Taking floor art to new levels
'My favourite place anywhere in the world is on the terrace of the Ladies Recreation Club, overlooking the tennis courts, having a glass of wine,' says Brad Davis, co-founder of the design company Fort Street Studio. For someone who lives in New York and travels every two months to destinations all over the world, this may sound surprisingly specific. But Davis has good reason to like Hong Kong - it is where he and Janis Provisor (his partner in business and in life) started their now flourishing luxury silk carpet company.
'To have started a business like this from scratch would have been impossible anywhere else in the world,' Davis says. 'It's an entrepreneur's dream. We were a couple of artists who didn't know anything about carpets or how to sell them. People here have been extraordinarily helpful to us.'
Hong Kong fell in love with Fort Street Studio's designs as much as the designers fell for the city. 'We're in many of the best homes in Hong Kong,' Davis boasts, before adding: 'If not all.' With the Chinese consumers' positive effect on the luxury goods market globally, Fort Street Studios has also enjoyed sales buoyed by this part of the world. 'Business has strengthened every year since we've been here. Last year was our strongest year ever and this year is equalling that.'
Davis and Provisor's fascination with China has been well documented: the artists visited the mainland silk capital Hangzhou in the late 1980s and, feeling a connection with the place, returned a few years later to work with the artisan weavers they found there. 'We made a jump and it changed our lives,' Davis says. Together they created luxurious hand-knotted, wild silk carpets using Dangdong silk from north China, which is durable, but still soft enough to make you want to roll about on them.
However, it is the beautiful, technically complex designs that immediately distinguish Fort Street Studio carpets. The patterns are based on original watercolour paintings by Davis and Provisor that are recreated in the silk weave. From the outset, Davis worked side by side with the dyers to create the exact shades they wanted. The yarns were then dyed in small batches to achieve varying degrees of colour intensity so the carpet actually looked like a watercolour.
An eight-year stint in Hong Kong to develop the business side followed before the husband-and-wife team moved back to New York to open a flagship showroom. They also sell from Los Angeles, London and Milan, all supplied by three factories in Hangzhou that employ about 100 people. But they maintain that the Hong Kong showroom is still the centre of the business.
When we meet at Fort Street Studio's industrial-looking Hong Kong showroom in Quarry Bay, Davis (Provisor had hopped over to Bali to work on her jewellery range) is on one of the couple's thrice-yearly visits to the city. But this time there's an added motive; Fort Street Studio is looking to expand the business in Asia.
With a new senior vice-president, Paul Melo, on board, the company is on the hunt for a second, more centrally located showroom. 'We're looking at the whole breadth of Central, from Wan Chai to Sheung Wan, which is an interesting place right now,' he says.
'We don't need a street-level presence; we're not looking for walk-in trade as the business is exclusive. But visibility and accessibility are two different things. We want to make visiting our showroom as simple as possible for our customers.'
After all, Fort Street Studio consumers spend at least HK$64,800 for a 1.8 metre by 2.7 metre rug (the smallest off-the-rack size) and considerably more for a custom-made size and colour, which makes up three quarters of the business. That Elton John is a customer is an indication of the price. One Hong Kong customer comes in with colours his fung shui consultant has told him to avoid. 'Luckily we have a lot of colours to choose from,' Davis says.
The new showroom will also house their growing collection. Following the Hong Kong trip, the team is heading to Nepal and then India to set up production capabilities for materials other than their trademark silk.
'Silk will always be our core product, but we can't grow it any further and we're at the point where we would like to expand,' Davis says. 'We've been in the business for 17 years and we feel restricted by working with one style. Both Janis and I would like to broaden out with textured Nepalese-style carpets and wool products from Jaipur.'
Davis expects the production process to be slower than in China, but says there are other positives about working in these territories. 'China is a very well-oiled machine and we work with a great group of people here, but they have many more weavers [in India] and the carpet industry there is much larger and offers more varieties than China.'
The plan is to offer the three carpet varieties under one roof 'like an art gallery' in a new, larger showroom in New York next June, launching with the autumn collection. And ideally at the same time in the new Hong Kong showroom, premises allowing. 'I don't think we can wait [to find the right property] so we're thinking we'll do a pop-up store somewhere in Central in the interim,' Davis says.
But this is not, Melo emphasises, an attempt at a diffusion line. 'The new carpets will appeal to the existing buyer. Maybe they want several rugs for several different rooms and they may be looking for wool in a specific room because it's more hardy than silk. That's the reason we're broadening the offering. The prices may be lower because of the fibres used, but it's not because we want to go mass market. It's to offer our clients other options.'
Davis adds that the decision to expand the collection came when they worked on their recent collaboration with Hermes. The exclusive French fashion house approached Fort Street Studio last year to design a capsule range of rugs for their Hermes Maison homeware line. The carpets are currently only available at the Hermes Maison stores in Paris and Beverley Hills.
In keeping with Fort Street Studio's painstaking attention to detail, the pair trawled through Hermes' archives in France and came up with three designs: Appaloosa, based on the horses' dappled coat to reflect Hermes' equestrian heritage, Patine, inspired by the appearance of antique leather and, the most popular, Chevron, a hand-drawn herringbone pattern reminiscent of flooring in smart French homes.
'We had to come up with the right mix of Hermes' and our sensibilities and when we worked with Hermes it led us to think we would like to do more collaborations,' Davis says. 'With Paul on board to develop the business side it frees Janis and me to focus on design. We would like to work in other mediums.'
On a personal level Davis and Provisor are enthralled with china (the porcelain this time, not the country) and are keen collectors of art deco and German pottery from the 1960s and early 70s. Is this one of the mediums they would like to delve into themselves? 'I can't see us doing dishes,' Davis says. 'But if we were invited by a china company to work with them we'd like to.'