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Industry Icon John Graham Dies at 90

Rug industry icon John Graham of Chicago, Illinois and Boca Raton, Florida, who established Oriental Weavers' presence in the U.S. and served as its president until his retirement in 2002, passed away on May 25, 2018 at the age of 90.


BOCA RATON, FL -- Rug industry icon John Graham of Chicago, Illinois and Boca Raton, Florida, who established Oriental Weavers' presence in the U.S. and served as its president until his retirement in 2002, passed away on May 25, 2018 at the age of 90.
Graham began his career in the flooring industry with the broadloom carpet division of Burlington Industries. After much success, he went on to serve as the president of Monticello Carpet Mills and Burlington House Area Rugs. 
Graham's transition into the area rug business brought him great joy and unparalleled passion for our industry. Unlike the broadloom business, Graham found that the area rug business allowed him to move beyond the specification and fiber driven commodity approach of the broadloom industry and to unleash his creative talents and marketing savvy. 
He was one of the first in our industry to recognize consumers' preferences for hard surface flooring in their homes. Graham envisioned a huge opportunity in the future of the area rug business, so in the early 1980's he became a founding partner in Whitney Rugs along with Jerry Weinrib, the chairman of New York's famous ABC Carpet & Home. 
While developing product for Whitney Rugs, John came across Egyptian-based Oriental Weavers at the Domotex fair in Germany. John and Oriental Weavers' founder, Mohamed Farid Khamis, became fast friends and realized their shared passion and vision for the area rug industry. Khamis had the expansive manufacturing capacity, engineering and development departments that had already made Oriental Weavers the industry leader in other parts of the world. Graham had a vision for changing consumers' preconceived notions and creating a new product segment for area rugs. 
At that time, the vast majority of area rugs available in the US market were either pricey heirlooms that would be handed down for generations or poorly made machine-made rugs that were seen as disposable. With consultation from Graham, Khamis' team at Oriental Weavers began developing synthetic fiber products for the US market that truly had the look and feel of fine wool rugs, but at a fraction of the price -- and with the added benefit of family-friendly stain resistance. 
Once the innovative new qualities were created, Graham crafted a brand message that positioned area rugs as home fashion accessories. Area rugs no longer had to be considered a major investment. Instead, consumers could use area rugs as dramatic expressions of their taste and current trends without fear of living with their choice for decades to follow. 
Graham's message and Oriental Weavers' innovative qualities disrupted the area rug manufacturing and retail industries. Anyone involved with area rugs was forced to rethink their strategy and react to the product, fashion and messaging Graham and Oriental Weavers brought to the US market. 
Graham retired from Oriental Weavers in 2002 to spend time with his beloved wife, Shirley, and his grandchildren. On the occasion of his retirement, RugNews.com's founder, Lissa Wyman, reflected on his career and contributions to our industry. In tribute to Graham, we have reprinted the article below as it ran on July 15, 2002.
Graham is survived by his wife of 62 years, Shirley Graham; son, Louis Graham and his partner, Erin McLaughlin; daughters, Nancy (Simon) Dickens and Susie (Bob) Honigberg; grandchildren, Danny, Tess, Camille, Leah, Noah, Bradley, and Jessie; brother, George Graham.  
Chapel services will be held at 3:00 PM on Tuesday, May 29th at Beth Israel Memorial Chapel, 5808 W. Atlantic Avenue, Delray Beach, FL 33484 with Rabbi Marc Labowitz officiating.  Contributions may be made in his loving memory to the Polo Club Chapter of the Pap Corps for cancer research.
Comments for Graham's family can be posted in the guest book section of the Beth Israel Chapel's website at https://www.bethisraelchapel.com/obits/john-graham/#panel1m 

Following is RugNews.com's editorial on John Graham's retirement and industry contributions, as posted on July 15, 2002:
Dear John: My, how things have changed 
By Lissa Wyman
John Graham is retiring from day-to-day duties as president of Sphinx by Oriental Weavers. He came to the rug business after a long and illustrious career as a carpet mill executive with Burlington. But he will be remembered as the person who brought beautiful rugs to middle-class America.
Such a simple idea. It's amazing it didn't happen sooner. 
Graham established Sphinx in 1991 as the U.S. importing arm of Oriental Weavers Group, the Cairo, Egypt-based rug and carpet maker. At that time, most room-size rugs were either cheap and breathtakingly ugly or hand-made works of art costing thousands of dollars. (There were exceptions, notably Karastan and Couristan, which sold high-quality machine-made rugs in furniture and department stores.) 
Change was in the air by the late '80s. The first mid-market rug specialty stores were established as an alternative to Oriental rug shops and department stores. In Belgium, high-speed, multi-color wilton looms were in development. Textile engineers were refining olefin, a dirt-cheap man-made fiber. Wall-to-wall carpeting was losing its cachet as middle-class people turned to wood and ceramic flooring. They needed something to warm up those cold expanses of floor. 
Graham showed a short collection of Sphinx machine-made rugs in 1991, made of olefin but duplicating the look of classic Persian patterns. Suggested retail was under $400 for a 6 by 9. Within a year, Oriental Weavers was the hottest line in the rug business. Egyptian actor Omar Sharif soon was doing a star turn as official spokesman. The company became known for its exotic black and gold showrooms dominated by a huge Sphinx head. 
Everyone sought to get in on the act, including Beaulieu, Mohawk/American Rug Craftsmen and Shaw Industries.
In the mid-1990s, rug vendors were opening new distribution channels -- home centers, home textiles chains and home accents stores. Moderately priced rugs gave new life to moribund departments in furniture and department stores.
European manufacturers opened American distribution companies. Entrepreneurs opened importing companies, cherry picking lines from rug makers worldwide.
In the past two years, the once-sharp lines between hand-made and machine-made rugs have blurred. Hand-made importers began bringing in machine-made rugs, and urged their hand-made sources to create product to compete with machine-mades. Today, hand-tufted and hand-knotted Tibetan-weave rugs hit the same price points as machine-mades.
When Sphinx celebrated its 10th anniversary in January 2001, there were over 100 vendors of mid-priced rugs. And it's an industry where design and color innovation is prized. This is not a knock-off business.
More change is coming. In the post-Graham days, there will be more bean counters than visionaries. Companies will narrow their focus to one or two distribution channels. Independent reps will be the exception. The big companies that can finance growth ultimately will dominate the market. 
It will be different, but not as much fun.
So long, John.  And thanks.
EDITOR'S NOTE: At the January 2010 Las Vegas Market, Lissa Wyman caught up with John and Shirley Graham as they paid a visit to his former co-workers at Oriental Weavers.  Following is a reprint of the photo and caption:

Gee, that guy in the middle looks kinda familiar! It's none other than John Graham, the father of the modern rug business. He introduced Oriental Weavers to the US back in the late 80's and the rest is history. He's shown here with his beloved Shirley, right, and Bud Wyman of Wyman Marketing. 
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