In 1985, at a trade show in Germany, American attorney-turned-entrepreneur James Tufenkian saw Tibetan carpets for the first time. The rich, textured, striated fabric of these pieces especially struck Tufenkian, who had a strong eye for design. Here were handmade contemporary carpets of extraordinary quality. The designs, however, were decidedly bland and virtually without appeal. To Tufenkian, this lack of interesting design represented a rare opportunity.
He decided to marry the obviously superior wool and ancient, time-honored traditions of Tibetan handcrafting with the finest contemporary designs. The result, he reasoned, would surely be carpets of rare vibrancy and exceptional beauty. Today, Tufenkian’s creative and aesthetic vision is one of the great success stories on the international design scene, and at the same time, a dramatic story of significant social progress in an exceedingly poor Asian land.
Tufenkian’s process begins with Himalayan mountain sheep, whose wool is especially durable, elastic and ultimately, very silky to the touch. The wool, which is the soul of the carpet, is gathered in Tibet and carried over the mountains to Tufenkian facilities in Nepal. There it is hand-scrubbed in streams, hand-carded with traditional metal-toothed wooden combs, and finally hand-spun on primitive wooden spindles that produce yarn of irregular thickness. The yarn is then dyed by hand in copper vats and knotted by hand. More than 3,000 hours of hand-labor are required to produce each 9 X 12 carpet.
While Tufenkian’s Tibetan carpets are made just as they have been for over 1,000 years, more than 100 newly executed designs in approximately 300 color-ways provide the diversity and excitement Tufenkian envisioned. James Tufenkian is the designer and colorist for most of his company’s greatly sought-after carpets. His inspiration comes from such classic sources as the English Arts & Crafts movement and the graphic patterns of the American Southwest. His Primitive Chic Collection (now part of the Modern or Animal prints Collection) is based on motifs found in ancient African textiles, artifacts and pottery shards.
One of Tufenkian’s best-selling group consists of designs based on Mid-East themes that have been reinterpreted, simplified and re-invigorated by Tufenkian. This Collection is known as Tufenkian Traditional (now combined with the Arts & Crafts collection). The company has also recently developed Tibetan carpets designed by outstanding American interior designers and Architects as part of the Tufenkian Designers Reserve Collection. Designers Reserve was introduced in 1996 with designs by three cutting edge American designers: Barbara Barry, William Georgis and Kevin Walz, later we added designs by Vicente Wolf, Clodagh, Mark Pollack, and Laura Kirar.
Tufenkian Tibetan Carpet’s designs have been refined to include only their most critical elements. There is never a sense of fussiness; rather, the designs are powerful, yet remarkably understated. Their pared-down elegance provides a sense of reassurance. This finely honed simplicity of design, coupled with the tactile richness of the materials and the depth achieved by ancient handcrafting techniques, has created the Tufenkian aesthetic that has been appropriately described by an eastern philosophical phrase: “Perfectly Imperfect.”
The colors are also significantly changed from traditional Tibetan carpets. Tufenkian found the range and stability of primitive vegetable dyes limiting and we only use them now for our gorgeously plush Yak Soo rugs. For the majority of our production James specified the use of Swiss metal-complex dyes that provide strong visual resonance and deliver unusual depth of color. They also provide a much greater range of colors than traditional dyes, allowing Tufenkian greater color variety and more color combinations. The updated palette and pared-down versions of traditional patterns are a hallmark of Tufenkian carpets, which have led the resurgent interest in Tibetan carpets worldwide.
Our carpets are hand-woven in Nepal, a Third World country with a precarious economy and a fragile ecosystem. At Tufenkian, we are proud to say that we insist on attending to both of these essential social considerations in the production of our carpets.
Our social activities and programs have been recognized by governmental and non-governmental agencies in Nepal and around the world. We use no child labor, provide literacy programs for our worker’s families, and exceed local minimum wage requirements. We also supply proper housing, food, water and medical care to the community.
We have built our production in Nepal from one small building and 100 workers to the present expansive operation, employing many thousands. For workers and their families, we offer living and working conditions that are among the finest in Nepal. Since we demand the most skilled ‘carders', spinners and weavers, our wages rank among the country’s highest, often exceeding those of college educated government employees. In 1986, we established a Montessori school for the children of our workers in the hope that by providing them with early education they might advance in their lives beyond what their parents could aspire for themselves. In 1995, we completed a hospital complex staffed by doctors from around the world, who provide our workers and the neighboring community both Eastern and Western medical services, as well as dental and eye care.
We feel blessed to have the opportunity to put our energies into an enterprise such as this, in which we can make carpets of great integrity and beauty, while using the chance to make one part of the world a little better than we found it. We thank all purchasers of our carpets, past and future for their key participation in our work, and invite them to share in our satisfaction.
Click here for a timeline and learn more about the history of Tufenkian.