(all photographs by Peter Murdock)
When legendary fashion illustrator Donald Robertson woke up this morning, he reached for his iPhone in search of inspiration for the drawing he posts each morning to Instagram.
“Should I do a Bruce Jenner thing?” he asked himself while perusing the latest pop culture headlines. But then his eye fell on an image of former French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld with her young granddaughter in tow, each wearing matching leopard print coats.
“Now that’s a grandmother in 2014,” Robertson thought. He padded down the stairs of his Westchester home to a colorful studio in the basement, its two windows papered over with giant eyes—reminiscent of a Chanel ad—to block out the light. Sitting down at his desk with a blank pad of paper and clean brush water, he began to draw.
Minutes later, he posted the still-wet sketch of Roitfield, soon getting more than 600 likes from his 22,000-plus followers. Just as quickly, the editor of Vogue Korea emailed asking for an interview. Something like this happens every day.
Robertson has been showcasing his couture-inspired drawings on Instagram since December 2012. They’re often humorous and sometimes satirical: One depicts the duo behind Proenza Schouler playing cards with a giraffe; another reimagines Anna Wintour as a lamp. He creates three every morning—a gestural sketch, another using gaffer tape from the hardware store (which comes in a “gazillion” colors) and a third in whatever medium he feels like. And it all happens before his 20-minute train ride into Grand Central, to his office at Smashbox Cosmetics in the Estée Lauder headquarters, where he says his job is to “project creativity.”
Offline, Robertson has made his name in the fashion world as a man who makes things happen behind the scenes. The Toronto native co-founded MAC Cosmetics and in 1994 created its infamous HIV/AIDS awareness lipstick campaign, Viva Glam. In 1996, he left the makeup business to work for 10 years as the creative director of Condé Nast America, where he launched Marie Claire.
Even then, his imagination came to life in the form of gestural drawings very similar to those he makes today. Before a photo shoot, he used to hand them out as utilitarian blueprints for his creative vision, a conspicuously old-fashioned habit in an increasingly computer-oriented world. The sketches never made it into the magazines, but they’re how he met his wife, decorator Kim Gieske, then an editor at Glamour. “She was always like, ‘Where are the drawings? I need the Donald drawings,’ Robertson recalls.
In those days, the city was an inspiring place for Robertson. He lived all over Manhattan, starting out in an apartment on Bleecker and Grove Streets, moving to Soho, then to the Upper West Side and lastly to a 12th Street townhouse. But after he and Gieske married in 2004 and started a family, New York lost its luster.
They’re now just north of the city in Larchmont, where they inhabit a picturesque, three-story clapboard house flanked by two sunrooms. Just blocks away from the rocky coastline of Long Island Sound, it might as well be a home in the Hamptons. There’s even a white picket fence and an American flag outside. “My wife had her eye on this house, and she just knocked on the door and told the people they had to sell it to us,” Robertson explains.
They’ve been renovating for the past five years: first the kitchen, then the bedrooms and finally the third floor. Gieske, who has designed homes for the likes of Gwyneth Paltrow and Donatello Versace, has swathed the airy space in sandy textiles and beachy pastels. There’s more than enough room for the couple’s five kids, two dogs and—of course—all of Robertson’s art. “If you leave the city, you’re allowed to get stuff like this,” he grins.
In addition to the drawings, Robertson also paints on would-be garbage, transforming milk jugs, pizza boxes and paper grocery bags into high-end luxury items like Louis Vuitton suitcases and Birkin handbags. And then there are the walnuts. In Robertson’s hands, the mundane shells become effigies of everyone from Karl Lagerfeld to Dita Von Teese.
What do his kids think about their father’s work? “My one son is like, ‘Dad, please don’t post any more walnuts [on Instagram]. So many kids at my school follow you, and they think you’re just in the basement painting walnuts,’” Robertson says of his 15-year-old. His 8-year-old, Teddy, suggests that the father gleans a little too much inspiration from his son’s artwork: “He totally copied my octopus,” he complains, pointing to a drawing of the purple creature pinned to the kitchen wall. “I completely and totally steal his stuff,” Robertson admits.
Between keeping up with work and family, he connects to the outside world with Instagram. Since beginning to post his art online, Marie Claire has commissioned him to illustrate spreads in the magazine, Lisa Perry has invited him to decorate her Madison Avenue store with gaffer tape, and the fashion designer Giles Deacon has incorporated one of Robertson’s more famous images—a pair of plump, red lips—in his latest collection. (At dinner the other day, his 17-year-old daughter informed him that one of those dresses featuring the lips had made it on the cover of British InStyle). He’s now working on a sketch series of different dog breeds modeling the latest runway collections for a new Spanish magazine by Luis Venegas. “It will be my favorite project when it actually comes out,” Robertson says.
Despite his illustrious past, he acts surprised by all of the attention. “I’m in a basement in suburbia, and Pharrell Williams is regramming me,” he marvels. Some of his paintings sell on the shopping app Trendabl for upwards of $1,600, and he can’t keep them stocked fast enough. If he wanted to, he could probably quit his job, but he says he doesn’t believe in being a full-time artist. In fact, he donates all of the money from private commissions to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.
“If you’re alone, doing art all day, it’s a bit of a drag,” Robertson claims. It’s a thrill for him to wake early when it’s still dark outside, work in the studio for a while and then head into Manhattan to trudge through the corporate world for a few hours. “You appreciate when you do come home,” he says. “Whereas if you’re totally free, it’s not as much fun. It’s not as much of a gift.”