Christopher Sharp is always working — traveling, meeting with designers, visiting production facilities in Nepal, opening new shops — but it doesn't seem to bother him. "It's not really work," he says. "It doesn't feel like a sacrifice." He founded the Rug Company with his wife, Suzanne, in London in the late nineties, and they've both had a hard time untangling life, love, and work ever since.
Last week at the Rug Company's SoHo showroom, Chris sat down to chat with Apartment Therapy about working with his wife, growing a family business, and what it's like to collaborate with talented designers like Paul Smith, Sarah Burton, and Jonathan Adler.
Can you give us a little bit of background on the Rug Company and its history?
My wife Suzanne and I started the Rug Company in London in the nineties with shops in Chelsea, and we opened in New York in 2002. All in all, we have seventeen stores now — including in places like Beirut, Dubai, Mexico City, Moscow, and Stockholm. It's a good spread.
We're very passionate about quality, and all of our rugs are handmade in Nepal. It's a craft that hasn't changed for hundreds of years. There aren't many things made today that don't involve cutting corners, but these rugs continue to be made by hand, and they take a lot of work.
I think that for the product we provide, our prices are actually very reasonable. One of our rugs takes four months to make, about 20 people work on it, and it will be around for 200 years. The price is comparable to what you'd pay for a quality sofa.
Who are some of the designers you work with?
We try to avoid just having a list of people we work with, but rather a collection of people that represent a broad mixture. Each designer contributes a different aesthetic. What we want is a well-rounded, complete collection without too much overlap between designers.
We also have a lot of repeats, designers we've worked with over many years. It allows for a very fluid relationship. Paul Smith, for example. We've been selling his Swirl rug for ten years, and it's been one of our most popular designs. In fifty years time, you'll look back and be able to place it in a particular time and place. It will become a collector's piece.
What's it like to work with a fashion designer on a rug collection?
Rugs aren't like fashion. You try and come up with a sustainable design that will last. When fashion designers work with us, I always tell them, 'When everyone's forgotten about all of your clothes, this rug will remain, so it has to be good.'
We're not going to restrict a designer's ideas. Sometimes we challenge them, but it's really a fantastic process.
A lot of the designers are artists, so you want to liberate them. Lucinda Chambers, for example, designed the Jubilee Wall Hanging for us. She stuck all these things together into a very beautiful collage and we were able to develop it into wool. To celebrate Obama's State Visit to the UK the Rug Company was chosen by the British Prime Minister and Samantha Cameron to design the official gift. We took Lucinda's wall hanging and reworked it with an American flag and an eagle.
What are your plans for the future?
Our business plan is to continue to open new stores and start selling online this fall. We're completely rebuilding the website. We've held back on selling online until now because our business is really all about service. It's difficult to give the same experience on the Internet, but things have reached the point where people are frustrated now that they can't buy a rug online, and we need to provide them with that option.
We're also launching a more accessible collection. These rugs will have a slightly looser weave, but they're still handmade to a very high standard. A tighter weave and a more complex design has a higher price point, but these rugs will include more geometric patterns, and a six-by-nine rug will sell for around $2,500. We'll also be making a range of cotton dhurries in-house, which will be more affordable — starting at $750.
How are the rugs made, and do you use outside certifications for sustainability?
The rugs are made in Nepal at our facilities there.
We are a member of GoodWeave, but it's really not enough. You have to take responsibility for your business. Three years ago, we hired an independent professional to give us an ethical and environmental audit. It was everything from little things like making sure we had fire extinguishers in the proper place to big things like our medical care plan. After the audit, we hired him to make the changes he suggested, and he's slowly been implementing his improvements.
The best thing you can do in the developing world is to give people jobs. The whole idea of not manufacturing in the developing world doesn't make sense to me. It's really important to give people work, as long as you look after them and provide them with proper wages, schooling, and medical care.
THE RUG COMPANY'S PRODUCTION PROCESS
• Watch the video
What are you most proud of?
In work, do you mean, or in life?
Suzanne and I have four children. The thing I'm most proud of is my family. My kids make fun of me and say, "You're so boring. You always talk about work." But for us, it's not really work. It's very shaded — the difference between work and life. It doesn't feel difficult for us; it doesn't feel like a sacrifice because we love what we're doing.
If I was going to make up my life to suit what would make me happy, this is probably what I'd come up with.
People often ask Suzanne and me if we drive one another mad, working together so closely. But we do very different things. She's in the studio, while I'm in my office. She concentrates on the design, and I do the majority of the traveling. We each have very, very different things we bring to the business.
I'm also very proud of the fact that people stay with us and they like working with us. For the first ten years of our business, literally no one in London left the company. The way to make people enjoy their work is to give them lots of information. You have to keep them up to date, tell them what's going on, so that they can take ownership and feel that it's their business as well.
In the early stages of the business, it was just me sitting in a shop. In the second stage, we had a small team of passionate people who worked very hard for us and were very involved in everything we did. Everyone helped out, and people were always doing one another's jobs. Now we're in the next stage, where we need to grow up. We need to have a certain structure that allows us to grow. The difficult thing is to keep the same ethos as you get bigger.
How do you keep that ethos as you grow?
We're very, very keen on being completely in control. You really notice when companies allow their brand to coast. It starts to lose its quality, its identity, and maybe it has another two years of coasting along, but it will eventually drop off. If you're not going up, you're going down.
I don't want to make the business huge. We don't want to be a chain. We want to have shops in a variety of countries, and several shops in the US, of course. You need to be local. For instance, the New York showroom can't look like our London store. Each shop has to have its own local identity.
What new projects are you most excited about?
I've been very excited about working with Sarah Burton. When McQueen died, it was such a terrible thing and you felt so sorry because the whole company was built around him, and all the people who worked for him were thinking, 'What are we left with?' Sarah really stepped up and took responsibility at such a critical time. I'm so happy it's worked out and that they're doing well. I like the McQueen brand, and she'll add a new twist to it. She'll bring her own perspective, but it will still be McQueen.
We're also working with a British designer named Giles Deacon. He took some very hard images — things like chicken wire, chain link, and studs — and he softened them with color and materials. It's a really interesting collection because of that contrast between harshness and softness.
We're also working on some outdoor rugs made of recycled plastic bottles. You spin the plastic, and it looks a bit like candy floss. You end up with a ball of the stuff, and you knot it and weave it. The difference between this and other materials I've seen used is that most outdoor rugs are hideous, but this actually looks amazing.
Jaime Hayon is another designer we're working with. He's incredibly creative, and it's been a pleasure to work with him. We're working with Diane von Furstenberg to do some flatweaves that will be more accessible. And we're working with Jonathan Adler on a new collection, which will be great.
The Rug Company is headquartered in London, with 17 showrooms across the world. Their New York showroom is located at 88 Wooster Street in SoHo, open Monday through Friday from 10 am to 6 pm, Saturdays from 12 pm to 6pm, and Sundays from 12 pm to 5 pm.
Photos: The Rug Company, Sarah Coffey