RUG STAR: under this label, Jürgen Dahlmanns designs and produces luxurious, hand-knotted carpets featuring avant-garde designs. Within just 18 years, he has catapulted his company from a one-man show to a carpet empire with 1,600 employees.
Diversity, movement, color, quality and story-telling patterns are the label’s mantras. Jürgen Dahlmanns doesn’t want to confine himself to one style – he is interested in the diversity of the living environments – Rug Star has developed 1,400 designs since its foundation, all of which are still available and customizable on request. Motifs that inject a sense of movement into a room are a Rug Star trademark – as are the brilliant colors and animated patterns as well as the high quality of the yarns. For Jürgen Dahlmanns, carpets have an architectural dimension because they create a room within a room without adding walls. “I consider my designs to be complete only after they are installed in their intended resting place. For me, it’s the lock-and-key principle. Different types of architecture always have a special feature, and rooms often have a problem. Once everything is combined with my carpets and a balance is established in the space – only then are they perfect to me.”
The biography of this former architect does not correspond to that of a typical carpet dealer. As a 23-year-old student, Jürgen Dahlmanns hiked along the Annapurna Dhaulagiri Trek through Nepal. After hiking around the Ice Giants, the gorges of the Kali Gandaki river and through mystical rhododendron woods, he purchased an old carpet in a sleepy farming village during his descent. Following some more detailed research conducted back home in Berlin, he discovered that it was a typical khaden rug, a Tibetan sleeping and seating rug, roughly 60 years old and particularly valuable because of its pattern. This rug kindled a passion in the young student that remains with him to this day.
It all started with a Tibetan rug that you purchased at the age of 23. What was it about rugs that fascinated you so much that you founded Rug Star in 2003?
Between 1990 and 2002, I toured Nepal several times. I also made my first contacts over there, from which closer friendships would subsequently develop. Back then, the country was in a turbulent state due to the ongoing civil war. Tibetan friends ran a carpet manufactory in the royal city of Bhaktapur. And since the industry had retreated to Katmandu and international orders had dried up, they were all very desperate and helpless. However, I was an architect and had good taste. That’s how it all began. It was never done with the intention of setting up a company, but merely as a favour. I was a friend offering advice who also had a passion for the product. Then one thing led to the next, and more and more tasks started to land at my feet. Some things in life don’t wait to be asked. They are standing right there, demanding to be brought to life. Then you notice that they fulfil and bring you to life.
A courageous step at the time, as carpets were not the fashionable items that they are today.
Absolutely. The step was greeted with laughter by other Berlin designers at the time. In the eyes of others, I saw only incomprehension, but that didn’t bother me. The fire from several sources already burned within me: that of the collector, of the inquisitive young academic and of someone who felt a duty to society. Taking on responsibility always had a calming effect on me and gave me a pleasant feeling. It’s a characteristic that others tend to shy away from and avoid for as long as possible, but in me it awakened the courage to fight for this manufactory and this craftsmanship.
From a one-man show to a company with 1,600 employees – were you always thinking big from the outset?
I founded Rug Star back then with the help of a small loan and a six-month subsidy I qualified for after registering as a one-person company. The business plan that I had to submit bore scant resemblance to what the company has actually become today. For the first three years, I had no team here in Germany, which meant that I had to develop and implement all processes myself. The range of duties was very broad, product development and on-site controlling in Nepal, understanding imports and the entire logistics chain, merchandise management and warehousing, marketing, sales and so on. These days, Rug Star produces hand-knotted Tibetan rugs at three production sites in Nepal and, for the past eight years, hand-knotted Persian rugs in Rajasthan. We also operate two production facilities for tufted carpets in China. The big and exciting news for me is the development that we are now going on the offensive by starting to produce in Afghanistan. I have wrestled with this decision for around three years. We have now designed an entire collection just for this project, and the parameters on the ground have been clarified. Just like a person, a brand or a business also has a lifeline of its own, it creates its own biography. We are no longer the innovative young career changers with the courage and determination to go out and conquer a new market. After 15 years, I have learned a great deal, not just about the product but also about the various markets. I have understood that one must sooner or later seize and fulfil one’s market position because an ever-increasing number of livelihoods depend on the success of a product. The trick in this case is to refuse to be corrupted, to continuously hone one’s ideas and products, to adapt them to the situation at hand, not to become weary, to stay curious and alert and to keep the passion alive. Funnily enough, this can be achieved with a great deal of self-discipline and zest for life.
What were the greatest challenges facing the business during the initial phase?
After I graduated from university, I worked as an architect for three years on the construction site of the “MuseumsQuartier” in Vienna. As a young architect, this cultural building site with all its interrelationships – including political ones – presented an exciting challenge. Then came the jump into deep water. I couldn’t fall back on any of the things I had learned. The only things I had were the love of the product and of the people in Nepal. However, I did have a vision and a strategy that derived from my passion for collecting semi-antique Tibetan rugs.
And what was your strategy?
