Person of the Week
Meet Multi-Talented Robert Aiudi
In his workshop in Branford’s historic John Tyler House, Robert Aiudi’s hands fly over the Union loom he uses to craft Colonial-style rag rugs, part of the unique inventory available at his temporary Christmas Shoppe in the house. Aiudi invites the public to visit the shop this holiday season and to enjoy an Open House, with demonstrations, on Sat. Dec. 10, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Photo by (Photo by Pam Johnson/The Sound)
Robert Aiudi can translate at least 27 languages and is a weaver, spinner and candle maker who enjoys hearth cooking and baking. If you haven’t guessed, this multi-talented man likes to stay busy.
That’s how the new Branford resident has managed to fill his temporary Christmas Shoppe at the John Tyler House with Colonial-style rag rugs and overshots, hand-dipped taper candles, colorful quilts and delicate scarves, hand-knit hats (crafted from natural colors of alpaca wool Robert carded and spun into yarn), and shelves of one-of-a-kind Nativity scenes in mangers he’s made from wood gathered on the property, then filled with authentic Italian and German figurines. More holiday items, from traditional Russian Christmas dolls to a line of Melissa & Doug toys to his friend’s cute clothes-pin Reindeer ornaments and others—the kind you can only find at your favorite holiday bazaar—are also in the mix.
Robert’s shop in the historic 1710 Colonial home at the corner of 250 East Main Street and Mill Plain Road has been open for several weeks, but he’ll be pulling out all the stops for visitors to his Open House of The Shoppe at John Tyler House this Saturday, Dec. 10, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
“We’re going to have demonstrations of all of the crafts, some food, and hopefully even some people in period costume,” says Robert. “This house is over 300 years old and a treasure for Branford. I want to keep the essence of the house in view. What you’ll also see is I have a lot of traditional New England stuff in the shop. Rag rugs were very typical in every Colonial home, because there were no mercantiles to go to, so every piece of cloth was re-used. And the Colonial overshots [specific patterns for coverlets] I’ve been doing are patterned after a piece of cloth at the Harrison House.”
The Middletown native is a fan and supporter of Branford’s Harrison House Museum, owned and overseen by non-profit Branford Historical Society (BHS). In fact, Robert has been visiting Branford regularly since at least 1981 through a friend, Ginny Page, who is also BHS president. The friends’ connection has become a win-win for BHS and Harrison House.
“I’m kind of their textile guy,” says Robert. “Branford had a huge flax industry. Flax is made into linen, and at Harrison House, there’s tons of flax I can spin there. We restored one of the old [spinning] wheels, probably from 1720 or 1750, and it actually works, so I do demonstrations for them.”
Robert plans to work with another BHS member and friend, Branford Town Historian Jane Bouley, to develop a talk or small pamphlet discussing Branford’s as-yet little discussed historic flax industry.
Another Harrison House connection for Robert is the large Union loom he uses at the John Tyler House, and will be working during his open house demonstrations on Dec. 10. In a wonderful case of quid pro quo, Robert was able to borrow the Union loom from Harrison House and assist BHS by literally rebuilding a Swedish loom from a pile of wood found in an outbuilding.
“I saw they had a Union loom, which isn’t a Colonial era loom—this one was built around 1920 or 1930—and it’s a very good production loom, so I asked if could borrow it,” Robert recounts. “Then one day, Jane and Ginny and I went upstairs in the barn behind the Harrison House, and they said, ‘What’s that?’ And on the floor was a pile of wood. You could tell it was probably something, but nobody knew what it was. So I looked at it and thought, ‘Oh, it’s a Swedish loom.’”
Robert restored it, strung it up, and wove a few rag rugs for display (together with the loom) at Harrison House.
“That loom looks much more Colonial than the one we have here,” says Robert. “It probably came to Branford in the 1870s or 1880s. I knew it was a Swedish loom because it was painted blue, which is a tradition in Sweden.”
Robert’s interest in weaving is tied to his own family tradition.
“I’ve been a weaver since I was about seven years old,” says Robert. “I just heard my grandmother say at one point that my great-grandfather was a silk weaver in Italy. I’ve always been curious, and I just wanted to learn more about weaving. So I started to look at World Book Encyclopedia, which was the Internet of the time, and I learned a lot about it myself.”
Robert also credits a Middletown weaver/Colonial homeowner and neighbor for teaching him much about the craft. He also took a year off from undergraduate school to take classes at Wesleyan Potters. Today, Robert’s weaving inventory is also available through his website, www.branfordweavers.com
“I’m very busy with the Christmas Shoppe, but I’m also keeping up with orders for rugs to be sold elsewhere,” says Robert. “My life has always been like that—busy, busy, busy. I can never just sit around!”
During his time at Wesleyan Potters, Robert was also working “at a really fancy restaurant,” which allowed him to save up for a trip abroad to France. Versed in languages ranging from French to Italian to German and Mandarin among many more, Robert went on to travel to numerous distant points across the globe and has lived in many countries, including an extended period in Taiwan. While living in Germany, he learned the hat-making style he’s now using for the alpaca toppers on sale at his Christmas Shoppe.
“My background is in international stuff. I’ve lived half my life abroad, and that’s part of the reason why it was easy to come here. I’ve been everywhere I want to go,” says Robert, who moved to Branford last fall from his Manhattan home of 16 years.
The move helped Robert be closer to his elderly mom and an ailing family member. He chose Branford because he happened across the Tyler House at time when it was available for rent.
“On my way to Middletown to visit my mom, I would drive on Route 77, and I literally came by here one day and saw a ‘For Rent’ sign,” says Robert, adding he was surprised to learn the site had recently been home to a consignment shop.
“I thought, ‘This big old house isn’t a New England family home?’ It took me about seven months to decide to look, but it took me about four seconds to come in here and say, ‘I want to do this for a while,” says Robert, who had been selling his handcrafts at a popular artists’ flea market in New York City.
“It’s been bizarre going from where I lived on Seventh Avenue, walking out my door and seeing five million people a day. It’s quiet here! If I do miss anything, it’s speaking to other people in languages I come across in the city.”
In another phase of his career, Robert leveraged his language expertise to become vice president of International Business Development for Dragon Systems (1993 to 2001).
The Renaissance man now has neatly tied his love of language together with his foodie/restaurant background to launch another project, The Language Chef (www.languagechef.com), which Robert describes as “language learning for the food obsessed.”
“I blog every morning about something food and language related, and we’re in the process of putting together Language Learning software based on food,” says Robert.
One of his latest posts includes the reasons, origins, and evolutions of England’s Christmas pudding.
Speaking of all things Christmas, Robert plans to offer a temporary Christmas Shoppe at the John Tyler House each year, for the foreseeable future.
“I’m not sure if I’m going to do a shop all the time, but definitely, I’ll have the shoppe here at Christmas,” he says.
For more information, find The Shoppe at John Tyler House on Facebook.