More than forty years ago, Geoff Orley and Bahram Shabahang met in the bazaars of Isfahan, Iran, where Bahram was working at his family’s store, and eventually decided to launch a rug company together called Orley Shabahang. Shabahang brought to the new company a wealth of generational knoweldge about carpet-making —his ancestor was a carpet finder for a king of the Safavid dynasty, which ruled from the 16th to 18th centuries in Iran. Shabahang shares his company’s finely tuned rug-making process and explains the inspiration behind two of their rugs, the Kaleidoscope and Bazaar.
Q. How did you and Geoffrey Orley meet, and why did you choose to start a rug company together?
A. We first met in the bazaars of Isfahan, Iran, in 1971. Geoff was visiting as a traveler, and as a lover of Persian textiles and carpets. I happened to be working at my family’s storefront. My family had been collecting carpets since one of my ancestors worked as a carpet finder for a king of the Safavid dynasty. Through our shared passion for finely crafted, beautiful carpets, a lifelong friendship was born. When we reconnected in the U.S. two years later, we decided to turn that passion into a business partnership, and we quickly gained a reputation in the Milwaukee and Detroit areas for the excellent quality of our inventory.
Q. Could you tell me about the process of creating each rug? Who makes the rugs and how long does the process take?
A. Every aspect of the creation process of our fine carpets is an art. Orley Shabahang believes in controlling every step to ensure that the fine traditions of Persian carpet weaving are never degraded. It starts with raw materials — our staff chooses the wool from Persian Fat-Tailed Sheep that have been specially bred for centuries. Raw materials are vital to the quality of the final piece. Choosing the wool from the best shearings of the highest-quality sheep is akin to choosing grapes for a fine wine. The resulting wool is extraordinarily soft, naturally anti-microbial, and naturally stain resistant. The wool is then hand spun using traditional methods to preserve the lanolin in the wool and create a carpet with a proper pile, and so that the wool takes dye in interesting ways to produce beautiful striations throughout the colors. The carpets are dyed with natural vegetal dyes, washed in fresh spring river water, and baked in the sun. Weaving the carpets is done by artisan weavers that hand knot every piece using age-old techniques that utilize a proper ratio of the diameters of each component: the warp, weft, and pile.
To start even further back in the process, almost all of the designs in our repertoire come from my mind. Through four hundred years of carpet mastery in my family, combined with my expertise in architecture, I have conceived hundreds of incredibly unique designs for carpets woven in a traditional Persian manner. The process of creating an entire design and then re-interpreting it for the actual specifications for the weavers can take months on its own. The process of choosing colors and dyeing the wool can take weeks, too. Because of all the work that goes into our rugs, the lead time for most pieces is 6 to 7 months. Each stage of the process is undertaken by artisans. Not only is the actual hand knotting performed by some of the most skilled weaving artists in the world today, but the dyemasters, spinners, and even the herders of our sheep practice skills passed down through the generations to provide the highest-quality results.
Q. It seems like your production process prioritizes sustainability and also involves a sense of community ownership. How does your company strengthen local communities?
A. We do indeed champion organic processes and sustainability in every aspect of who we are. We do this not only because we care about our earth, but because we also care about our customers and their homes and families, which is why we do not add or utilize any harmful chemicals, acids, or adhesives at any point in our process. This is the way carpets have been made for thousands of years, not because of a commitment to sustainability and preservation, but because it is the only way to make the highest-quality carpets. We also believe in treating every artisan that works with us well by preserving their livelihood and their way of life. We work with them in their villages and homes to adapt their normal lives and processes to how we do things. This means allowing the shepherds, dyemasters, spinners, and weavers to work where they’re most comfortable without displacing them from their homes to bring them to factories, including actually building looms directly in the weavers’ homes.
Q. What’s the inspiration behind the Bazaar rug?
A. After Islam came to Iran and became the central religion, geometry became very important — it reflected the religion itself, and it then greatly affected the art and architecture. The 11th century became the Golden Era for this architecture and brick work. Friday Mosque in Isfahan was one of the places where this brick mastery could be seen. It wasn’t just for religion, it was someplace that kids they would go to for any reason, using it as a playground, and as a kid I was very impressed with the form and shapes of the bricks. It impacted my decision to become an architect someday.
Q. How did you choose the colors for the Kaleidoscope rug, and what gave you the idea for the design of Kaleidoscope?
A. Remembering kaleidoscopes as a kid, I recalled the wonder of seeing the colors appear, and I wanted the opportunity to introduce that wonder into my work. Behind every color is another waiting to appear, but you can’t be sure what that color will be. I am inspired by the way in which when you look at something very small very closely, it can resemble something on an unimaginably massive scale. The similarity between pictures of the inside of an atom and the views of entire galaxies was the inspiration behind our Galaxy series, which the Kaleidoscope belongs to. I wanted to capture that feeling of when I was a child looking in a small tube that filled up all my vision with these colors. The colors are those that reminded me most closely of a kaleidoscope, a very bright palette with lots of depth.
Q. How do you envision people styling these rugs in their home?
A. These carpets offer two very different opportunities for furnishing a home. Bazaar provides a beautiful, clean geometry using neutral tones, so it’s perfect for providing pops of color to a room while also creating a nice anchor through the lines of the design. Kaleidoscope, on the other hand, can provide a bold statement, giving the floor of a living room or entry a dazzling piece of functional art that may catch the eye. That being said, the natural vegetable dyes provide colors that are vibrant without being overpowering, and they have such depth and volume that these carpets can suit any space and complement just about any interior.