It was clear to me what I valued about the traditional craftsmanship, and what has been lost in the modern production techniques: I missed the identity, and without identity, it is impossible to communicate a product in the market. To do this, however, you must start by focusing on the provenance – something that many in the business have never done. It was important for me to restore an identity in the production process using the knowledge, the provenance, and the ancient production techniques. This is because the market had over many decades modified the product to suit Western tastes until it became untrue to itself, and no longer held any value on the market. The rug had lost its soul and was therefore not without good reason no longer “in”. I had to persuade the people at the manufactory in Nepal first and foremost to break away from the homogeneity that had been instilled in them – encourage them to restore a sense of impulsiveness and identity in the material workmanship and dyeing techniques. It was like having to explain that the key ingredient of a good tomato salad is good-tasting tomatoes rather than standardised tomatoes that are merely suitable for transport. Everything begins at the sources; good wool has a life of its own. That’s where you start, and each subsequent step reinforces the life of the material. Then, the product has a recognisable product soul again later on.
In addition to hand-knotted rugs, you also produce tufted carpets in China. How do the production and design differ?
Shortly after setting up my Rug Star label, I was approached by Swedish furniture-maker IKEA. They invited me to design tufted carpets for their product range – the first German designer to do so. As part of this collaboration, I also travelled to China. This is where I met Ma Jin, my current business partner for the distribution of Rug Star in China and producer of my entire tufted collection. In September 2018, we opened our new 800-square-metre showroom in a prime location in Beijing. China has definitely become an important focal point of our work. Three years ago, we started to produce all of our key designs from the last 15 years in tuft. The result is slightly clearer, and it has the effect of emphasizing the graphical element of my work. One advantage of tuft is the faster production process. This enables us to get involved in projects, for example, in design hotels that require a tight time frame. Sometimes, a large carpet area simply has to be delivered in three months – something we could not do in the hand-knotted rug segment. This and the ability to scale volumes are the main advantages of tuft. After all, it’s wonderful when my jellyfish motifs can swim for ten meters through a bar somewhere in the world.
You travel a great deal. How and where are your designs created, and do you still have time for them?
I spend seventy percent of my time travelling. Last year, I went on 28 business trips, mostly in Asia or in North America. I have learned to use the days spent in airports as design days. I have grown very fond of these. That’s because I don’t have to deal with everyday issues. I’m sitting in the middle of a bustling limbo that always presents me with unexpected details. Quite literally, it forces me to remain cosmopolitan. It also makes me practice my composure. I wasn’t always so adept at doing this but have it well under control now. I still develop 95 percent of the designs – for me, it’s like cooking. In other words, a task that allows me to relax and engage in an inner monologue with myself. It definitely helps me dissipate other energies as well.
How many collections do you design each year?
In the past 15 years, I have developed roughly 1,400 different designs, all of which are still available. We set up an archive of designs, the printed paper knotting instructions, the dyed wool specimens and small samples in digital as well as physical form. Diversity is one of the mantras of my work. I never wanted to tie us to one specific style; that never interested me. I’m fascinated by the varied lifestyles of my customers. I see myself as the service provider who helps the customer to find the right product with the matching design. Traditionally, the year begins for us at Domotex in Hanover, which is still the world’s largest trade fair for floor coverings. I sometimes describe myself as a child of Domotex because we have exhibited there for fourteen years and because we forged most of our international contacts through this trade fair. We generally display two new collections there each year: one that focuses on innovative textures and techniques and a collection with new, narrative images and colours. As such, it is the framework of our endeavours for a year. It is a challenge to amaze the public again and again over so many years, to remain innovative and to constantly have a finger on the pulse of the market. However, we seem to be pretty good at it, and that is where the company’s strength lies. We have no difficulty in seeing and understanding market trends. We also help shape them, which is hugely enjoyable.
Despite the multitude of designs, do you have a favourite motif?
I consider my designs to be complete only after they are installed in their intended resting place. For me, it’s the lock-and-key principle. Different types of architecture always have a special feature, and rooms often have a problem. Once everything is combined with my carpets and a balance is established in the space – only then are they perfect to me. To begin with, my motifs, which are structured according to specific compositional principles, are opportunities for me to introduce movement into the room later on. But yes, I do have a couple of favourites. I love the narrative motifs, which perhaps quote the naturalism of the 19th century. I always think of Humboldt in this respect and the explorers of the earth, which is why I have assembled an entire army of animals from the encyclopaedias of this era which I then set free in my customers’ homes through my rugs. Many of these can be found in the Eden collection, which I have already been working on for 15 years and for which I still come up with new motifs or protagonists each year.
What are your sources of inspiration?
The customers with their unique living environments are my source of inspiration. Since our primary focus is on the project business, we receive projects on a daily basis, for which we then develop suitable designs. This means that the trends are automatically spread across our desk. We operate and distribute globally in almost 30 different markets, produce in four different countries. In addition, I spend most of my time travelling abroad. I sometimes see myself as a whale swimming through the sea with a vast open mouth. When I’m presented with a design commission, the answer is sure to be found somewhere in my whale’s belly. What I means is that I react intuitively. Ultimately, it’s all just information that we absorb and release again. There’s no magic at play but one must remain open and sensitive at all times.
