Founded in London in 1997 by Suzanne and Christopher Sharp, The Rug Company grew out of the globe-trotting couple’s love of exotic cultures, exquisite hand-craftsmanship and, of course, rugs. Apart from sticking to conventional retail business practices, the twist the Sharps brought to the trade—which they helped to revivify, both in the UK and abroad—is a contemporary aesthetic; currently, the company markets fashion-forward work by numerous designers, among them Paul Smith, Vivienne Westwood, the late Alexander McQueen, Tom Dixon, and duo Barber Osgerby. With success has come expansion—TRC has seventeen stores worldwide, with five more to arrive by the end of next year—but with no diminution of quality, craft or customer service, according to Chris Sharp. He sat down with Dwell recently (on an unseasonably hot early-spring morning), in his boho-chic, and appropriately rug-filled, establishment in Manhattan’s SoHo district.
How did The Rug Company come about?
I used to work in television and did a lot of traveling. We spent a lot of time in the Middle East in the late 1980s, early 1990s, and started collecting handmade rugs—old rugs, new rugs, from Afghanistan, Iran. When we moved back to London in 1997, I said to Suzanne, "I’m going to go around and have a look at the rug shops." I was quite shocked. I came back and said, "They’re absolutely appalling."
There was a sort of philosophy of mistrust in the rug trade, and a lot of the businesses were very much set up on that sort of, "Don’t put a price on it, do a closing-down sale, go for the deal" model rather than trying to build relationships with people.
We decided to open a small shop in Chelsea. A lot of people, especially young people, came in and said, "Oh, that’s great, that’s what my mother had, what my grandparents had." Clearly, it wasn’t very exciting for them, so we designed our own collection of contemporary rugs, Suzanne and myself, and that went quite well. They gave us the indication that that’s what people were looking for at that point. At the time, America was further ahead and people were doing contemporary rugs here. But in London, we were very, very much in the forefront.
And then we got London’s ten hottest interior designers – this was 1998 – to design one rug each. And we ended up with ten great rugs. Now we’ve got 35 different people designing for us. Suzanne, who is wonderfully creative, does our in-house collection. I’ve sort of retired from designing rugs, because we’ve got people who can do it so much better.
Were you a "rughead" before you went to the Middle East?
You know, rugs are funny things. They’re the one furnishing item you can be pretty sure blokes will like. I found the whole thing exotic: Oriental, Arabian, handmade, don’t know where they’ve been, don’t know where they’re going. Even as a kid I just loved rugs—looking at them and wondering where they came from.
As much as the rug, it’s everything that the rug conjures up.
It’s everything the rug conjures up. My grandmother lived in London, and she had a very traditional home. But she had this one Oriental rug, and it just made the whole place so much more exotic.
How are the rugs made?
They’re all made by hand in Nepal. Eighty-five percent of them.
Is that part of your philosophy?
No, it was just what we did. In Nepal, they do what they call a Tibetan knot—the faster way of knotting a handmade rug. When we started making contemporary rugs, I went out to Nepal, and looked at various different people who I felt we could collaborate with. I found this one particular guy who was absolutely wonderful. He seemed pretty ethical. He was keen on treating people properly. He was quite a spiritual guy and clearly did beautiful stuff. So I said to him, “We’d like to start working with you. We can collaborate, we can build up this business together.” And he said, “Give me your business card, and I’ll get in contact with you.”
So I left, and didn’t hear anything from him. And I was sort of pissed – here I am, offering this guy a collaboration, ready to put money in. And then three months later, he phoned me up and said, "Okay, we can start working together."
I asked him next time I was there, “What was going on?” And he said, "I had to go and check with my lama and make sure. You drive out into the mountains, and this guy is up in his temple. He took your business card, and thought for a while, and then he said, ‘This is the best thing that’s ever happened to you—work with these people!’" Now we’ve got 1500 people working for us in Nepal.
What’s your best seller?
The best seller of all time is the Paul Smith “Swirl.” I famously, when it came in, said, “That’s never going to sell. It’s too colorful – who’s going to buy that?” And we just cannot stop selling them. And Paul’s like, “I cannot believe that we’re still selling something with swirls on it.” But people just love it.
What new things are in the works?
We’ve currently done a collection with a guy called Giles Deacon, who’s a British fashion designer. Someone asked me today, "Do you try and work with celebrity designers?" Absolutely not. When people come in, they don’t say, "I’m looking for a Paul Smith or a David Rockwell rug." They say, "I love that one – who designed it?" You have to be very careful that you don’t name-collect. I think it’s a recipe for disaster. People are pretty cynical, they can see when you’re doing that. What we try to look for are people who are going to bring something interesting to the collection.
What is Giles bringing to it?
He’s quite challenging as a designer. He’s got quite sort of hard and abrasive images. One rug is chicken wire. Another one is studs. And another one is chains. They’re not images you’d think would work well. But then what he’s done is used very soft colors and material.
You’re about to start working with Diane von Furstenberg—that’s a name.
She is fabulous. We’re just about to do a collection of dhurries. And we’re going back through her archives and looking at a bunch of her vintage prints.
You mean you’re going to transform some of her wrap dresses into rugs?
Yes, some of the vintage prints, which will be fun.
Who else is launching in the collection?
We’ve just done David Rockwell. David’s done something quite beautiful – he’s designed rugs that actually sell. [laughs] All of the designers come from a different point of view. Some designers, like David, think, “If I was doing a project, what would I put in it, what’s going to work?” Other designers, like Jaime Hayon – he’s a Spanish product designer – he’ll want to do something wild and crazy and off the wall, he’s not necessarily thinking about where it’s going to end up.
There’s a big difference between working with product designers and fashion designers. Fashion designers are the quickest and easiest. Product designers are very much thinking that it’s going to be part of their legacy. They can be incredibly ponderous. One particular well-known product designer, we did seven full rugs in the course of three years before he was happy with it. And each time he’d come in and go, “This is good, it’s almost there. But I’m just not quite sure.”
Who was it?
How did your wall hanging for the Obamas come about?
When David Cameron came into office in England, we sent him one of our wall hangings, as a present. It was called “The Jubilee.” It’s a Union Jack, and it’s got a dagger, and so forth. Six weeks before the Obamas arrived in England, we got a phone call from Downing Street saying that they wanted to do a custom tapestry for the Obamas as the state gift, from Britain to America. But we only had six weeks, so we decided to take the original one that we’d done and change it, make it more suitable for America – we put an eagle on it, and some flags, that sort of thing. It’s fun.
Did they like it?
Apparently they loved it. But they’d have to say that, wouldn’t they?