Richard Rothbard is a master woodworker, a successful businessman and gallery owner--his American Craftsman galleries represent over four hundred artists nationwide—and the originator of a unique style of intricately carved wooden puzzle boxes.
I sat down for a chat with Richard (next to his beautiful wood plank free-form table) to find out about his "inner termite" and to learn his secrets for running a successful creative business.
Ying Zhu: What was your first experience working with wood?
Richard Rothbard: Oh my goodness! My first experience with wood was in high school, in wood shop, where I was trying to make a baseball bat. I wish I had that baseball bat now. It was the ugliest baseball bat ever! Oh it was so ugly, and mis-shapened! I was a hideous wood worker back then.
YZ: How did you get better at it?
RR: I started taking wood more seriously when I moved to New York City, when I was an aspiring actor. I bought pine, and started putting pieces up for shelving and paneling in my apartment. I don't know, it seemed like I had a knack for it. I made some interesting crude pieces in my early twenties and developed some skills.
Then I gave it up to pursue my acting career, until I saw a table that inspired me and took me back to wood working.
I got better as I worked with other woodworkers. I learned how not to cut my fingers off, I learned how to make furniture with people who are very good at it. And then, there was a lot of self-discovery and experimenting.
YZ: Tell us about that table.
RR: It was a dinning table my aunt had gotten from George Nakashima, who was a premier woodworker and architect way back then. He took natural form slabs of tree and fashioned them into pieces of furniture. I became fascinated with that and I wanted to do that, so I did.
YZ: Where do you get your inspirations for your pieces?
RR: The wood itself is inspiring. I think maybe in my previous life, I was a termite. [laughs] I love wood. I love the variations from species to species, all the different colors, characters, grains, happenings, all of the imperfections which are often very beautiful.
Parts of the wood where there are a lot of activity, where the grain gets complex and intense, like at the fork of a tree, which is called a crotch; that's where all the character occurs. Or if there is a disease in the tree, and you can see it growing on the side of the tree. You cut those off and cut into the tree, you get these amazing swirly, curly patterns, and those are the prizes! So the wood itself really inspires me.
When I got into this business, I enjoyed making things people like. People would say, "Can you make this? Can you make that?" So their ideas inspired me as well.
YZ: Where do you get your wood? Is there a particular type of wood you like to work with?
RR: Everywhere from California to South America. We have a lot of beautiful domestic woods here in our own land.
Within every species, there are pieces of wood that are special. But if I had to pick a few favorites, I like Cocobolo--which is a rosewood--it's hard to come by but it's incredible. I also like California Buckeye, huge trees which only grow in Southern California. It has amazing characteristics both in the grain and in its colors. It's almost like a burl even though it's not a burl. It has properties that make the wood very stable: it never warps. And it's easy to work with. People are usually fascinated by the beauty of the Buckeye.
YZ: Can you tell us about a piece of work that you are particularly proud of?
RR: There were a lot of special pieces...I once did a commissioned piece for a man named Ely Callaway. Callaway Golf was once one of the biggest sporting goods company in the nation. Ely Callaway was the founder and did some very creative and amazing things in his life. So the company commissioned me to do a piece for his 77th birthday. It was really his entire life story in a gigantic box. They gave me videos, photos, articles about his life, his stories, his marriages, his divorces, his family, his hobbies, his investments and other things. And I made it all into a box. So that was a very special and dramatic piece.
YZ: I read that you also made furniture for Grace Slick, what was that like?
RR: Oh that was in 1976! I had a store called Impression in wood, and we had some furniture and other crafts in the store. This couple came in, wearing jean jackets, hippies from wherever they were from, and I didn't think much of it. Then, they started picking out pieces, "we like this, we want that." And when they wrote out a check for the $40,000 worth of goods, I looked at the check and it said: "The Jefferson Airplane Loves You" and was signed by Grace Slick. I also made a custom cradle for their baby. The baby's name was God.
YZ: Okay! What did that cradle looked like?
RR: Hmm, it was pretty weird. [laughs]
YZ: How did you come to represent other artists?
RR: Well, in my woodworking career, I would do craft fairs, and art shows. I got into this wholesale event in Rhinebeck, NY. and ended up starting my own craft show. I got a bunch of followers and met lots of crafts people and opened up a store in New York, down in Greenwish Village, Impression in Wood.
All the artists in my wholesale shows gave me their work; these were all professional artists who made fabulous work. So I was off to a running start because of these great connections. And then, that just grew! We opened up more stores, and hosted more shows. And now we have hundreds of artists we represent.
YZ: What advice do you have for people who are unsatisfied with their career, yet too scared to explore their creative talents and true passions?
RR: If you can afford to, you do whatever that you love, and you better do it. If you can't afford to, you find a way to do both, a job that pays the bill and supports your creative talent.
YZ: What's the secret to your success?
RR: I have been very fortunate. I think I pay attention to things that a lot of people in my industry just don't. I like to move fast; while other people are still thinking about it, I've already got it done. I really don't like retail that much. I like opening stores, and producing art shows and craft fairs. We opened one last year in the Javits Center here in New York, it was very successful, and I had a show in Sarasota Florida, one in the Berkshires, in Tanglewood called the Berkshire arts festival. That, is a business I really love...
YZ: Why do you love it?
RR: Because it's self-financing. It requires no inventory of your own. You are representing artists by putting on a show for them, to which they pay you to produce the event for them.
To be successful, you need to be very good at marketing, and you have to be willing to take risks, like any other business.
I sometime move a little too fast, but my wife Joanna keeps me grounded. She is the key person who holds everything together. She is amazing! Amazing in her ability to take on whatever comes our way, she is the operation person, she is phenomenal with computers, she is a good editor, she is tireless. I'm an impatient guy, and she's got lots and lots of patience. And I think she likes what I do.
Sometime she jokes around and say "we need to get a divorce, this is just way too much for me". But we haven't done that [smile]
It's been a very interesting journey and a very rewarding business, because we are surrounded by creativity and wonderful people.
Richard Rothbard currently has two galleries in Manhattan; a gallery in Stockbridge, Massachusetts; and a gallery in Savannah, Georgia. http://www.anamericancraftsman.com/index.html
His American Art Marketing Company produces fine art and fine crafts events for artists year round. http://www.americanartmarketing.com/shows.htm
Boxology by Richard Rothbard http://www.boxology.com/
An American Craftsman Gallery
Sheraton Manhattan Hotel
790 7th Ave, corner 52nd St
New York, NY
An American Craftsman Gallery
36 Main Street
Stockbridge MA, 01262
An American Craftsman Gallery
223 West Broughton Street
Savannah GA, 31401