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Jazz Shapers

Shaper: Luke Irwin

Show aired on 24th November 2018

Transcript

Elliot Moss
Welcome to the Jazz Shapers podcast from Mishcon de Reya. What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however music has been cut or shortened due to rights issues.

Welcome to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss. It is where the Shapers of Business join the Shapers of Jazz, Soul and Blues. My guest today is Luke Irwin, award winning designer and founder of the eponymously named bespoke hand knotted rug Company, Luke Irwin. Founded in 2003, the idea for the business came from a chance meeting the year before with a Tibetan weaver’s son. Luke became fascinated by the rug making process and was driven to explore contemporary rug designs which to this day are all still hand knotted using traditional methods in Nepal, in India and Pakistan. Three years ago Luke discovered a Roman villa underneath his home while laying electrical cabling – how about that. The discovery was unparalleled in size and historical relevance and is one of several inspirations for Luke’s designs. Hello and thank you for joining.

Luke Irwin
It’s very nice to be here.

Elliot Moss
2003 was an important year for you?

Luke Irwin
Yes it was but it just began in 2002.

Elliot Moss
And I believe you had a lunch where you happened to meet someone, tell me about this person who helped you change your life?

Luke Irwin
So 2002 was the World Cup Final and there was a lunch party at my now parents-in-law and I sat beside this little boy, this 12 year old boy and we were chatting and he said his father was Tibetan and at that point my only sort of knowledge of Tibet particularly was Tin Tin. Tin Tin in Tibetan so I was fascinated and I said ‘where do you live?’ and he said ‘we live in Kathmandu’ and at the time I was working in an antique store outside of Hungerford which was just misery because nobody ever came in and it was just the most boring thing and I said ‘what does your father do in Kathmandu’ and he said ‘well he’s a master weaver, he has mills and he makes rugs’ and this got me to thinking. I thought for about six months about design and I thought you know, I don’t want to do something that’s a Hackney version of something that’s gone before and finally I had a eureka moment which was actually out of a fit of pique because I saw somebody who had a, a rug which was based on a maze or a labyrinth, that annoyed me having spent six months thinking about something and I hit on the idea of doing a collection of rugs based on crop circles. Now I have no interest in crop circles whatsoever but it was perfect, it’s a birds eye view and it’s different pile heights define the actual graphic and what they were, they were based on real crop circles which are real apparently which happened in Sussex and Hampshire in the mid-90s and so you could say if you bought one, you could say ‘this is a crop circle’ or you could just say ‘this is a modern graphic on a rug’ and so this rolled on until about seven or eight years ago and I got an email from the Chair of Crop Circle Research in MIT thanking me for all I had done for crop circles and by the way the eight or nine I chose to do, they thought were all real which was kind of strange. So that is how it began and then I sort of limped on at this antiques place while the rugs were being made and then they appeared. You are so invested in the creation that the most peculiar moment happened when somebody walked in and said ‘I’d like to buy that’ and I made the ultimate mistake where I kind of said – I was so taken aback that somebody wants to give me money for something that I had created – and they say ‘but can we change the colour and the size’ and the mistake I made was I said ‘you can have whatever you want’ and no customer wants to hear they can have whatever they want, they want you to actually say ‘well why don’t you try it in blue and beige and have it this size and we’ll change…’ and that, and that is where it all began.

Elliot Moss
And selling it was this in your own shop at that point or?

Luke Irwin
No, no. No, no this was still in the antiques place.

Elliot Moss
Okay.

Luke Irwin
And…

Elliot Moss
So this was kind of the beginning of something there and how long did it take before you moved from the antiques place on the side as it were into your own, your own place?

Luke Irwin
Leaving the antiques place was rather quicker than I had anticipated because as I said, nobody ever came in there and therefore I was made redundant about six months later. At this point I am 32, 33, 34 whatever age it was and you now are running out of options and I had realised at this point that I was without doubt the world’s worst employee. I had no comprehension of the quid pro quo of if you sit here between 9.00 and 6.00, five days a week, we will give you X a week. I thought I could do great work for the first three hours and could I have the afternoon off and go to a matinee and just sort of chill out. But this now focussed my mind because I had just got married, there was no other income and everything was loaded into this business. It is sink or swim. So let’s say that happened in early 2004, I didn’t open the store in London until 2010.

Elliot Moss
Just going back in time but you mentioned something about being the world’s worst employee and I… my sources tell me on good authority that you were sacked as a porter from Christies because apparently you didn’t turn up so that corroborates your story of I don’t understand why this quid pro quo thing of being an employee but I like this… I want to just read this quote because I want you to tell me a little bit more about it – I am the opposite of the well brought up child with a strict routine and cannot bear the mundanity of two days being the same – it’s the Architectural Digest.

Luke Irwin
Excellent.

