Designer Roric Tobin On Choosing Art and Why Nothing Should Be Boring

“The people I work with want everything around them to be special," he says. "Nothing is an afterthought."

Roric Tobin has a reputation for being the art collector’s designer—particularly among elite collectors looking to meld their collecting philosophies with their interior aesthetics. The talent for bespoke art selection that has won him clients in the Americas, Europe and Asia might be innate but it’s also something he’s nurtured within himself. Tobin studied art history at Yale and makes a point of regularly visiting galleries, auction houses and the major art fairs because art is a passion he shares with his well-heeled clients.

A man in a tan suit gazes moodily into the camera
Roric Tobin. Photographer: Eric van den Brulle

It’s also one the designer brings to both Roric Tobin Designs and his exclusive lines of made-to-order and limited-edition luxury furnishings. “The people I work with,” he explains, “want everything around them to be special. Nothing is an afterthought.” Observer recently caught up with Tobin to discuss his unique approach to collaborating with clients who are collectors and what inspired him to expand into furniture design.

I saw you were recently at Frieze London. What role does art play in your design practice?

Art is a central focus of my design, and clients often come to me either already as collectors or because they have a desire to become collectors. Art is really the focus of the spaces we create, it’s not just a decorative afterthought. It’s something I’m passionate about. I obviously love art, and clients become passionate about it, too. It’s so personal. They’re drawn to certain works of art that they’ve lived with every day. It’s really an important part of interior spaces.

SEE ALSO: Jill Bokor On Art, Design Fairgoers and What Not to Miss at Salon

It’s rare that we’re just placing their established collections, though they may already be collectors and knowledgeable in that world. It becomes a fun part of the process—going to the art fairs with them and going to the galleries to find the right pieces for them. Often these clients have multiple homes, but sometimes we’re looking for pieces that complement the ones they already own. Collecting is never something that’s finished—it’s always a work in progress.

Walk me through how you choose art for clients. Are there artists you gravitate toward?

There are obviously artists that I like and that tend to blend nicely with my aesthetic. It’s also finding the clients’ tastes and understanding what they want. Working with someone new, it’s a learning process to zero in on what they like and sometimes it involves melding styles. In Mexico City, we hung a Frida Kahlo with a Yoshitomo Nara and it worked because they were both strong female depictions.

Some clients love contemporary, and some clients are drawn to midcentury like Kenneth Noland or Robert Motherwell. We cater to the client’s taste. I work with one client who’s drawn to all things geometric; she likes Donald Judd and things like that. Then there are clients who want van Dongen and more figurative art. Even if it’s not something I would put on my wall, I only propose things I believe have value artistically. You’re never going to regret buying the best you can; clients only regret the things they didn’t buy.

A bright and airy bedroom done in white, teals and yellows with a lucite bed frame and oceanic art on the wall
Tobin’s leather-clad, steel-trimmed Belmonte Side Tables topped with Skye Quartz and finished with a mirrored drawer front in Kips Bay Show House Palm Beach. © Kim Sargent

Your catchline is ‘designing for collectors.’ Can you elaborate on that?

Interior design has become very experiential for clients. The days of handing your designer a room and having them do it don’t exist anymore. Clients have Pinterest pages and things they like, but they don’t know how to pull it all together. When you focus on every piece being a collectible, from the art to the side tables to the accessories, that becomes very personal. We offer something unique in that we make sure everything is something the client has a personal connection with and enjoys. That’s what you’re getting by working with us. There are very tastefully furnished apartments you can buy, but those don’t have the same life as something that is designed for and tailored to the client.

In terms of designing for collectors, I love it. I have a passion for art and they have a passion for it, too—it really is a symbiotic relationship. Being able to see the reaction of people entering a space and seeing the artwork is really fun. We worked with one of the oldest vineyards in Napa and they wanted to elevate theirs above your standard Napa tasting room. They commissioned one of Chuck Close’s last works before he died, which was a massive daguerreotype of grapes. We also purchased this sculpture by Barnaby Barford from London of a bear that has become the unofficial mascot of the vineyard. It’s not just the owner who is experiencing the artwork; everyone who visits gets that same experience.

Who in the design world inspires you? How about outside of it?

Zaha Hadid is a major figure I find inspiring. She really pushed forward with a purpose. Everything she did was beautiful; she never just took this shape to make a shape. Every decision she made in her furniture pieces had a purpose. Patrik Fredrikson and Ian Stallard do some amazing pieces. A lot of the designers I find inspiring are working with organic forms. I’m very drawn to that—taking those organic forms and recreating them in contemporary materials. Materials are very important to me. Nothing should just be boring.

An dining room in a bright space with a painted teal ceiling and lots of colorful art on the walls
The interior of Tobin’s 1920s Dutch Colonial. Courtesy Roric Tobin

Why did you decide to launch your own furniture line? (Your Flow table is just astonishingly beautiful.)

There are so many materials that excite me and that I wanted to use, but you can only use so many of them in a single project. Having the opportunity to create them for other people outside of my client base has been great. I love going to the woodworker and asking what exotic materials we can use together to create something special. There’s a richness in natural materials you can’t replicate, and while there’s nothing wrong with standard things, sometimes you want to do something a little different. We just did an amazing high-end biotech headquarters in Greenwich, Connecticut—including their art collection—and we paneled the entire lobby in this magnolia wood, which is a very different wood you don’t see every day that has this richness that sets it apart.

There were ideas that I had that I thought would be out there, but then I discovered there wasn’t a lot of mixing together of materials like stone and wood. I love using marble in furniture for headboards and sofa frames, and obviously, that’s not for everyone. For my clients, though, it’s been something different and unique. I do think that excitement was something that was missing in the marketplace.

Designer Roric Tobin On Choosing Art and Why Nothing Should Be Boring