Good Deeds Meet Great Design
“There is a growing demand for responsibly-produced carpets.”Carpet designer and importer Stephanie Odegard discusses minimalist design and the importance of ethical practices in rug making.
Stephanie Odegard, before becoming a designer and importer of rugs, you spent over a decade working around the world. You served with the Peace Corps in Fiji and the World Bank in Nepal, for example. At what point during this period did you decide to start selling hand-knotted Tibetan rugs in New York? What inspired you?
Stephanie Odegard: It was during my time with the Peace Corps that I made the commitment to dedicate my life’s work to developing artisanal products for today’s market. In this way, I would preserve an age-old art form and provide income to an ailing sector. I always wanted to give back and I had the ability to make something more marketable out of indigenous designs. So I taught the locals to practice their true craft and not simply produce cheap items aimed at tourists.
My first time in Nepal was in the late ‘80s—on an assignment with the World Bank. Tibetan rugs have been produced there for several decades now. Most of them were woven with a very loose, thick-pile construction, but I discovered someone using a 100-knot-per-square-inch weave. I thought it was beautiful. I developed it for the US market and now it is the most sought-after product from Nepal.
So how exactly did you make the rugs suitable for modern tastes?
Most of them had multiple borders, loud coloring, and many competing tribal motifs. Although I have huge respect for this style, I never attempted to market rugs in that form. I chose to pare them down, removing some of the borders and symbols to focus solely on the finest motif, creating a two-color, minimalist design. This set a trend that is still relevant today.
What others trends are you aware of at the moment?
People are increasingly going back to basics with natural, plain designs that focus on the materials and are colored with vegetable dyes. All-over prints are popular, too. And the color blue, from light to indigo, is very much in demand; it has been for around five years now.
Another trend I have noticed developing over the last few years is for carpets that seem to represent fireworks exploding, their colors dispersing. There were even a few examples of this among the pieces I judged for the DOMOTEX Carpet Design Awards . I’m also seeing a lot of rugs that appear to be partly worn away with pieces of the design missing.
As you just mentioned, you were part of the jury for the Carpet Design Awards, the winners of which will be announced and presented at DOMOTEX 2017. What impressed you most as a judge?
Originality, a balance of colors, and new ideas. There were some very striking pieces in Indian and Tibetan styles, as well as Turkish and Iranian. It was a fascinating mix. I’m excited to find out who the winners are and meet the people behind the designs.
Your working ethos is built around responsibility and ethics. In addition to the aforementioned trends, is there currently a growing demand for ethically-produced carpets and rugs?
Definitely. I remember attending an Importers Association meeting in the early ’90s and being the only person willing to discuss these topics. Some people weren’t even aware that there were problems with the way rugs were being made. Since then, several non-profit organizations have put weaving practices under greater scrutiny, allowing responsible suppliers and importers to flourish. In fact, Kailash Satyarthi, a co-founder of one such organization, has just won the Nobel Peace Prize, which shows how much awareness has been raised. Ethical production is now a top priority for many buyers—and the industry is striving to meet their demands.
The trend is clearly heading in the right direction. Is there still a long way to go in ensuring that carpets and rugs are made responsibly?
It’s an ongoing effort; we’ve made great strides but there’s still some way to go. We need to continue educating rug makers and investing in responsibly-made local crafts. By doing this, we are inspiring and enabling them to improve working conditions and pay fairer wages. The more we trade ethically-sourced rugs, the more we encourage responsible practices and help poorer countries—like Nepal—to help themselves.
You return to Nepal quite frequently. Have you been able to witness the effects of your initiative firsthand?
I’ve been to Nepal at least twice a year for the last three decades. Almost all of my former employees have remained in the carpet business. Some of them even run their own companies, all subscribing to fair labor practices. The country is now among the top three in the industry worldwide, whereas at the start of my career it was barely recognized as a rug exporter. And it’s not only in Nepal that I have witnessed the results of my work; the US and Germany have taken my lead in making the 100-knot carpet commercially viable.
How much of your success do you owe to Nepal and its people?
More than just a businessperson, I see myself as an artist and a marketer. I have a knack for predicting market trends. That’s how I recognized the potential of fine quality Tibetan carpets, which are the basis for all my carpet design ideas. So of course, my inspiration came from what I saw and learned in Nepal. Our successes are intertwined.
How do you decorate your own place? Do you have any of your own carpets or rugs at home?
I do have some of my own rugs at home, yes. But I also enjoy antique Oriental carpets and vintage dhurrie rugs. I particularly like the simple, finely-woven ones with blue and white stripes. My home in India has marble floors, which are cold and produce a lot of echo. To combat this I have two layers of carpeting: Indian dhurries and my own Tibetan rugs on top. When it’s really hot in the summer I simply remove the top layer. As for furniture, I have a lot of designer items from the ‘30s, ‘40, ‘50s, and ‘60s. But I prefer a mix of styles, so I also incorporate modern pieces by famous designers such as Philippe Starck.
Finally, what are your future plans?
I hope to find the inspiration to create a new carpet line at some point, but for the foreseeable future I will be focusing on my new furniture company. My aim is to build a design center in India, working with local craftsmen to enhance and exhibit their products. I saw a need there and felt I had achieved what I set out to achieve with my rug business. This is a new challenge. I think it’s good to grow and branch out into new fields.