Local Artisan Michael Robbins: The Man Behind the Barril Chair
There’s a high chance you’re reading this in Scribner’s 1,850-square-foot lobby lounge. From a low-key clubhouse for Catskill locals, to a cozy haven for out-of-towners seeking refuge from the city, there’s no denying that people come out of their way to relax in the space, which seamlessly integrates structural integrity and local craft with sleek, modern design—but honestly, go and see for yourself. Though the stovepipe fireplace is the focal point, it’s the chairs that punctate the room that breathe life into the lobby, and among them are six pieces designed by local woodworker Michael Robbins, who Brooklyn-based design group Studio Tack tapped after seeing a prototype of his Barril chair.
Studio Tack saw Scribner’s as an opportunity to think outside the box, co-founder Ruben Caldwell says. His team, which outfitted the newly-renovated hotel last winter, was immediately drawn to the unique look of Robbins’ chair, which features a curved cherry frame, tall spindle back, short legs, and a plush chenille upholstery in navy blue—each of the six are identical. “The Barril chair is a fantastic looking object. The aesthetic has a kind of midcentury DNA, while being a fresh take on some of the materiality and form of that era—very similar to our concept for the hotel,” says Caldwell, adding that Robbins being a local maker was equally as important.
Mild-mannered and thoughtful, Robbins prefers to let his work speak for itself. His craft is a constant evolution guided by a design vocabulary he’s been honing over the last decade, so he’s cautious to sum himself up too easily. “I’m constantly building my body of work, and pieces are being edited out and added, so it’s always becoming more articulate,” he explains of his self-taught aesthetic.
Born and raised in the Central New York’s Mohawk Valley, 35-year-old Robbins is the son of a woodworker and shied away from following in his father’s footsteps, instead opting for art school to pursue photography. But his calling came knocking. After school, Robbins spent a year living in a tent in Vermont as an apprentice to a head carpenter on a timber frame, which is where he began to love and develop his craft.
“I learned the building aspect first, but I realized that, for me, it would be monotonous just doing framing or construction, so I got interested in more and more intricate smaller pieces, like furniture,” he says of his eventual shift to designing. When an opportunity to go to New Mexico to build an adobe guest house came calling, he jumped at the chance to push his craft. “That project allowed me to focus on the creative process from start to finish and learn to make intentional decisions on how to move a space in a certain direction aesthetically, via choices like finishings and dimensions,” he reflects. “It was really my first experience with process-driven design.”
Robbins has worked out of a woodshop in Philmont on the east side of the Hudson River for the last four years, and in 2017, he opened a showroom in Germantown—another spot that’s received renewed attention thanks to the cultural shift in the Catskills.
A distinct style has emerged in Robbins’ work over the last decade. His pieces appear lightweight, airy even, yet boldly striking. It’s easy to see the influence from his love of midcentury modern and Shaker furniture—though his work employs design nuances that sets it apart. “Materials are a huge part of my process—mixing them in surprising ways and playing with colors to come up with palettes,” Robbins reveals. Indeed, Caldwell notes that it was Robbins’ “amazing inventiveness and thoughtful use of a materials” that first drew Studio Tack to his work.
At Scribner’s, the Barril chairs certainly hold their weight in a room full of stimulating design, and how items relate with each other in context is important to Robbins. “I take pictures of all my own work and think of things from a visual standpoint as a photographer. I always imagine how something will look in a photograph—how things relate to being seen in a space,” he says. Considering that the Scribner’s lounge is snapped and Instagrammed more than the sweeping views of Hunter Mountain that surround the Lodge, there’s no doubt his considered design will live on in many a perfectly composed photograph.
By Anna Deutsch
Photography: Matt Rubin