York.  “After living 22 years in San Francisco, I wanted to experience another city while my career was still in full swing. Having served on several arts-related boards, she most recently was a board member of the Museum of Art and Design — formerly the American Craft Museum– where she was instrumental in re-imagining the scope and re-imaging the brand. Her power to connect to an audience with her genial manner and engage them with her expertise has made her a highly regarded lecturer and panelist, speaking across the country from Stanford and Lehigh Universities to the Bellevue Art Museum. As a teacher, she’s conducted classes in respected craft schools such as Penland and Haystack Mountain.  She’s enjoyed the embrace of the East Coast with commissions: furnishings for Judith Jamison’s Alvin Ailey office and wall murals for the Walgreen’s Corporation; exhibitions in group shows at the Newark Museum, Pittsburgh’s Society of Contemporary Art, the Tampa Museum of Art and a solo show at Peg Alston Fine Art in NYC; curating the art collections of the Washington, DC offices of BET and Harlem’s luxury condominium, Kalahari; art commentary in several publications including the current issue of Jersey City Magazine and in February 2007, marriage.


 

Before family and friends, at Cala Luna in Costa Rica, the blithe spirit wed the lithe athlete.

In Jersey City, where she and Cheryl have resided in the Powerhouse Arts District since 2005, Courtney was born to and raised by John and Ruth Sloane. She donned the maroon and gold of St. Anthony High School, playing point guard on the girls’ varsity basketball team.  Initially she majored in marketing at Rutgers University but a job at Formica was a turning point for her and she convinced her employer to subsidize her further studies in interior design at FIT and Pratt. She covered the academics in class and got the immersive knowledge of the business at work, all-the-while rocking a side hustle with friends–catering and events in a small JC loft. They outfitted the space with furniture she’d designed and hosted art shows. If Formica was the turning point, then Ms. Dana Owens was the tipping point. When Dana a.k.a. Queen Latifah, full of confidence about her own trajectory, rolled through the impressive space she told Courtney “when I really blow up, you’re going to do my place.”  Three years later, Courtney did in fact, hail the Queen, creating the executive offices of her Flavor Unit in Jersey City, which led to commissions on the other side of the Hudson.

The house music fan and her company Alternative Design (AD) became the go-to designer for the hip-hop élite: Vibe Magazine, Sean Combs (through various name changes), Jay-Z, and more recently, the executive suite of Damon Dash. As word of Courtney’s gift for spatial storytelling spread, so did the interest of major corporations. Sony Music, Disney and Viacom, to name a few, came calling, commissioning AD to create their environs. She designed the flagship of natural body-care emporium, Carol’s Daughter, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Roots, Rhymes and Rage exhibition and the living quarters for the first two seasons of America’s Next Top Model.  With such an illustrious client roster, it’s no surprise that she’s become a design pundit: contributing to Essence Magazine, appearing on several design shows from CNN to BET to HGTV to a starring role on TLC’s Material World and speaking around the country (notably giving the esteemed Hiller lecture by the Design & Environmental Analysis Department at Cornell University.) She is now part of acollective working with AF Supply to develop the Signature line of plumbing fixtures and bathroom accessories– “a huge project” to be launched in 2012, mining “New York design talent of both architects and interior designers. Since most of the plumbing design innovation comes from Italy, this project specifically will bring focus on the talent pool that exists here in NYC.” Grateful for her success in both residential and commercial design in the States and abroad, she is an ardent advocate of mentoring and honoring her obligation to give back.

Courtney and the fabulous Pia Zadora.

Together Cheryl and Courtney are launching a new venture, Riley Sloane, a socially responsible design and production studio specializing in licensing, private label and production in the Home and Lifestyle categories. Their first line, launching in 2011, is the Pura Vida collection of  decorative wall panels made from FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified solid indigenous woods of Costa Rica.

Cheryl on Courtney:

“About a year before I met Courtney, I made a list–again with the lists–of the qualities I wanted in my lifetime partner.”  Living on separate coasts for “the first two years of our relationship, we had a lot of time to have in-depth conversation and get to know each other on the phone. Otherwise, we saw each other every 4-6 weeks in our respective homes, traveled together elsewhere and even worked on a project together for Disney. I had 45 attributes on the list and Courtney scored 37.5!” And as any self-respecting Southern esoteric would do, she sought a reading from a cousin with “the gift.”  The reading suggested that though they are not soul mates (sometimes that is one’s best friend, business partner, etc.) they are as “highly compatible as she had ever seen–and it proved true.”

Courtney on Cheryl:

“Well I knew that there was something extraordinary about her the first time we met.  I was absolutely thrilled to meet the sister that I had read about who was doing all this bad ass furniture on the West Coast, I mean really making noise! Once we began to speak over the phone I think it was inside of about 3 or 4 weeks that I knew she was the one I wanted to spend my life with.”  And on her wife’s inclusion in the GAP show,  “I’m so excited and proud of Cheryl for this major accomplishment! It’s great for her to be a part of the new history of the Museum and [exhibiting] again since showing her Bakuba Griffin Dining Table in 1994 when it was the American Craft Museum.”

Born ten years apart, Cheryl’s an analog girl whose tech comfort level ends somewhere around email and Courtney’s a “gadget geek” prone to early adoption of the latest technology. They are alike in the ways that matter and different enough to keep things interesting, a great couple.  Though it was difficult for them to pinpoint only five things each, here’s a smattering of the things besides each other that they love…

Cheryl’s Fave Five:

1. Custom Cowboy Boots. “I was born in Houston in the days of Roy Rogers and Dale Evans and there is a picture of me at 4 years old on Christmas day and I am wearing full cow girl regalia and my rifle and first cowboy boots.  I danced through the kid leather gun-metal gray and camel Italian cowboy boots that Wilkes Bashford, the luxury retailer of San Francisco gave me when I was his house model in the late 70’s. My favorite and oldest pair of cowboy boots were made by Austin-based Tony Lama.  The more rows of stitches, the better the quality of the boot,” and I love that the more worn they are, the better to mold to my feet.”