Elliot Moss
That well known publication, 10 July 2017. It sounds like in those six years no two days were the same.

Luke Irwin
When the business is your own they are not.

Elliot Moss
That obviously appealed to you as a human being and the way you were wired?

Luke Irwin
Hugely. I mean I think what shaped me very much was my earlier career was all in the theatre. It was in a theatre in Dublin and the only way you could make ends meet was you would rehearse a show during the day and you would run a show at night so you were working 18 hour days so that’s great when you are 20 or 18 or whatever it was. But it makes your whole professional mind-set very project orientated so you rehearse for four weeks towards first night and as you get older you sort of recognise your own weaknesses and my weakness is very much, if you told me I had to do the same thing every day, I would really struggle with that. In my defence, at Christies at the time I was paid £3,000 a year and we are talking 1986/1987 and that’s not 1896 you know, this is £3,000 a year was you know, way below poverty level, you had Harry Enfield on television doing Loadsamoney and that sort of thing so, so I’ve always been very against interns and underpaying people through my own mind-set which is this, this idea that I had, which is ‘well they’re not really paying me anyway so if I don’t turn up on Tuesday does it really matter’ not seeing the bigger picture that actually you were trying to work and struggle towards getting a better job or a paid job or whatever so yeah, there is definitely the gypsy element that you can wander off, not that I have much time now to do that, let’s say to the Tate or whatever of an afternoon and just look at some paintings and it sort of stirs your mind.

Elliot Moss
Well I was going to say, in your game and you are a creative person who has now created a business around ideas and around bringing those to life through textures and textiles and so on, inspiration is really important and in those six years, before we get to the shop which is on Pim… is it Pimlico?

Luke Irwin
Pimlico Road.

Elliot Moss
Pimlico Road right and in fact I have driven past it many times. A very simply type face, I am a fan of type face, I like that.

Luke Irwin
It’s the only type face on the moon.

Elliot Moss
Well there you go, is that right?

Luke Irwin
Apparently.

Elliot Moss
You learn a new thing every day. What were you doing? You were making more rugs, I mean and then you just didn’t have a… how did you sell them? Where did you sell them?

Luke Irwin
So the selling was very much through PR. So it was through publications, your shop window was the Telegraph magazine, World of Interiors, House & Garden and it was direct to interior designers and the reason is an interior designer will have ten clients, if a design is okay and if you deliver on time they’ll keep using you and it was sort of enough but you worried after the first, the coherence of the first collection being based on crop circles you then panic that ‘I’ll never think of another idea again’.

Elliot Moss
But your next idea was…?

Luke Irwin
My next idea I think was actually labyrinth and mazes and again it was spiritual, geometric, weird, you see it from above and now the problem you have is there are so many designs in my head we don’t possibly have the means to make them all.

Elliot Moss
And we are going to hold that because we are going to work out how you then addressed that issue and indeed as a new thing which I also want to talk about which is your card collection, the Billet Doux collection which is also about you having things in your head which someone else has to help you realise. Much more coming up from my guest, Luke Irwin, that’s in a couple of minutes but first let’s hear from one of our partners at Mishcon de Reya for some advice for your business.

Luke Irwin is my Business Shaper today, he is the Founder of the eponymously named, bespoke hand knotted rug company – I just like saying those words together.

Luke Irwin
It’s quite bizarre.

Elliot Moss
You probably didn’t think that you would be doing this when you were growing up. We were talking about how you got the business up and running and really in a way this business is different because it starts with some items that you create and then what I am interested in is how you can morph from creating a few, and we talked about the second collection and whether you could keep up with all those, you know, great ideas. How does it scale because you need a certain number of people to make rugs, they need to sell, they need to sell at the right price. The business of this has to kick in at some point. You go from having a few nice ideas to actually I am paying rent on Pimlico Road, I’ve got distributors who want my stuff. It becomes a serious thing?

Luke Irwin
Yep and that’s a major problem.

Elliot Moss
Do you remember that tipping point when you realised I can’t just sort of do a few things here, there is a bit more to it. Or are you still in denial Luke?

Luke Irwin
I’m still sort of in denial.

Elliot Moss
Yeah I figured you were.

