It was the seventies, and Julie Robinson was 27, divorced and “trying to figure out what the heck to do with myself,” as she puts it now. “I wanted to do more with my life.”
Unfettered and newly a member of the women’s liberation movement, she drove out to California to visit a friend on her boat. “I met my husband, Dennis [White], on the boat next to ours,” she recalled, perched on a plush sofa in a back room of her business, Julie Robinson Interiors.
“Over a period of time we went down to Mexico with a group of anarchists. Dennis and I wanted to sail around the world together, so I bought half a share of his sailboat. He was a great sailor, very confident. We sailed around the world for eight years, and had two children on that boat.
“Talk about an education!” said the award-winning interior designer, dressed neatly in a crisp, white button-down over black and grey striped leggings.
What she learned at sea was, as she put it, “obstacles are just something you just have to get by.
“It was just Dennis and myself out in the middle of the ocean; you had to fix it or you were going to perish out there. That was a really good thing about it.”
“Oh!” she said, jumping up a bit from her seat.
“And I learned I could survive without my dad. That was huge.”
“I would repair sails, cushions, anything in the ports. I could call and say ‘I just made 500 bucks in Fiji, so, hey, Dad, I’m not a bum!’”
Today, Ms. Robinson’s store off Breakdown Lane in Vineyard Haven is a modern-day pirate’s treasure, filled from top to bottom with one-of-a-kind furniture, jewelry, art and fabric. As the rooms of her store progress farther outward and upward in the building, the furniture varies and gets weirder — in a good way. It gets funkier, more colorful, which speaks to her personality and range as a collector.
After their eight-year jaunt on the ocean, she and her husband docked indefinitely on Martha’s Vineyard to raise their children. Ms. Robinson kept up her handiwork, making her living in a shop much smaller than her current space.
“My first shop was out of the back of my car. I just put an ad in the Gazette that I did slipcovers and sewing. Then after a number of years I started getting into blinds and shades, and got someone else to do the sewing.
“Then we built our house in West Tisbury, and my first office was in the basement. I did a finished room down there,” she said, stretching her arms out as if to re-imagine it, “I had a lot of fabric books, window treatment books. The good old days.”
Ms. Robinson purchased her current retail space at Breakdown Lane in 2004.
“Everything was going along fine, business was going great, until 2008 when I got ovarian cancer,” she said.
“It’s been a rough couple of years, but I was lucky, I was supported by great people who helped me while I went through it. My friends, my family, my clients were great. And I’m still here, and happy to be here.”
Last November dealt a particularly cruel blow. Ms. Robinson’s husband was part of a three-man sailing venture to the Bahamas which ended tragically in the death of his best friend, William (Willie) Thorns. The accident also left Mr. White and Mr. Thorns’ daughter, Amanda, adrift on their doomed boat, the Emma Goldman, for 12 days before being rescued by an oil tanker.
“It’s been a very hard few years,” said Ms. Robinson, adding that she has found the Bodhi Path Buddhist Center in West Tisbury, among other resources, a source of healing. “The most helpful thing I’ve taken away is that we can control our thoughts,” she said.
“Things come and go; in one life you can’t hold on to everything, whether it’s a person or a thing. And it’s the same with your thoughts.
“I also like to stretch, I feel good getting up and moving and doing window treatments myself,” she smiled, genuinely enthused by thought of it.
Ms. Robinson also, like many, uses work as therapy. “I like to help others, I love what I do,” she said.
“To me, everyone’s the same. If you’re an individual, I’m interested in you. Everyone’s in for a different reason. I don’t care if you have a million bucks or 10 dollars in your pocket. I treat everyone the same. I love my clients, they are all different and that’s what makes it so interesting.”
Last fall she started to put consignment items up for sale in her showroom.
“I started selling my clients’ furniture if we were doing their house and I was replacing something. I’d say, ‘Okay, how about I put it in my store? We’ll put it in the showroom and we’ll try to sell it for you.’ And they were happy about that.
“I’m always honest about everything, so I’ll tell you: I didn’t have to start doing the consignment thing, it’s not a money-maker,” she said. It seems she does it simply because she can, and because it helps. And, as she prefers, it keeps things interesting.
On that note, Ms. Robinson has decided it’s time for another big change. This fall she’ll make the move to the large barn on her property in West Tisbury. “It was the space we built the boat in,” she notes of the Emma Goldman. “But we’ll be adding a few more rooms.
“I’m going to be doing exactly what I’m doing now,” she explained. “After cancer and two knee replacements I don’t want to do a whole new thing. I want to stay doing what I’m good at.”
Robinson will take her loyal staff with her, including her custom furniture builder and upholsterer, Richard Dumas, who also makes charming, handcrafted children’s furniture from recycled wood. “He’s great, oh, he’s a wonderful guy. And he does beautiful work,” she said. “Everyone is coming with me.”
While all of the pieces which she owns will make the move, not all of the consignment pieces will.
“The good pieces I will keep,” she said, “and some I will give back to the clients. I always like to recycle everything.
“When you sail around the world you see how some people who have so little can live. Everything is recycled on those islands. Everything is sustainable.
“What happens to most of us is you spend half your life collecting things. You think you want this, that, you want to fix your house up so you buy all this stuff over the years. Then you get to a certain point in your life and you say, ‘Now I have too much.’
They become burdens,” she said. “The less you have, the freer you are.
“I have so much of everything. There is nothing anyone can give me anymore. And they’ve definitely stopped trying to give me jewelry!” Ms. Robinson laughed. Now, said the woman who considers the upkeep of the soul as important as our physical surroundings, “All I want is time. Time, health, and love.”