21st Century luxury

Art, sustainability come together for Swanton man

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By Tom Benton, St. Albans Messenger

Messenger Contributor

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SWANTON – As any member of its arts council will tell you, Swanton residents have always had hidden artistic talents in need of a forum. But few of those residents have found it in the Big City. Actually, only one.

That’s 48-year-old Robert Arpin. Last week, he launched PARLOUR, his unique furniture brand, at Spin NYC in SoHo. He’s still trying to spread his work around, to find other showrooms to display his pieces – but their SoHo debut went really well, he says, well enough to draw the attention of Interior Design magazine.

“What I’ve launched is just part of what I’ve been working on for 15 years,” Arpin said. “I worked in the hospitality industry for quite a while, making really good money working in a steak house. I was just designing.”

He said he went through a difficult time in the early 2000s. To get through, he poured himself into designing.

“I was taking my time in designing things,” he said. “The motivation was less financial, more cathartic.”

Now he’s slowly releasing almost two decades of work. The pieces include chairs, desks, a room divider, a screen – all gaunt and skeletal. Their curves are jagged, like those of interlocked bones. A chair’s legs resemble a horse’s; the pieces seem tall and humanoid.

“That’s what the Renaissance was all about, that’s what Da Vinci was all about,” Arpin said. “Using human proportions. It’s supposed to be a little skeletal. That’s what I feel right now. We live in a very two-dimensional, reduced, skeletal time. Everyone wants a sound bite. Everyone wants everything reduced to something they can get in a second, but everything is complex at the same time.”

A screen he calls “Eastern Exposure,” and describes as “decomposing,” has been singled out.

“It’s gotten so much attention,” he said. “It’s really, really beautiful, but at the same time it’s not really that useful and it’s expensive and so it’s perfect for New York.”

Arpin says he’s “willing to be a little extravagant. I have a $600 desk or I have an $8,000 room divider. There’s a high-end aspect to it as well. I’m not just doing little shaker-like things. That’s what you do in New York to get attention: you wave your flag a little.”

But don’t call him a New Yorker. Arpin says he’s still deeply rooted in Franklin County.

“I come back every three months,” he said. “I just have this need to drive all over Franklin County.”

He was born in Quebec, but raised in Swanton from the age of 10. “I’ve been all over the world, and I still think the Champlain Valley is one of the most gorgeous places I’ve ever been to,” he said. “Swanton is still the most beautiful place on earth to me.”

He says the patience it’s taken to develop PARLOUR – in relative silence, over nearly two decades ­– comes from his local upbringing.

“I have a tolerance for not having money, coming from Franklin County,” he laughs.

But even the PARLOUR brand itself comes from the Green Mountain State – in fact, PARLOUR is its second name.

Its first? MONTPELIER.

“It started in Vermont,” Arpin said, when he enlisted Shelburne resident Bill Baynham’s aid in making wood samples. “I had this idea for the shapes. I had someone make them by hand, then I decided to use C&C technology – basically a smart machine, a bit controlled by a computer, so it can cut anything that a computer file contains. That got me interested in using that kind of technology to easily duplicate things.”

Arpin lived in Manhattan at the time, in a small studio on 30th St. – too small to hold a workshop.

“So for the first couple of years, I was doing it in Vermont,” Arpin said, using his mother’s house and a friend’s garage in St. Albans to “tinker away.” By the time he began working in New York, he’d devised a practical and flexible system of template designs.

“It turned into this idea of having things made where they’re sold,” Arpin said. On the home page of his brand’s website, parlourusa.com, the biggest line reads: “The future of manufacturing is local.”

“What I was discovering was that any shop could basically execute what I was doing if I used the same material,” said Arpin.

