The Enigmatic Robert Loughlin

Design Miami/
Nov 28, 2012 12:11pm
Robert Loughlin was a figure of legend. During his lifetime, his uncanny talent for scouting important design work on the secondhand market – together with his nearly compulsive penchant for painting a particular motif on the objects he found – made him an icon among a select group of art and design collectors based primarily in New York City. This relatively small but extremely loyal circle of devotees included such luminaries as Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe and Jean-Michel Basquiat. Mostly through word of mouth, the myth of Loughlin has burgeoned today into a widespread fascination with his inscrutable and unique productions.
Loughlin was a consummate picker. Since the 1970s, long before the market for collectible modern design had grown legs, Loughlin spent his time scouring flea markets, estate sales, and thrift stores for forgotten treasures. He briefly ran a gallery in San Francisco dedicated to midcentury industrial design and then moved to New York in the early 80s, attracted to the underground subculture of downtown artists and scenesters. Once there, he developed an exclusive clientele that shared a deep appreciation for his eye for design. According to stories, he made sales by driving around town to the homes and galleries of his patrons with a weekly collection of his finds in the back of his truck, conducting transactions right on the street. It is said that Andy Warhol referred to Loughlin as the “Chairman” because he acquired so many chairs from him. Loughlin was secretly instrumental in spurring the resurgence of vintage modern that occurred around the end of the 1990s.
A man of many gifts, Loughlin developed his painting career hand-in-hand with his work as a picker. Around the same time that he moved to New York, he began to paint a specific caricature over and over on the surfaces of the vintage furniture, paintings, and domestic wares that he acquired. Dubbed “The Brute,” this recurring image consists of the head of an exaggeratedly masculine, rather menacing man with a prominent, square jaw, always with a cigarette between his lips. Stylistically, The Brute is reminiscent of comic book illustrations from the postwar era, but he relates also to some of the Neo Pop painting coming out of New York in the 80s, such as the work of Basquiat and Haring. With very little variation, Loughlin continued to paint The Brute until his untimely death last year.
Paul Johnson, founder of Johnson Trading Gallery, became something like an apprentice to Loughlin around the turn of the millennium. Loughlin imparted to Johnson a tremendous amount of expert knowledge about vintage design, and in turn, Johnson became the most avid collector of Loughlin’s painted objects. Over the course of the twelve years that they were friends, Johnson acquired hundreds of works by Loughlin, including an exceptional cabinet featuring The Brute alongside a Shazam-like lighting bolt, which will be exhibited at Design Miami/ in just about a week.Johnson has just completed a catalogue of Loughlin’s work, which will be also available through the gallery during the show.-