Karen Robertson is known as an artist who offers clients a window to the ocean, no matter where they live. She’s a self-taught designer who looks at shells as gifts from the sea, and her starfish-anchor wall hangings, marine-knot fabrics and glass-encased sea fans helped revive the marine art industry and brighten upscale homes and resorts across the world.
But after 12 years, Robertson is moving on. She sold her Ponte Vedra-based Karen Robertson Collection late last year. She found a new venture to showcase her flair for design—as the director of The Tookes Hotel. Located in Tallahassee, the hotel is on the National Register of Historic Places for its pioneering entrepreneurial role as the first hotel in the state’s capital to accommodate African-Americans during the segregation era. She’s been tasked to oversee the conversion and restoration of this icon of hospitality into a bed and breakfast and museum.
Robertson’s a natural for the job. A 4-foot 11-inch dynamo, she tends to get bored if she’s not juggling eight projects at once. Fundraising comes easy to her, and she’s never at a loss for creative ideas to promote and organize The Tookes. Her sense of order is key to her clean, classic designs, which honor nature and suit contemporary homes and cottages alike.
“The nature of any room should come from nature,” Robertson says.
Robertson won the 2014 Coastal Design Trendsetters award, which recognizes Coastal Design Magazine’s top 10 coastal designers. She was also honored in the 2012 Northeast Florida Seashell Art Competition for an intricate fountain she built as a collaboration project called “Dreaming of a Garden of Seashells.” Her fascination with marine life dates back to her childhood in Lexington, Massachusetts, where she collected shells and was taught to press seaweed into art forms. A consummate entrepreneur and risk-taker, Robertson launched her Collection about 12 years ago. Sensitive to the decline in marine life from environmental threats, disease and overfishing, Robertson uses sea fans and coral that are hand-cast or sustainably harvested.
Over time, Robertson’s business grew to include nautical fabrics, cushions, rugs and wall coverings, as well as botanical art reproductions. While she still works as a consultant for the distributor that bought her company, she closed her studio and purchased a penthouse in Tallahassee in order to focus on The Tookes.
Robertson, says the transition was only natural. She tends to burnout on projects over time, or become distracted by new passions. “I knew it was time for a change,” she says. “I always wanted to do something philanthropic.”
At first she didn’t know what new direction was in store. Then she met Ronald McCoy, who was visiting from Tallahassee. Emboldened by having taken professional dance lessons, she asked McCoy to join her on the dance floor at Restaurant Medure’s. He told her about his $1.25 million plan to convert his grandmother’s hotel into a bed and breakfast with a museum, formal garden and 150-seat area for weddings and other functions.
The Tookes Hotel is located in the Frenchtown area of Tallahassee and belonged to his grandmother, Dorothy Tookes, who ran it until 1988. Initially known as the Tookes Rooming House, Tookes opened the hotel in the early 1950s after expanding her home to offer lodging for African-Americans who weren’t welcome anywhere else. The guest register for the 11-room hotel included singers Lou Rawls and Ray Charles, author James Baldwin and Oscar-winning actress Hattie McDaniel.
McCoy and Robertson became friends and discussed his project for three months. Robertson finally accepted the position after visiting Dorothy Tookes’ grave, and seeing these words carved onto her tombstone:
Let the work I’ve done speak.
The message made her hair stand on end. “It’s like my dream come true,” Robertson says. “It’s fun and interesting. It’s allowing me to explore new avenues and venues.”
One example is the recent donation of a highly prized artwork by African-American folk artist Clementine Hunter, which will be sold at the Tookes Hotel’s Nov. 6 silent auction.
Ronald McCoy is grateful that they met on the dance floor that night.
“Karen is a tireless advocate for the Tookes Hotel, and we are very fortunate to have her on our team,” he says. “She brings an enormous amount of talent and energy to this endeavor, and I couldn’t imagine doing it without her.”