From Watercolours to Wild Silk Rugs: Hong Kong’s Fort Street Studio

Fort Street Studio is no ordinary rug company. Its Hong Kong-based co-founders, Brad Davis and Janis Provisor, share a strong affinity for design, craftsmanship and quality, but most importantly, they share a passion for creating art.

It was in 1994, while searching for a distinctive rug for their New York loft that the couple had an epiphany. Both are recognised artists in their own right, with works collected by leading European and American museums. Could they translate one of their own ethereal watercolour paintings into a rug?

The couple had long been interested in Chinese painting, both as an inspiration for their own work and to build a collection of Chinese works from the 19th and 20th centuries. While on a year’s visit to China, they settled in Hangzhou, the centre of the silk industry. It naturally occurred to them that there was an opportunity to make a silk carpet.

As Davis explains, however, “Chinese silk carpets are fairly new to the culture. In the past, Chinese carpets where made by various nomadic or Turkic people in the north, mostly from wool. Silk carpets were largely reproductions of Kashmiri and Persian designs, and not typically Chinese. The industry we encountered was making French and Art Deco designs because there were no indigenous silk carpet designs.”

They were up for a challenge. “At this point we were artists on an adventure, living and painting in China,” says Davis. “We were simply designing something for ourselves and because we weren’t thinking about a wider market, we approached the whole process with an artist’s eye.”

Janis Provisor’s watercolours – Photograph by William Furniss

Copying the complex tones, hues and patterns of their original watercolour painting proved far more challenging than expected, as the weavers found the soft edges and blended tones of a watercolour difficult to replicate. “I once asked the owner of a workshop what he thought of a rug he had just made for me and he said it looked like dirt,” laughs Davis. “I replied, ‘Yes, that is exactly what we are trying to do.’”

Despite the difficulties, the couple’s timing was fortuitous. From 1995 onwards, China’s economy boomed and the price of garment silk increased dramatically. Traditionally, the Chinese made carpets out of farmed domestic silk that produces a very fine fibre and therefore relatively thin, shiny carpets. But with sky rocketing costs, many producers had turned to wild silk, a strong, heartier fibre, which grows outdoors on oak trees in the mountains of Northern China. That moment coincided with Davis and Provisor’s determination to create a plush, modern carpet with a thick, suede-like pile. “A standard 9 by 12 carpet weighs about 110 pounds,” says Davis. “That is a lot of silk.”

Until then, the silk had all been requisitioned by the PLA for use in parachutes, belts, other military uses. Serendipitously, just as Davis and Provisor began making their rugs, the People’s Liberation Army suddenly converted to using cheaper, more durable synthetics and released their store of silk with the condition that it could not be exported in its raw state out of the country. With the raw material in hand, the couple started to work with a group of highly skilled artisans in Hangzhou.

The process took far longer than expected. By then, the couple had settled in Hong Kong, where they began experimenting with using new computer technologies to help translate the painterly details of a Western painting into a detailed weaving pattern that could be understood by traditional craftsmen in China. Because traditional Chinese carpet design was based on solid form and clear shapes, the couple’s new soft edges and gentle gradations of watercolour washes called for an entirely new kind of pattern for the weavers to follow. “We had to train them to read these new patterns,” Brad says. “I often compare this to teaching classical musicians jazz.”

Aura Blue and Scallop Cream silk rugs by Fort Street Studio – Photograph courtesy of Fort Street Studio

Twenty years on, the couple still work with the same weavers and silk distributor who supply them with the very best quality wild silk. “We’ve kept those very early relationships going all this time,” says Provisor. “Even when business was bad we still gave the weavers orders because we very quickly realised how important it was to keep their skills alive.”

Finding and keeping skilled artisans is even more challenging today for different reasons, she says. “Our weavers send their kids to college and the new generation want different jobs. Hand knotted carpets in 25 to 30 years will probably only be the province of the super rich because of how hard it is to find skilled weavers in countries like China and other emerging countries, despite their long history of hand knotting.”

Today, with an airy 5,000-square-foot studio in Wong Chuk Hang, Provisor paints and manages sales and marketing, while Brad manages the technical side and manufacturing. Unusually for designers, they do not work with any labels. “When we started the business we were very conflicted because we were artists, not designers for hire,” says Davis. “But it has been very important to us to keep our own DNA.”

Provisor agrees. “We are a business but our motivation is to do something that is very innovative, beautiful and the highest quality available.”

They do still constantly juggle the paradox of creativity and business. “Sometimes what we want to do goes against business sense because we do things that are so high risk and new and we really don’t know how it will work in the market, but we only want to do something that we really care about,” says Davis.

Keeping painting at the core of the design process is essential so the couple retreat once or twice a year to a quiet secluded village in Roccantica, Italy, where they rent a home and studio in order to experiment with new designs. Previous collections were created while on painting retreats in Bali and the Caribbean. “I like to make things, so it is important to step out of the office to find time to create,” says Provisor.

As a life couple as well as business partners, the couple say their rule is to create each rug design together, bouncing ideas off each other instead of working with a design based on an exact replica of one or the other’s painting style. When he designs a rug, for instance, Davis remains faithful to Janis’ artwork, but may also rescale and rearrange her painting to suit the rug.

Fort Street Studio’s space in Wong Chuk Hang – Photograph by William Furniss

The couple also travel frequently to meet their craftspeople in China and more recently in India, where a new collection of wool rugs has proved popular among clients looking for durable but beautiful rugs for their homes. In 2014, the couple began to supplement their wild silk with wool, and within two years it made up half of their business. But their focus remains on silk. “We feel strongly that we want to maintain wild silk as our premier product,” says Provisor. It is where we started and we are very loyal to the people we work with. We have always worked on a completely exclusive basis with them and so feel strongly about keeping the tradition alive,” Davis adds. “We feel like we all grew up together.”

The studio’s most exciting new design project is a couture-like collection of intricately knotted wild silk rugs using their foundational watercolour techniques with metallic sumac weave. They developed ideas around unusual colour combinations and strident forms. They believe the collection is unique because it sets aside conventional carpet design that calls for all-over harmony and integration of form to avoid drama. Disjunction and drama are served up in each design with unexpected style. They talk about treading the boundaries of art and design with this collection.

With just seven weavers skilled enough to achieve this level of quality, the weaving process is excruciatingly slow. The first rugs will be offered later this year in New York as collector’s pieces in limited editions of either one in eight or one in five.

Although the luxury market in China and Hong Kong has been challenging in the past few years, the couple say 2016 was their best in the United States and Europe. “No one knows what the market is doing,” says Davis. “You have to trust your instincts and just jump off the cliff. Besides, we don’t want to be just another rug company. It all comes back to us being artists – the making of a carpet has to be interesting and gratifying otherwise we wouldn’t do it.”

 

For more information about Fort Street Studio visit here

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