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2013 Master of the Southwest Linda Robinson - Interior designer

Author: Maria Matson
Issue: March, 2013, Page 90
Photos by Art Holeman

Interior designer Linda Robinson stands just inside the billiards room.

Interior designer Linda Robinson perfects the art of blending old and new

Some of Linda Robinson’s most important design lessons were learned at home.

“My own houses have always been my workshop,” Robinson says. “I grew up loving homes, loving architecture. So when I bought my first house at age 17, I found myself a hammer and saw and took a subscription to Popular Mechanics. I learned how to build cabinetry, hang wallpaper and upholster, and I learned how it all goes together. I think I have a natural ability. And I don’t mean that in an egotistical way; I just think that’s how I’m wired.”

In 1976, with years of hands-on experience under her tool belt and classes at the New York School of Design complete, Robinson moved from Connecticut to Tucson in search of a more casual, culturally diverse environment for her two children. “I had gone traveling around the Southwest to see what was going on and I got to Tucson on a 75-degree day in February. I thought, wow, this is what winters could be like. Then I went to a Mexican restaurant and had a cheese crisp. That cemented the deal.”

One half of the great room at the Littell residence in Tucson features a sectional large enough for the family of seven to pile on. Interior designer Linda Robinson used a damaged Navajo rug to create pillows. “It was a good rug, but it had lived its life and was beyond repair,” she says. “To me, the best of Southwest interior design is using native materials, as well as Native American pieces.” As such, she selected an “impervious” copper finish for the coffee table and displayed the homeowners’ collection of Native American art throughout the house. Antique doors hung on a barn track lead to a billiards room.
Her first unofficial design job in Arizona was making her family’s newly purchased Josias Joesler house feel like home. At first, meshing her formal antiques and streamlined Sheraton furniture with the home’s rustic adobe walls and high ceilings left her stumped. But she came upon a solution that would influence the rest of her career. “I sat there for months scratching my head, thinking, ‘What’s wrong with this picture: The house is gorgeous, the furniture pieces are gorgeous, but this looks dreadful. What’s happening?’ Over time, I came to realize it had a lot to do with scale. That’s when I learned to play with a combination of the old with the new, to mix Arizona with East Coast.”

After two years spent designing model homes, she branched out, co-founding Robinson Shades Design Group. For the next three decades as a partner in that firm, Robinson continued honing her skills and mastering the mix of old and new in a style she describes as “old Arizona, a rustic elegance.”

The company was a great success, but 30 years is a long time to do anything, says the Master of the Southwest. So, she set out on her own four years ago, forming Robinson Perry Design Group in a small studio tucked in the 22,000-square-foot Barrio-area warehouse where her husband, Phil Perry, designs and manufactures custom furniture. “This was an important move,” Robinson says. “My husband inspires my business, my creativity, my life.”

As a designer, Robinson herself inspired Tucson homeowner Kristen Littell, who had been paging through a coffee-table book when she came across a feature on Robinson’s own home. It was just the type of house she and her husband, Albin, envisioned for their growing family.

An adobe structure dating from the late 1800s serves as the core of the home. “The entry doors are integrated into what was the old collapsed south wall of the original adobe,” states architect Randy Jacob. “We salvaged the original adobe dirt from the collapsed walls and made our own adobes on-site to integrate back into the structure.” At the entry to an office, Robinson hung antique doors on barn tracks. “They are appropriate for the structure and allow the doors not to hang into the room,” she points out. “Instead, they slide over and lie against that wonderful mud wall, almost like a painting.”
“We were out driving around and, on a whim, we bought a piece of land with an old adobe dwelling,” Littell says. “We were determined to keep it, even though it was in ruins.” In reading the article, she learned that Robinson, too, had been out driving around when she found a remote property with a little adobe dwelling, which she restored and used as the core of her own home.

“It was such a similar story to ours,” Littell recalls. “I love organic architecture—using reclaimed materials and being cognizant of the natural surroundings—and that was what Linda had done with her own home. I felt like we shared the same passion, the same vision. Saving the adobe was a big can of worms, but I knew we could do it because Linda had done it. She was a great sounding board and a great role model.”

