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Hunting for Treasures with John Robshaw

After earning a fine arts degree at Pratt and studying traditional block printing in China, John Robshaw journeyed to India to find natural indigo dye for his paintings. Instead, he fell in love with the fabric-making traditions of the local artisans—and he has been traveling across Asia in search of inspiration for his beloved textile brand ever since. This September, John will be hosting a crafts-focused Insider Journey to Uzbekistan, with stops in Tashkent, Bukhara and Samarkand. Here, the global curator shares why this Central Asian nation is one to watch—especially for lovers of design.

In September, John Robshaw will host our very first Insider Journey to Uzbekistan, opening doors to private homes and artisan workshops for an immersive look at the country’s unique crafts and history. Click here to learn more about the trip and book your spot now.

How have you seen Uzbekistan evolve since you first visited eight years ago?

John Robshaw: Even though Europeans have always been traveling there, Uzbekistan wasn’t on the American radar when I first went—which was partially due to the fact that, until very recently, it was difficult to get a visa. Travel trends tend to filter west through Europe, so now, Uzbekistan is becoming popular like Morocco or India—though perhaps a bit scruffier—and Americans are starting to go.

What are your favorite aspects of Uzbek design?

JR: The silk ikat tradition, which originates in Uzbekistan. What many people don’t know is that most of the silk ikat textiles that are so coveted in places like India and Istanbul are in fact made in Uzbekistan. Russia granted the country independence in 1991, but before that, the economy was closed, so merchants smuggled the Uzbek textiles into India and Turkey, where they could be sold.

From a design perspective, what is unique about Uzbekistan?

JR: Uzbekistan still has a thriving domestic market for design. I love India, but shopping there is a total hodgepodge, with foreign-made items mixed in. Uzbekistan is a smaller, more isolated country, so the traditional textiles have stayed largely intact, with many locals still wearing them. Everything from the textures to the colors is truly authentic to the area. You know when you’re in an Uzbek shop—it’s the real deal.

What are some things about traveling to Uzbekistan that most Westerners would not know?

JR: Being at the crossroads of central Asia—with a long history of invasions—the Uzbek people are very different and visiting the country is full of surprises. The food is amazing, and the landscapes are all rolling hills and mountains punctuated by small market towns, meadows, forests of poplars and great fruit orchards. It’s also very sleepy because of its history under Russian control, which kept it from developing for so long. There are these funny moments where you feel like you’ve gone back in time: you’ll be in a jazz bar that feels like it’s straight out of the 1950s, complete with a Russian guy playing the piano. Uzbekistan is a niche destination, and it’s remained isolated.

What are some hidden gems of Uzbekistan that will be especially appealing to design lovers?

JR: The old flea markets, which we’ll visit on our September tour, are amazing. They’re the sort of places where you don’t know any names, but you know where they are; I love the Soviet Market in Tashkent, the weekend market outside of Samarkand and the spots near the hammam in Bukhara. It’s the type of shopping that requires some walking and exploration—but it’s so rewarding.

How does travel inform your work as a designer?

JR: For me it directly relates to textiles. Seeing different techniques, colors and traditions—from the bazaars to the mosques— is all inspiration for me, and when I go to a new place, it wakes me up. I take photos, draw sketches, buy things and fill up suitcases to use in my next collection. You see all of these different ways that people are working, and it enlightens you; it shakes you up.

Top activities not to miss in Uzbekistan?

JR: Visit the Fergana Valley for silks, the Bolo Haouz Mosque in Bukhara, the Museum of Applied Arts in Tashkent, the hammam in Bukhara and the wholesale markets.

Most important thing in your carry-on?

JR: A shawl for the plane, a sketchbook and Muji pens, and of course my phone.

Best mementos to bring back?

JR: A silk ikat scarf and a rug, if you can carry it!

In September, John Robshaw will host our very first Insider Journey to Uzbekistan, featuring time in Tashkent, Bukhara and Samarkand. Click here to learn more about the trip and book your spot now. You can follow John’s travels on Instagram @johnrobshaw.

– Elizabeth Harvey on May 8, 2019

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Quotable

If you’re into authentic tradition, there’s nowhere better than Uzbekistan.
~ John Robshaw, Textile Designer and Insider Journey host

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