Founders Of Fort Street Studio On the Art of Rug Weaving And Their Creative Journey
Brad Davis and Janis Provisor were already established artists and in their late 40s when they established their luxury carpets business, Fort Street Studio. Inspired by their passion for Chinese art and a year-long immersion in the silk-making and woodcut-printing traditions of Hangzhou’s artisans and factories, they set out to weave their own watercolour dreams into breathtakingly beautiful rugs that now grace the homes of Hollywood celebrities and designer boutiques around the world.
Painterly designs on rugs may be commonplace today, but it was Fort Street Studio that pioneered the aesthetic. Davis and Provisor were also the ones who painstakingly translated the ancient weaving process of hand-knotted silk they learned from Hangzhou, which is the same as that of the oldest rugs in the world, only modernised.
“We basically had to work with a team to create a ‘Chinese Photoshop’,” notes Davis, in a video interview. Essentially, he began to imagine each knot as if it were a pixel in order to create a digitisation of the design pattern, that in turn could be referenced by the weavers who were creating the rugs by hand. Davis and Provisor detail the unfolding of this process in their new book, A Tale of Warp and Weft, published by Rizzoli, to mark Fort Street Studio’s 25th anniversary.
In 1996, as the first seven samples were coming off the loom in mainland China to be delivered to Hong Kong, where they were then living, the duo had yet to settle on a name for their company. “We were living on a funny street called Fort Street, and we were the only gweilos in the building,” says Provisor.
“One day we thought why not Fort Street? We discovered that this small private street was settled by artists and intellectuals from Shanghai when they emigrated here,” she says.
Being artists first and foremost, the creative part of rugmaking was always the easiest and most exciting aspect of Fort Street Studio. Davis and Provisor often travelled on extended trips, spending about eight weeks at a time in Indonesia, Thailand, Italy and the Caribbean to paint together, and creating co-authored works that became the basis of their rug designs. “We made a pact not to use our own art—not his paintings nor mine—so everything we make using watercolour is a joint work made through layers,” remarks Provisor.
The journey, however, wasn’t without bumps along the way. “We didn’t only have to figure out how to design and make the carpets but also how to sell them,” says Provisor, who handles the company’s sales and marketing, while Davis focuses on production. Establishing the brand globally also required significant investment, including setting up showrooms in Hong Kong and New York as well as an office in London. Today, the company maintains one showroom in New York’s Flatiron District, a team in Hong Kong and its own factory in mainland China. “Pierre-Alexis Dumas of Hermès once told us that what we have done is start a luxury firm in Asia and take it to the West,” Provisor says.
“To watch China develop was exhilarating,” adds Davis. “We couldn’t have done this there now. We have been incredibly lucky to be part of it. It’s also great to see an appreciation for the craft of weaving grow exponentially over the decades.”
From Steve Martin to Sydney Pollack, many celebrities have Fort Street Studio carpets in their homes. “We joke that we have a lot of ageing musicians collecting our rugs— Madonna, Elton John, Bon Jovi, you name it,” says Davis with a laugh. Influential designers and architects such as Fox-Nahem Designs and Deborah Berke also work closely with the couple on their projects.
When it comes to their dream place to put their creations, their answer is simple: their own house. “We’ve just put in an offer for a home in Connecticut,” says Provisor. “We haven’t even gotten it yet, but we’ve already designed it in our heads. We won’t be putting our best-selling carpets there: we want to make something new for it.”
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Transforming Watercolour into a Weavable Pattern
The text below was written by Brad Davis and is excerpted from the book A Tale of Warp and Weft: Fort Street Studio, published this month by Rizzoli
When Mrs Liu said, “Meiyou, meiyou”, I knew for some daft reason, while it may not have been done before, it must be possible. The trick was how to do it. What tools and notions had to be used and how to find them.
Again, good luck pursued us. After I had identified that a pixel could equal a knot, I hunted down a professional that could teach me how to use Photoshop. He appeared in the guise of the chief graphic designer for the Space Museum in Hong Kong. He had also been on the team that had translated Photoshop into Chinese, so I definitely had my man.
He looked at the watercolours and said that, yes, he thought that he could help me translate them into patterns, perhaps in a month or two, on evenings and weekends. Well, the process actually took six months of hard work figuring out how first to reduce the number of colours of a scan—256—to a weavable number—ten to 20. This had to be accomplished and successfully blending the tones of the watercolours to give the illusion of a bleed. We reduced the colours, and we would lose the subtlety of the design. So, we had to jockey back and forth between significant details and number of colours. Inevitably, it was a losing battle, but once we had a strategy, we could make the best choices to achieve a credible version of the watercolour, and reduce the number of knots for many millions to 1,550,000 knots for a nine foot by 12 foot carpet. There was no one process that achieved this transformation. It was more of a problem of developing various strategies and then applying them. Much like teaching someone to play a card game. Eventually, I wrote a manual to preserve these strategies that ran over 36 pages.
Once we transformed the design into a weavable number of colours, we needed to put the pattern into a grid that the weavers could follow. This was the traditional manner in which a design was translated into a weaving document, much like a musical score. Several computer programmes made grids, but it was only Adobe Illustrator that had accurate enough lines to put each pixel into a readable grid. Once we printed up the sheets of full-sized carpet patterns, I took these to the workshop in China.
Traditional patterns have black grids on white paper with shapes drawn on them and numbered to indicate which yarns the weavers would use. We presented them with coloured patterns, which proved to be the greatest challenge because each square of the grid indicated a yarn colour in the carpet. Because many of the yarns were very close in value and hue, the pattern had to be different than the coloured yarn and more exaggerated in colour to make it readable. The first sample I delivered was rejected by all the weavers as too confusing, and the only way that sample got made was because the workshop owner, Mr Xu, made the sample himself. Thankfully, he was persistent enough to take on the task of learning a new way of weaving. But it took six weeks to make a two foot by three foot carpet. Definitely not production speed!
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I was very pleased with the result. It proved that this method would achieve the watercolour effect that we were driving toward. The next step was to make several full-sized carpets.
After the first week of his weavers trying to learn this new technique, 50 per cent of the weavers quit. They found it too difficult to use these new coloured patterns. I often remark that it was like taking classical musicians and teaching them jazz. So, I had reached another major obstacle—production.
The remaining weavers were struggling, as well. But if they had committed themselves to continue trying, I offered them double wages for four months, if they persevered in learning the patterns. By the end of the time, they had achieved the normal production speed and actually preferred the new patterns to the old ones because they ultimately became easier to read.
When I went to the inspection of the first order of seven designs and three pieces of each design, I was so happy to see the stunning results that I literally danced on the carpet to the great amusement of all the workshop staff.
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