Javier Robles fully embodies the title of global citizen. The architect and designer, whose namesake firm has established offices in both New York City and Miami, is enjoying a growing portfolio of residential and cultural commissions spanning four continents and counting. He’s submitted proposals for projects as varied as Atlantic City’s Holocaust memorial and the Grand Egyptian Museum in Egypt. His firm, initially named Utopus before it was renamed Javier Robles Studio, was commissioned by Columbia University Classics department to construct a field school at Egypt’s archeological excavation site Amheida and his lighting, furniture, and objects studio Lumifer serves a global clientele in luxury residential and hospitality markets.
“My work has been molded by my experiences exploring and living in different countries, cities, languages, landscapes, and cultures,” says Robles, who studied architecture at both the University of São Paulo and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. “From an early age, I considered myself a foreigner—even when I was growing up in Peru. When I left my homeland at age 17, I embraced with passion the life of a nomad.”
The impact of Robles’ travels has been profound. His firm’s cultural commissions, like the Chan Chan visitor center in Peru and Guatemala’s Kaminaljuyu Shelters, exist in harmony with their surroundings by evoking the adjacent landscape. The Chan Chan visitor center uses a palette of wood, adobe, and gravel to establish a relationship with the terrain, and the form of the Kaminaljuyu Shelters take inspiration from the gently undulating topography of the land they occupy.
Below, the architect and designer pulls back the curtain on how he’s found inspiration the world over, and the studio staples and routines that keep him going.
Which cultures’ architectural customs have influenced your work and perspective the most?
Both the Mochicas and Chimus, pre-Columbian cultures that flourished in northern Peru (10–14th century A.D.), left a vast mud-brick architecture legacy from cities to pyramids and temples in the Moche Valley. Their capital city, Chan Chan, and the Huaca de la Luna have always been a source of inspiration.
Also, Brazilian modernism. The architecture of Lina Bo Bardi, Paulo Mendes da Rocha, Vilanova Artigas, and Roberto Burle Marx, to name a few, are fundamental in my education and have informed and influenced my work as an architect.
International travel is a major part of your narrative. Is there a single destination that was formative to your development as a designer?
My curiosity for new things grew enormously when I started attending architecture school in São Paulo. A new world opened up to me there, and an array of aesthetic, formal, and constructive references became present in my creative process.
Without a doubt, the Chan Chan ruins in Peru hold a very profound and poetic reference that is perpetually in the back of my mind. These are the childhood memories that became spatial and aesthetic references, part of my architectural design vocabulary.
What’s an upcoming architectural commission you’d love to land?
For more than 20 years, I’ve been working with the Peruvian Ministry of Culture and other international agencies trying to turn my architectural thesis into a reality: The Frontier Zone Cultural Park, a peripheral 12-mile-long park surrounding the archeological site of Chan Chan in northern Peru.
This project is urgent in response to the dramatic and disastrous situation surrounding the archeological complex of Chan Chan and the need to create a “green belt” with a sustainable project for the local and regional community around the city of Trujillo.
When it comes to architectural or studio work, do you have a routine that gets you into a creative headspace?
I have many “rituals” that range from having the right music, scents, and drinks like espresso and tea, which help me quiet the outside world and focus: envisioning the space, narratives, and materials.
Whether at my studio or at home, I burn Palo Santo incense before starting the day. It really purifies the room and the smell brings back childhood memories of churches back in Peru.
At the studio, I am surrounded by my books, samples, drawings and models and my own lighting and furniture products, which are all quite inspiring to me. I feel very comfortable there and at home, where I have more books, paintings, furniture, lighting, photographs, crafts, ceramics, and things I’ve collected from my travels. I especially love my Akari lamps by Noguchi.
Do you prefer sensory engagement or sensory quietude while you work?
Fragrances have become a powerful sensorial tool that brings out so many memories and insights. They tap into a rich creative realm within me. I like to have candles at my desk or around me; my favorites are Brown Scented candles from Hotel Costes and Baies from Diptyque Paris. Flowers are also very inspiring to me, so I always have lilies on my desk: the smell, shape, and colors are a part of my creative assembly.
Music is key to my design process and I have certain rituals that evolve throughout the day: in the morning I play piano concertos (Tchaikovsky, Schumann, Schubert); by noon I move onto Bossa Nova (Elis Regina to Gal Costa and my all-time favorite, Maria Bethania), and at some point in the day I switch to jazz and blues (Dinah Washington, Amy Winehouse, or Curtis Mayfield, if it rains). In the afternoon, it’s time for house or some Latin music (Omara Portuondo, Ibrahim Ferrer, Cesária Évora, or Mina). In the evenings, when I feel most productive, I go back to classical or opera—fado music or romantic Latin/Brazilian music.
Your practice is multi-disciplinary now, but can you tell me about how you got to this point?
I started sketching and drawing when I was five years old. At 11, I built a model of Manhattan using discarded cardboard boxes. Inspired by suburban American houses I had seen in my mother’s Better Homes and Gardens magazines, I started designing interiors and planning layouts.
During those years, I also started building light fixtures, creating stage designs for my high school’s events and floats for parades. When I started my architectural education, my curiosity for multiple fields and disciplines had developed and was directed towards modernist architecture and design.
And from there, what inspired you to carry that interest in architecture, interiors, industrial design, lighting design, all of that, into your practice?
While at architectural school in Brazil, I flourished in the multi-disciplinary environment, where the architecture studies overlapped with parallel disciplines from industrial design, graphic design, urban design, history, physics and semiotics. My architectural thesis was based on the study and relationship between art and architecture, and the final project was a landscape intervention that included architecture, landscape, art, and infrastructure at the borders of the Chan Chan ruins in Peru. After receiving my master’s degree in architecture from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, I taught product design and interior design at Parson’s School of Design, once again switching between scales, materials, objects, technologies within the vast field of design.
Below, see more of Robles’ portfolio.
What’s the next product you want to launch, and why do you feel it needs to be out in the world?
There are two products I would like to launch: a bar cart and a funerary urn.
Every time I want to source a bar cart for my projects, I find there aren’t many options in the luxury market. The rituals and social etiquette surrounding drinking culture are quite enchanting and are a social magnet of sorts. In this context, the bar cart’s mobility and versatility is the epitome of sophistication, and also a beautiful and practical domestic piece.
The second one is more personal. In the past when a friend or family member died, I had dealt with death from a distance, having lived abroad since college. During the pandemic, my father became ill and I had to find a way back home to a country that had locked all its borders. Within a few months of my arrival, my father died of Covid. I found myself dealing with death in a quite dramatic way and in extraordinary circumstances. In the middle of my sadness and desperation, it was difficult to find a suitable vessel.
I have slowly become more open to talking about that period of my life and contemplating my own mortality. I don’t really like or relate to anything on the market for this inevitable part of life; I think families who go through this loss deserve to have beautiful and meaningful ways to preserve the memories of their loved ones, so I am designing a collection of urns.
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