Rocking the Tony Lamas in a 1990 profile in San Francisco Magazine featuring her “Talking Head” media cabinet and “Zulu” tables.

2. Paloma Picasso Perfume. Melding perfectly with her body chemistry, it’s been her fragrance signature since its eighties debut. “Everyone loves the way it smells on me,” she says. “I love its rich, exotic, incense-like scent and that it holds its ‘color’ all day. Its namesake, daughter of Pablo Picasso and writer Francoise Gilot, is an artist ( jewelry design) in her own right, a fact not lost on Cheryl. She enjoys the aesthetic connection.

She chuckles at the long-ago memory of being followed by La Paloma, “her entourage a few paces behind” around the jewelry department of I.Magnin in San Francisco.  “When I looked at her directly once, she clearly did not want to communicate, just smell–probably did not want to break her spell.”

3. Contemporary Art of the African Diaspora. No surprise here.  It is evident in her own work, in her home, in her enthusiastic writing, in her exhaustive knowledge of the canon.   Given the breadth of the genre she’d be hard pressed to single out a favorite among the multitudes of diasporic artists, many of whom she feels “lucky” to count among her friends. She does share, thowever, a few artist friends with whom she’s had recent — and inspiring contact. Carrie Mae Weems is a “font of inspiration, constantly expanding beyond our concept of photography, her predominant  medium.” Cheryl, in awe, viewed the October rehearsal of  “The Venus Project,”  Weems’ collaboration with composer Phillip Miller and director Talvin Wilks. Shinique Smith’s first solo museum exhibit just closed at MOCA in Miami. “It was fantastic to see so much of her work together…My favorites are her site-specific wall murals. They dance with her calligraphic graffiti swirls that she paints with brushes and her body (the piece, Red Rose, is in Cheryl’s collection.)  Celebrated artists, the  Bronx-born Fred Wilson and Whitfield Lovell, “are the only couple in the world to have received the highly prestigious MacArthur “Genius” grant [Wilson in 1999, Lovell in 2007]  Their styles of making art are completely different–Fred is an intellectually-challenging conceptualist while Whitfield’s drawings and sculptures are grounded in our authentic collective history.” She is particularly proud of Fred, who represented the US at the 2003 Venice Biennale, and has been a friend “since his 1993 Artist In Residency at Capp Street Project in San Francisco where I was on the board.”

From left: Carrie Mae Weems, from The Kitchen Table Series, 1990  (the entire series was recently acquired by The Chicago Museum) Fred Wilson, Iago’s Mirror, 2009 (now on view in the Global Africa Project directly across from Cheryl’s mirror;) Shinique Smith, And The World Don’t Stop, 2009 ; Whitfield Lovell, After an Afternoon, 2008 (from Kith and Kin.)

4. Turquoise and Pearls. Others may crave bling but Cheryl enjoys a little opacity in her gems. Her birthstone, turquoise, with its spectral range of blue to green reminds her “of vacations in a tropical paradise or the native American jewelry in the Southwest. And pearls “are so classic, sexy, warm and modern,” complementing everything and available “in endless variety.  I love abundance strands à la Chanel or a Wilma Flintstone choker.  I am designing pearl charm bracelets, pins and necklaces with a friend in Shanghai so I can have even more!”

Detail from a charm bracelet she had made by a Native American artist in Santa Fé. She wore a single strand of black pearls on her wedding day.

5. Travel. She especially enjoys exploring Costa Rica, where she and Courtney married and her beloved Italy. “The food, the fashion, the furniture design…If there are past lives, Italy is where I [once] lived,” she believes, having felt “totally at home my first time in Rome. I took Italian lessons before I ever went there because I loved the musical sound of the language and my favorite Italian operas… I would live in Venice now if given the opportunity.”

Costa Rican footbridge and Venetian canals.

Courtney’s Fave Five:

1. Dahon Bikes. Her Speed D7 is “great for cruisin’ around the ‘hood or in the city.”

The quick-folding bike makes for “easy in and out of cafes, restaurants etc.”

3. Vibram FiveFingers. She rocked a Mary Jane version of the barefoot shoes all summer, but now she’s fiending for the camouflage soles.

The FiveFingers Sprint.

3. Geodesic domes. The tessellated structure created by Walther Bauersfeld and later tweaked and popularized by Buckminster Fuller holds a place in her heart. There’s one she and Cheryl enjoy time and again near their summer home in East Hampton, frequently taking friends like artist Nanette Carter to share in the experience. The Fuller piece Fly’s Eye Dome, is on the grounds of LongHouse, founded by Jack Lenor Larsen, one of Courtney’s “all-time favorite textile designers,” and is part of their permanent collection.  “It is just awesome,” she exclaims. “I love the volume, air and light. There is a sensational feeling when you are in a space that wraps around. I find it super liberating!”

Clockwise: Fly’s Eye Dome, photographed by © Ron Cogswell; Photo © Visions of America, Joe Sohm/Getty Images; Geodesic Dome Treehouse by Dustin Feider.

4. Chris Craft Boats. She prefers the wooden-hulled vintage models from the late 1940’s through the 1970’s. “Absolutely gorgeous!”

1954  20-foot Riviera. From ClassicBoat.com.

5. Paul Smith London. She loves the quirky spin on classic English tailoring.


Looks from Paul Smith Spring/Summer 2011.