In 1972, during the early stages of a lifelong effort to find the world’s finest carpets, Bloomfield Hills resident Geoffrey Orley found what he was looking for in the bazaars of Isfahan, Iran. There, he says, “Somebody with a big Afro showed me a great carpet. He took me back to his home, and that was [Bahram] Shabahang.” So began a 40-year friendship and partnership importing, restoring, and — more recently — making fine Persian rugs.
Shabahang, who now lives in Milwaukee, traces his family’s roots in floor coverings to 16th-century Iran; an ancestor oversaw the carpet weavers in the workshop of King Tahmass Safavieh. Even with that rich and deep history, maintaining and proving authenticity is no simple matter given the tenuous relationship between Iran and the United States since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. A 13-year embargo on Iranian goods (including Persian rugs) turned importing into a legal morass. Shortly before the end of his second term, President Bill Clinton partially lifted sanctions against Iran, making exceptions for three of life’s luxuries: Persian rugs, pistachios, and caviar.
In 2000, Orley and Shabahang decided to take the next step in their partnership by manufacturing authentic Persian rugs.
“All the best people that we could locate throughout the country were coordinated as a team to really produce something that is an exception rather than the rule,” Orley says.
It starts with the sheep. “We have 24 colors of sheep whose wool we use without dye,” he says. “We run our sheep through the mountains to make them sweat, so that sweat forces more lanolin into the wool.” These natural oils repel dirt and strengthen carpet fibers.
“Ninety-nine percent of what you have in the market [is] wool from the same animal that you eat the lamb chops of from New Zealand, which might be fine for a sweater but is not fine for a floor covering,” he says. The dearth of quality silk is also why the company has its own silkworm farm.
The dyes, too, are all natural — sourced from ingredients such as bark, roots, and walnut and watermelon skins. And because of the variety of sheep, many Orley Shabahang carpets contain no dye at all. “Everything we do is completely green,” Orley says. “There are no chemicals of any kind.”
Once the wool is sheared, it’s handspun by hundreds of women in multiple villages, a tradition that reaches back thousands of years, but is labor intensive and expensive. Orley says it’s an important step, however, because the resulting variations in strand densities cause the wool to irregularly take the color, creating a richer and deeper palette.
The spun wool is dyed in in-ground copper tubs with added mordants (natural mineral salts) that make it more receptive to color, allowing the dye to permeate the wool rather than just coat it. The dyed wool then sits in a river for one to two days — the flowing water naturally softens the colors — before it’s baked in the sun for four to six weeks. This all occurs before a single strand is woven onto a loom. “It’s like if you pre-fade your jeans, you don’t have to worry about them fading,” Orley says.
Finally, the wool is ready to be woven, only by women, on looms inside their homes, as the craft has been practiced for generations. “There are all these different weaving villages,” Orley says. “Some villages do one type of weave, and others do another because, historically, they did something closer to that there.
“It takes more than just knowing how to weave a carpet. It’s a combination of the diameters of the warp and weft and the pile that cause the carpet to be so textural if properly knotted at a 45-degree angle. With the right geometry, it’s like walking on the springs of a mattress.”
Until September 2010, the entire process took place throughout various regions of Iran. But because of a new embargo signed by President Obama, production has been shifted to Turkey and India.
Why go through all the trouble for a single carpet that can take several months to complete?
“This is totally a labor of love and an intent to try to revive and reinvigorate a dying industry by bringing it back to the level of things that were done a century ago, but to do things with an updated type of design.”
Alan Marschke, a Grosse Pointe Farms-based Oriental rug expert, says other well-known rug makers have gone back to traditional production. “Woven Legends, Razi Mari, Zollan Vary — these folks are internationally known,” Marschke says.
Marschke is less familiar with Orley Shabahang rugs, but says, “Aesthetically, the only piece I have seen I thought was really beautiful.”
And that’s not to say Orley Shabahang rugs have gone unnoticed. The company has enjoyed press from Architectural Digest, Town & Country, and Vogue, and has developed a close working relationship with the Art Institute of Chicago.
“There aren’t many people that know how to do it the way that we’re doing it,” Orley says with obvious pride. “It has nothing to do with whether it’s just handmade, because the potential is to be an art form — no different from somebody trying to make the best bowl with a [potter’s] wheel.”
Photographs by Ethan S. Orley