The resulting 8,500-square-foot adobe house, designed by Randel Jacob Design Group, sits on 10 acres in a riparian habitat. Says architect Randy Jacob, who believes the old adobe building dates from around the late 1860s to 1880, “Linda understood incredibly well the time period of the structure we were building around, and she respected it. She didn’t try to do anything too contrived; she approached the project from the historical aspect and incorporated the strengths of the time period into the house.” The interiors include plaster walls, reclaimed wood floors, antique doors and furniture upholstered with kilims and Navajo rugs—all hallmarks of the old Arizona style Robinson has become known for.

“I’m mad for this house,” Robinson says. “I’ve done a lot of very high-end homes in a lot of different states and I think this house in Tucson is my favorite. I’m one of the lucky ones. I’ve worked on many wonderful jobs over the years, doing what I really,
really love. I wouldn’t change a thing.”

This side of the great room is anchored by an antique stone fireplace. “It’s comfortable and a little bit more formal, but it still works with the family area in the same room,” remarks interior designer Linda Robinson. “One of my great beliefs in furnishing a home is to create a feeling of furniture collected over the years. I don’t believe in a room that’s decorated. I like it to feel like a room that fell together.” Artwork over the fireplace is by Robinson’s husband, Phil Perry. Hanging on the adjacent adobe wall is a painting by Howard Terpning.

This view of the entry hall shows an antique, sabino-wood console table and Spanish-style chairs upholstered in hand-tooled leather that Robinson placed against integrally colored plaster walls. The artwork is by Nicole Finger.
“I wanted it to feel like a cozy library, not just a room with a table,” says homeowner Kristen Littell of the dining room. The antique table, which is 12-feet long, was the first piece of furniture purchased during pre-design shopping excursions. The custom light fixture is around 7-feet long. An antique, hand-carved stone fireplace surround was placed on a base made with stone found on the property. The wood floors were salvaged from the roof of the original adobe building. “We created three or four places in the floor that squeak, on purpose, as a reminder of where the floor came from,” notes architect Randy Jacob.

Old, used-brick floors and reclaimed beams—both on the ceiling and on the range hood—lend a rustic European feel to the kitchen, Robinson notes. Cabinetry is distressed and painted a deep, matte brick red. The island, which incorporates a butcher-block at one end, is topped with a grayish-brown Caesarstone. The adjacent copper-topped table is bar height and is, according to Robinson, “an important central core for the kids.”
In this powder room, an antique console with a stone top serves as the vanity. Curlicue sconces mimic the vanity’s iron base. An antique door and adobe walls add historic charm.

The master bath features cherry cabinetry and antique brick on the counter, tub deck and back wall. A crystal chandelier adds a touch of sparkle.
Opposite the bed, an inset antique cabinet hides the television in a niche adjacent to a fireplace built largely with stone found on the property.

Photos - Clock-wise from top left: Antique doors open to the master suite with a centerpiece iron bed. “I wanted to achieve a very serene master bedroom,” Linda Robinson comments. “I love all the neutrals and the quiet tones; it’s an escape for parents who have five kids.”  • “We built a lot of deep porches so, even during the monsoons, we can be outside,” the homeowners note. To help create the ranch-house feeling they wanted, Linda Robinson used antique brick flooring and a massive mesquite timber as a mantel for the fireplace of this outdoor living room. Wood planks and beams create a grid effect under the corrugated-tin roof. • “We used stone elements in the project to respect the building tradition of the times,” Jacob says of the breezeway connecting the garage to the main house. “We used corrugated roofing material because that is what was on the original structure. We wanted to create some visual continuity while respecting the history of the structure.” Lintels above doors and windows are concrete, per current building codes, but serve as a “nod to the old wood lintels that were used in the day,” he notes. • The now-sprawling 8,500-square-foot residence began as an 1,800-square-foot crumbling adobe building. “The front elevation was designed according to what we thought the original structure might have looked like,” architect Randy Jacob says. “We found old window sashes and other original elements and used them to proportion and detail the project.” A water trough original to the property now serves as a planter.

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