It's A Small World After All
Mark McMenamin -- Interior Design, 8/1/2009 12:00:00 AM
Gensler's former senior associate Robin Huffman with Yoda, a Talapoin monkey she cared for. Photo by Guy Evron.
Robin Huffman found her first calling at Gensler, shuttling between six U.S. offices over the course of a 29-year career. But when the senior associate heard that there were such things as orphaned gorillas in Africa—looked after by human surrogate mothers—she immediately set out to find the New York equivalent of that job, starting at the Bronx Zoo. "I was told their gorillas are doing just fine," she recalls.
No, Huffman would need to travel much farther to realize her new vocation. In 2007, she discovered the Cameroon Wildlife Aid Fund, now Ape Action Africa, and took a three-month leave to volunteer at Mefou National Park, site of the organization's 2,600-acre sanctuary for over 250 primates orphaned by bush-meat hunters.
Yoda resting in Huffman's hand.Maasai, another mustache monkey.
After settling into quarters less rustic than expected, Huffman not only tended to three baby monkeys but also redesigned the park's signage, discovering a hidden talent in primate portraiture. "There's only a 2 percent difference in DNA between us and them," she points out. "When you lock eyes, it's as if they know all the secrets of the universe."
Sabbatical complete, Huffman resumed her interiors career in New York. But the urban jungle was no match for the real thing. She resigned from Gensler a year ago.
Huffman, with Yoda on her shoulder, painting portraits of gorillas Shai and Nkan Daniel.
Back in Cameroon, she's fulfilled a decadelong dream of caring for a baby gorilla, organized schoolchildren to paint a mural to celebrate 2009 as the United Nations Year of the Gorilla, and devised what she calls "enrichment experiences" for baby monkeys and mandrills: hammocks, ladders, and swings to play on. Now she's writing grant proposals. "It's strikingly similar to pitching for design jobs," she says.
Next year, she'll return to the U.S. to spread the love to her own species. "I'd like to design women's shelters, children's hospitals, and senior-citizen centers, combining design with murals and rounding up donated furniture and materials," she says. A designer's work is never done.
Huffman with gorilla-keeper Appolinaire Ndohoudou holding gorilla Shufai. Photo by Guy Evron.
All images courtesy of Robin Huffman.