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Luxury Rugs Thrive on Florida's Gold Coast

By Carol Tisch

Luxury rug gallery Art to Walk On is among the first in the U.S. to present the newest offerings from award-winning designer rug companies. Shown, a selection of Kundan Silk rugs from Zollanvari.

SARASOTA, Fla.  -- Eileen Hampshire, owner of luxury rug gallery, Art to Walk On in Sarasota appeals to a discerning clientele in the upscale coastal Florida community. With a strategy that focuses on rugs as woven art, she is known for an astute eye, selecting what rug industry insiders have dubbed '100-percent rugs.'

"I can only use my own taste, but I only carry what I consider to be the very best in antiques and the very best in new rugs. Not even a 95-percent rug. Every rug has to be a 100-percent. So I have importers who call me saying they've found a rug that's at least 100 percent. They know what I like, and they put it aside for me. I do get things that other people don't even see," she confides.   


In Part 2 of this RugNews.com exclusive interview, Hampshire shares her New York rug show shopping strategy this fall, and discusses brands that made the cut and why. 

You had a "hit list" for the Rug Show at Javits in September in New York. What types of rugs were you looking for?
EH: I look for rare pieces -- unique designs and color combinations. Most of all, I look for something that delights my eye. Every rug in my gallery is paid for -- nothing is on consignment. So if I don't sell it, I want to be able to enjoy looking at it. Sometimes I don't even want to sell a rug because I love it so much. You can't sell what you don't like. 

Eileen Hampshire, owner of Art to Walk On in Sarasota, Fla., takes a break with Wool & Silk's Erbil Tezcan during her shopping excursion to the Fall 2016 Rug Show at Javits.

What delighted you most at the New York shows this year?

EH: The return of Iranian traditional rugs -- I really feel that traditional rugs are due for a comeback. This is the third U.S. embargo of Iranian carpets I've lived through, but this time it just feels like the timing is right and [the lifting of U.S. sanctions] is hopefully going to stick. I saw beautiful Iranian rugs, some from companies I had never worked with before, and I just took a chance because I truly think consumer tastes are ready to shift.

What do you like about Wool & Silk's rugs, and why are they best-sellers in your market?
EH: First of all, our customers want exclusivity, and Erbil Tezcan [Wool & Silk's co-owner] won't sell to anyone just because they have money. You can't just buy his rugs if you don't agree to display them properly. Before he gave me the line, he came into my store almost like a secret shopper: I didn't know who he was. He walked around, and then introduced himself. He said that in order to carry his samples, I would have to display them on walls, not on the floor.

Erbil works differently. He makes a 2x3 sample of every rug design [for his dealers] and he has his own pom box for custom colors. Whatever you want, he will take your choice of his poms and customize the design for you.  Our customers are art lovers, and that's why they respond to his rugs. He won the award for best modern carpet design at Domotex five years in a row, and he's only been participating for five years.  

Plus, he is an honorable, really good person.  I've always said you can't make a beautiful rug if you are an ugly person.  This guy and Andrea [Andrea Pahl, Tezcan's partner in Wool & Silk] are stellar people, and his designs are beautiful. They are both so easy to work with; it's a pleasure.  

A Khotan-inspired design from Wool & Silk Rugs hand-knotted in Afghanistan (left) and a Luri wool Tree of Life design woven in Iran by Zollanvari are displayed gallery-style at Sarasota's Art to Walk On.

What appeals to you about Zollanvari?  
EH: I think they have unequivocally the best Iranian Gabbehs.  What's the old saying: 'Often imitated but never duplicated'? That's Zollanvari.  They're cutting edge -- always ahead with their colors and designs.  I've known Reza [Zollanvari] since the early 80s -- two embargoes ago.  He's been selling me rugs for more than 30 years; since he first brought rugs to me in Canada.  He's a gentleman and honorable.

