Remembering Robin Roberts
In the fall of 1966, during my first visit to Clarence House, I remember the tall, slightly disconcerting figure who greeted me from atop the showroom's grand staircase. The very name, Clarence House, set a challenge, but so did the address, for it occupied the townhouse at 40 East 57th Street, formerly the showroom of the highly influential tastemaker, Roslyn Rozier. Quickly both the name and the locale found their place in the registers of international textile mills, decorators and arbiters of style. Within the week, I placed my first order, which began a relationship that over the years has amounted to much more than yardage of Clarence House fabrics. Although it is now commonplace, the colors and quality of the chintz that was my first order were then quite a find in the New York market. And that pesky salesman, whom I soon learned was the owner, Robin Roberts, was to become one of my most vital and inspiring friends for the next 40 years.
From Clarence House's inception, Robin Roberts was intent on lavishing upon his contemporary market the high standards and production quality established by the best European mills. However, he also recognized the stamina of the fervent American interior design market, a market so very eager to distinguish itself and push the confines of use and customs. Robin's dreams were deeply in tune with the achievements of 20th Century design; he was emboldened with the abundance of his era which allowed him to search out global style, retain the best design staff and secure excellent production. His influence became immediately noticeable on 57th Street, as his seasonal window displays were as eagerly awaited for their flair and trends as were his bi-annual collections.
It was with the same astute 20th Century vision that Robin curated his private collections. As a guest at both his East-side New York apartment and his Bedford, NY home, Twin Ponds, one was surrounded by stunning textiles but also captivated by the unique nature and choice of each individual item. The abundant collection was gathered from around the world thus exemplifying how design links us globally.
Robin's New York apartment was designed with guidance from our dear friend, Jay Spectre. It reflected his relish for the avant-garde style of the late 60's, and was fitting for the life of a young textile entrepreneur with its screening room and a stainless steel powder room, an exact copy of an airplane lavatory. It was an example of what has become classic and brazen from that era, with such features as a Louise Nevelson sculpture filling an entire wall in a hunter green mohair upholstered living room, or the large charcoal Botero that rolled aside revealing a hall closet. Throughout the flat there were pieces by a number of young working artists intermixed with fine African and pre-Colombian masks and ceramics.
For many years Robin rented homes around the globe from which he played host to his friends. But once he determined that he had to build a home completely his own we undertook many weekend trips up to Westchester to find the right property. When first purchased, his Bedford, NY, property was not much more than 18 acres of marshland. Then Robin and Jay Spectre, with the distinguished architect Milton Klein and landscape designer, Armand Benedek, embarked on a multi-year project that developed into a 23 acre compound of modernist poured concrete and glass buildings and exquisite gardens.
The main house of Twin Ponds is like a Manhattan penthouse in the middle of a lush forest and with Robin's persistence each room mastered a symbiotic balance between works by important 20th Century designers and the meticulously installed gardens outside. A few examples of the commitment to this synthesis are the spacious living room that was constructed over a koi-filled reflecting pond and then decorated with furnishings by Ruhlmann, Süe et Mare, Chareau, Cheuret, Giacometti and Rateau; and the ebony macassar paneled dining room where, just beyond the window, a waterfall cascades beneath a weeping Katsura while on the room's opposing walls were a framed Dufy and a gilt sculpture of a nymph by Janniot.
It was always a delight on weekends to join Robin as he revealed a new, prized and well-researched find. He took joy in asking a guest to sit in the bronze Rateau chair and then educating them on its importance, or he would wryly stop before entering his very formal dining room to relate the rumored ménage à trois narrated in the unique Jagger relief, 'Scandal'. Robin loved the responsibility of being a collector and disseminating the importance of the decorative arts. However, he would become equally excited with his gardens, constantly luring his guests outside to observe the color palette, textures and singular blooms of each season.
Robin relished life in a grand style and was always determined to live his vision. His legacy, Clarence House, is readily found in the most spectacular interiors, not only in North America but around the world. And as exhibited in this catalogue, Robin Robert's personal collections reflect a universe of commerce allied with the most thoughtful and practical approach to design - an enduring 20th Century commitment to matching the best design and industry in the pursuit of a refined idea of beauty.
Maurice Bernstein, Executor
A TWO-PART LACQUERED SCREEN, CIRCA 1935