High in the Sky
Roderick Romero infuses artistry and sustainability into his treetop creations
Aric Chen -- Interior Design, 3/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
Roderick Romero is an unlikely tree-house builder. Now based in New York, the unassuming 39-year-old yogi was best known in the 1990's as the co– lead singer, with his wife, Anisa, of Sky Cries Mary, a Seattle indie rock band with eight albums to its credit. In 1997, however, he took a break from the music studio and headed for the treetops, counting the likes of Donna Karan and Sting among a growing list of clients who are discovering the thrills of going out on a limb.
Romero has almost a dozen tree houses under his belt, scattered from Montecito, California, to Tuscany, Italy. His self-professed spiritual connection to nature, combined with a hankering to work with his hands, has also landed him gigs as a garden designer and an artist. As the former, he takes inspiration from Japanese tsuboniwa, or courtyard, gardens, a genre well suited to the confined outdoor spaces of New York. As the latter, he uses vines, twigs, and branches to create cocoon-like pods, one of which was installed last summer at the Tacoma Art Museum in Washington.
Tree houses remain his passion, though, and this month he's even going as far as Tangier, Morocco, to share his expertise with at-risk youths there. Romero is a self-taught designer, and he's quite literally taking his newfound discipline back to its roots.
How did you get from rock star to tree-house builder?
In 1997, Roberta Brittingham, a private collector, was organizing an art show on more than 100 acres of forested land that she owns near Olympia, Washington. She asked me what I would do if I was going to be part of it, and I said I'd build a big nest up in a tree. It just came out of my mouth, completely spur of the moment. But she immediately responded to the idea. That nest became my first tree house.
Had you built or designed anything like that before?
No. And I still sort of build by trial and error, while surrounding myself with people who are much more accomplished than myself as carpenters. I'll bring in a design and work with them, as well as with my wife, Anisa, who's an interior designer, to make it happen.
What are some of the tricks of the trade?
One big discovery for me was the Garnier Limb, invented by a man in Oregon named Michael Garnier. It's a system of steel rods that's installed around a tree's trunk. It acts as a slip plate so that the tree can grow unharmed while also not tearing your tree house apart. The house sort of floats on the rods instead of being attached to the tree itself.
Do you have a favorite tree?
My favorite thus far has been the California oak. I've also always wanted to build in a monkeypod tree, though I haven't yet. Both send up multiple trunks that split off, bend, and twine around before sprawling out, like, 80 feet. They throw so many curves at you that you have to be really flexible and open in order to work with them.
What about building materials?
Usually I just use what's available in the area. For example, with Sting and Trudie Styler's tree house, which is on a century-old oak on their estate in Tuscany, I went six months before construction started to find other trees that had been knocked over in storms, and had those cut and dried at the mill so they'd be ready later. With indigenous wood, you know you're not contributing to clear-cutting elsewhere, or bringing in some kind of infestation. Also, local wood gives a feeling that it belongs in the tree you're building on because they're already part of the same environment.
Haven't you also become a sort of international tree-house educator?
Yes, I'm going to Tangier, Morocco, for a nonprofit called the 212 Society, the number referring to the area code for both New York and Tangier. The at-risk teenagers there have become enamored of tree houses and started building them on their own. But they don't know much about the engineering or safety issues and they could get hurt. I heard about them from Sean Gullette, an actor-writer friend of mine, and we've decided to go over to try to help. Sting and Trudie, Donna Karan, and Russell Simmons have all donated money, which will allow us to do a two-week tree-house workshop with the kids.
Why do you think people are so fascinated by tree houses?
They return people to some sort of childlike state of being, when they didn't have all the woes of the world upon them and all the seriousness that adulthood brings. When you climb up into a tree house, even if you're just going up 15 or 20 feet, you're suddenly transported into another realm. You're able to tap into something, perhaps a time you may have forgotten.