Zollanvari Gabbehs are in a niche by themselves.  I like those little landscapes -- they're like sophisticated folk art.
Sanjay Purohit, left, and Reza Zollanvari, right, with Art to Walk On's Eileen Hampshire, who bought the silk and oxidized wool rug the trio is posing on. 
Why do you think Gabbehs, and even contemporary silk rugs, are so popular with Sarasota customers? 
EH: People who move to Sarasota have left northern cities like New York and Chicago, and when they move here they don't want to bring their old decorating style with them. They want a fresh look.  Zollanvari's Kundan silk rugs are traditional enough, but they have a modern feel that appeals to our customers. And the 15/15 quality is fabulous -- the highest-end. Sanjay Purohit developed this collection for Zollanvari in India. Kundan refers to highly refined gold and to Kundan jewelry, which is the most luxurious in India, dating back to the Mughal era.  
There is a reason Sanjay gave the collection this name, Kundan.  The silk is the finest quality: it feels lovely and has the highest tensile strength of any fiber. Contrary to what most people think, silk is not delicate. Zollanvari weaves their finest silk rugs with a symmetrical knot that is very sturdy. And the pure silk takes dyes beautifully.
A Zollanvari Gabbeh with charming landscape motif at Art to Walk On in Sarasota, Florida.
What about Arts & Crafts rugs? You seem to do well with them.
EH: I do Voysey designs -- not just Arts and Crafts.  William Morris Arts & Crafts designs are small; Voysey patterns are bold: they light your heart up. I do my own color combinations so the rugs are one of a kind.  We use classic Voysey designs, but in totally different colors.  If I make them, you get the very best wool; something you can be proud of. They are transitional: the colors are bold and fresh -- not what you would see elsewhere.
We designed some rugs for a chapel on the campus of the University of Notre Dame when they were building their Arts and Crafts chapel.  I gave them concepts, sent them designs based on Voysey patterns adapted for them, and had the rugs woven in Donegal in Ireland. We went to Ireland to visit the factory, and it was amazing. They use four strands of three-ply wool and symmetrical knots. It was really exciting that Notre Dame found me here in Sarasota.

Yerra is so different from the rest of your assortment.  How did that collaboration come about?
EH: They found me, I didn't find them. When they first approached me, I said I wasn't sure, because a line has to be really top quality before I will carry it. When the sales rep brought me samples, I saw they had unique colors and designs, and superior quality.  Yerra turned out to be a good decision. 

Yerra Rugs approached Art to Walk On, and now the Sarasota retailer carries its contemporary takes on hair-on-hide rugs.
At the other end of the spectrum, you have some very unique, almost folk-art rugs. Tell us about them.
EH: In many parts of the world rug weaving is a cottage industry.  The rugs are homemade; not just handmade, and sometimes they are imperfect. There is something charming about a rug when when you find the weaver has made a gaff. In Armenian rugs, you will sometimes see a stick figure of a little kid woven into a very sophisticated design. There's really no explanation for it, but I imagine these figures are done by a child being brought into the weaving process by its mother.  That's not child labor; that's a family working together, and it's lovely.
Tell us about one of your most interesting rug sales in Sarasota?
EH: I bought a rug from Tashi [Kesang Tashi, founder of InnerAsiaTibetan Carpets] that had been used as the Dalai Lama's prayer rug during his appearance at Madison Square Garden in New York.  Tashi is Tibetan and a friend of the Dalai Lama. His rugs are made in a monastery -- very Zen looking. The first time I told this story, it sold the rug.  It was sold here in Sarasota in just one day.


I make the distinction between Tibetan rugs that are made in Tibet and those made in Nepal. I really like that InnerAsia's rugs are woven by hand in a monastery in Tibet from hand-spun Tibetan wool. I do fabulously with their rugs, including custom designs.  

When the Dalai Lama appeared at New York's Madison Square Garden, he prayed on a rug crafted by InnerAsia Tibetan Carpets. Art to Walk On sold the rug in one day after sharing its story. Photo courtesy of ABC Home and InnerAsia.
Named 'Eight Auspicious Symbols', this hand-knotted wool rug from InnerAsia Tibetan Carpets is woven in Tibetan monastery.

-- Make sure not to miss Part 1 of RugNews.com's exclusive interview with Eileen Hampshire of Art to Walk On.

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