In the “IntimacyBerlin” campaign, you show Rug Star carpets in the homes of friends. And you have recently been shooting in Portland. What is the background story here?
I have long been searching for a concept to show diversity in living environments. Three years ago, I hit on the idea of asking my closest friends in Berlin whether I could photograph my carpets and rugs in their apartments. In return for having the use of their apartment for an entire day, I cooked for them the previous evening in each case. The images that we created there were intended not only to show off the carpets, but also to say something about my friends. In the meantime, we have produced nearly 300 images in Berlin; it is one of my fondest experiences. Since we have expanded in particular in North America in recent years, I flew with the entire production team to Portland, Oregon, in early summer 2018. That was a challenge in logistical terms, but the result was stunning and was presented as the third photography series at Domotex 2019, where it received multiple nominations for the international Carpet Design Awards. Our fourth photography series, “IntimacyChicago”, is already scheduled for June 2019. The modern architecture of the metropolis is the ideal setting for documenting the new products on show at Domotex 2019 in pictures. The focal points here are on the expansion of the Waterlily collection in the area of 9/9 knot quality and our innovative “sandblast” surface finish, which gives even pure woollen carpets a very attractive, almost velvety sheen. The photography series will be presented at the NY Rug Show in September. Immediately afterwards, we are due to start production of “IntimacyScottsdale”, which will focus on the theme of “Desert & Country Homes US”. It is really hard work, I do the design, all of the planning and I am the art director on set. Who knows what will happen after that? I am very drawn to a completely different culture such as Russia or China – to focus more strongly on diversity concerns.
Do you also want to debunk the preconception that valuable rugs are too good to be put on the floor?
The carpet has an architectural dimension in relation to furnishings, it separates traffic paths from seating areas, creates space in the room without removing walls. If I enter a museum, I have to suppress my urge to reach out and touch exhibits. They exude sensuality and material character but are out of reach. It is different with regard to works of applied art: They can be and are meant to be walked on and enlivened, they have also been tested in use over centuries. Their beauty is enhanced with use as they have the ability to develop patinas. It is comparable to people, who are also immune to the ravages of time. They merely make us deeper and more sensuous.
What are your challenges for the future – specifically in relation to digital presence and online trading?
With hand-knotted carpets, the emphasis is on the product’s identity, the use of authentic materials, traditional production techniques, not to mention the cultural narrative dimension of the provenance. With its space-defining characteristic for interiors, the carpet’s character is much easier to convey in a shop setting – with a view of the product on-site. However, we are now entering a new era in which everything relating to identity has to be explained in a way that also allows it to be conveyed digitally. I am certain that it can be done. The mode of communication is different, but not the content or the values. We want to develop a solution that resembles a liberal platform and nevertheless contributes to the retention of the brand’s value in the future. I am fascinated by everything about the topics of the digital marketplace – also in this type of niche product or also in relation to a small brand like Rug Star. How does one actively and creatively bring together one’s dealers, customers, aficionados, interested parties and friends on a single platform? How does one create a transparent warehouse among the various stakeholders? That is the focus of our company for the next few months.
The place I was born in might be on the Dutch side of the German border and yet, I am German through and through. Born in 1967 as the youngest of three siblings, I grew up with parents who were, at least from a young boy‘s point of view, a couple of wild things. The antiquated post-war attitude of the preceding generation wasn‘t their cup of tea, so Flower Power was more than just a fashion statement to them. It became their way of life. Alternative means of education combined with an abundance of creative experiments came with it for us children. Looking back at those days now, I‘ll be forever indebted to my parents for having had the most loving and colorful childhood that other children could only dream of.
At the age of 16, I moved to Berlin where I graduated from Hermann Hesse High School in Kreuzberg. The German capital was still divided then and the Berlin Wall surrounded the western part of the city like a band of protective armor. It felt weird and to me, it was a city waiting to be awoken from slumber. In Berlin, I went on to study political science and later chose to become an architect.
My life would change when I visited Nepal for the first time at the age of 23. After having completed the Annapurna circuit in under two weeks, I happened to stumble across my first Tibetan rug on my way back down to the valley. That was the moment when I turned the rug addict. In the years that followed, my newly awoken interest in hand-crafted rugs took me back to Nepal and China on numerous occasions. I simply needed to gather all there was to know about those ancient methods of turning wool into this product that I had begun to regard as magical.
A degree in architecture in a pocket I moved to Vienna in 1998 and, now a young architect, helped to develop the city‘s MuseumsQuartier, one of the largest museums in Europe. Still, the lack of ethical values in this profession made me move back to Berlin only three years later. I decided to turn my passion for hand-knotted Tibetan and Persian rugs into dedication.
In October of 2002, I established RUG STAR by Jürgen Dahlmanns and have not looked back since. Around the same time, Miss Happy stepped into my life – a little Jack Russel bitch that grew up among a pile of carpets. The two of us have been inseparable ever since. Miss Happy shall be your guide through the chapters of this book and help you navigate through our vast collection of Tibetan and Persian rugs. Being the little lady that she is, naturally, Miss Happy will wear costumes matching the respective themes.