For now, he’s using Baltic birch plywood. “It’s 100 percent wood,” Arpin said. “It’s 11 layers of Baltic birch, generally imported from Finland, but it’s distributed all over the world. So I’m using a channel that’s already established. I was able to find this material just about anywhere, and the smart machines to produce it are everywhere. If we start selling in Miami, I source the product in Miami. If someone wants a product in London, I would source the product in London, rather than put it in a box and FedEx it. I’ve reduced the carbon footprint to almost nothing.”

Environmental sustainability is crucial to Arpin. “Having something made in your community, it’s added value,” he said. “I can have something cut out of alabaster, and have it shipped from China, or India, to a showroom in New York, expending an extraordinary amount of energy in the transportation and carbon in the air… or I can have it made locally, out of a sustainable material like Baltic birch, which is extraordinarily sustainable: the forests just get bigger and bigger. In other words, instead of saying, ‘It’s amazing because it’s made out of alabaster,’ I’m saying, in the 21st century, something’s amazing because it used hardly any carbon. I think how we define what luxury is, in the 21st century. Luxury in the 21st century really means having the means to do the least harm possible.”

Arpin says he’s focused on community perseverance, which, he adds, is a very Vermont idea.

“People want to know where their food comes from,” he said. “People want to know if children were harmed in the making of clothing. People are really interested in things that save the jobs of people they know in the community, and keeping money in the community and keeping resources in the community. That’s the thing about sustainability: it’s more than just hugging trees.”

PARLOUR’s slogan is “Furniture for the internet of things.”

“I’m really interested in the idea that as we have less stuff to store, it’s more about having something to display what you keep,” Arpin said. “When I was growing up, you had CDs, you had videocassettes, you had piles and piles of magazines, you had books and books and books… all of these things are going away. I have a shelving unit called Stage – it’s less of a bookcase than it is a stage, because the things that you do keep moving forward are going to be more and more important.”

But what PARLOUR is really all about, he says, “is about communicating. It’s about a community. It’s really about the communication between the designer, the shop that sells it, the shop that makes it and the user. It’s very easy to solve problems when they’re happening locally rather than across the world.”

Arpin cites major financial successes Air B&B, Uber and Lyft as examples of his business model: taking available resources and connecting them, through 21st century means. But he also says PARLOUR isn’t all about business.

“It’s more about leaving behind something that means something,” he said. “I don’t have children. I don’t forsee having children. This is a legacy thing for me. I’m 48.

“This is my mark.”

At the moment, Arpin spends most of his time in North Bergen, N.J., separated from midtown Manhattan by the Hudson River and a 20-minute bus ride.

The road to now, launching a furniture brand in New York, was much longer, and much bumpier.

“I was that weirdo who dressed in black and listened to the Smiths,” Arpin laughs. “I did pretty well in school. I liked to read. I was always in my own fantasy world. But it wasn’t easy.

“I’m a gay man. That wasn’t easy. At all. Especially not when I was in Swanton. I went to MVU until I was in the 10th grade, and I was tortured. I was really tortured. And it wasn’t Swanton specifically, that’s just how it was back then.

“I think that made me more introspective. It also made me more determined.”

Arpin moved to Montreal when he was 19, at which point “I was able to be myself.”

Shortly thereafter, he moved to New York, where he spent five years “just being free” until he enrolled in design school. He says he’s always had the gothic edge his PARLOUR work shows.

“I like things that are dark,” he said. “But that only makes sense, in that every day I went to school somebody would slam me into the lockers and my books would go flying. I’d never learn. I’d always carry this huge pile of books that would always end up on the ground. That informs you. And it makes you tough.”

Right now, Arpin’s getting ready for the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in May. But in the long-term, he says, he’s looking for a house in Franklin County.

“My heart is there,” Arpin said.

  • George Thabault

    Tom Benton — thanks for a great article. My wife and I were up visiting the area Saturday and picked up the paper at a gas station on Lake Street to find your page 1 story: a solid, in-depth look at an interesting man, his design career to date, his views on creativity and sustainability, and his reflections on some of the personal battles he endured along the way.