Luke Irwin
But oddly it came in about 2008 and you saw the world as we knew it just came crashing down around our ears and at this point I am still effectively dealing out of the back of my car. You know you are going to London showing interior designers little samples, in some instances you are showing them full rugs in, in sort of NCP car parks you know because their offices aren’t big enough to roll out a full scale rug and at that moment what you do is you roll through a business, you become very measured about risk. You are not adverse to it, you are not frightened of it but you get enured to it, I began to have a mind-set, certainly for me I can only speak for myself, what’s the worst that can happen? I am not going to be beheaded tomorrow morning if this all goes up in smoke so in 2008/9 I thought this is the moment where in particularly with the rugs, people need to see them, they need to touch them, they need to have feel if has silk in it or cashmere or whatever, are you going to spend an awful lot of money on something which is effectively sold to you on a promise or a little sample and that was the moment when I decided (a) I have to open a store and there was a logical reason which was at this point on Pimlico Road there must have been ten empty stores. So the landlord is thrilled that somebody is coming along saying ‘yeah I’ll take that store’. The rents are lower and the other flip side is that PR is exponentially much greater because at that time, I am sure you will remember, every single story was such and such is closing down, everything is and here’s a story and no it isn’t sort of national press that a rug designer is opening a store in the Pimlico Road but exponentially you’ve got more traction than you would have done if you had opened in a boom.

Elliot Moss
And at that time when it becomes more serious and there is rent to pay every month, did you have to scale up your operation in terms of manufacturing?

Luke Irwin
No because the manufacturing is all sub-contracted because whether it’s in Nepal or India or Pakistan…

Elliot Moss
The more things commissioned the bigger the team?

Luke Irwin
Yeah and all effectively they want to do over there is fill the looms. They want to keep the weavers busy, obviously that generates more business for them and more income for them so you can expand and contract – I mean that’s in a sense the joy of sub contraction is suddenly if you don’t have any orders, you don’t have three thousand members of a workforce that you are responsible for. The downside of that is you don’t have exclusivity with these manufacturers and when you are at various points that I have been and you know, remain to a large degree, you don’t have a huge amount of leverage because of the scale and volume you are doing compared to some other big America beasts who are coming in and saying we want, you know, three million square feet a year and you are doing a hundred thousand, it’s got to be on personal relationship.

Elliot Moss
And we are going to come to that in a moment actually. I want to talk about a personal relationship of sorts, not yours directly with this particular customer, one President Barack Obama but the luck if you like and how things can change when a big thing like that happens and I’ve now intrigued you if you are listening because you are going to hear what Luke Irwin made which got gifted to President Obama very shortly. Time for some more music, this is Willie Bobo with Always There.

What a racy version there of Always There. I’ve always wanted to say the word ‘racy’ and I just did. That was Willie Bobo. You are listening to Jazz Shapers and Luke Irwin is my Business Shaper and I mentioned President Barack Obama’s name because he was gifted a beautiful rug?

Luke Irwin
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
Yes. By the Irish Nation, a rug that you made?

Luke Irwin
A rug that I made. One of the joys…

Elliot Moss
And this was 2008 and the reason I mention that in the context of stuff going wrong in the world and then his inauguration happened, there’s a gift, happens to be made by this man called Luke Irwin and suddenly everyone is going ‘who’s this guy’ and I imagine that gave you quite a big lift in terms of where your business eventually ended up. Even if not at the moment, at that moment it probably happened.

Luke Irwin
Yes but the story of effectively the rug that was given to him is a rug called Doves and Stripes and what it is it is the American flag and that day, and I sort of need to give the context of when it was. Obama and Hillary were slogging it out for primaries in 2007/8 as to who was going to be the Democratic candidate and that day I had spent the day looking at books at Amish quilt designs, that sort of thing and as I was going to sleep that night I was thinking about the Union Jack weirdly and thinking what a hackneyed design it is and I think its hackney because there is no copyright on it and I was thinking about other cool flags and thinking, stars and stripes is really cool except the design is all up in one corner and then I fell asleep and as I fell asleep the stars turned into doves and they started flying across the stripes.

Elliot Moss
Just to be in your head for a minute would be really weird and cool.

Luke Irwin
Well…

Elliot Moss
Honestly I just want to jump in.

Luke Irwin
Yeah…

Elliot Moss
So you saw this, you are visualising this thing…

Luke Irwin
…and then you wake with a start.

Elliot Moss
What did you… you made a quick note?

Luke Irwin
Yes. But the joy and the privilege of what I do is you can turn your whimsies into tangible things.

Elliot Moss
Yeah.

Luke Irwin
And so I did it just because it amused me, it entertained me, it was at a time where I so wanted Obama to prevail and to win and so we created this rug and then you know, I grew up in Ireland and then I got this call saying ‘would you be interested in this rug being given to Obama?’ and I said ‘100%’. So a rug that was sort of slightly inspired by his primary run ends up with him. Anyway and I have no idea where it is now, I’ve no idea if it’s in some presidential gift depot in Idaho, I mean I wouldn’t have a clue.

Elliot Moss
Yeah it probably is. Let’s not think about that. Let’s pretend it’s in a really happy house.

Luke Irwin
And it should be.

Elliot Moss
And it should be but that, that leads me to the serious part about your business is the growth of it Internationally, you’ve got stockists in Australia, Belgium and Korea, in the Lebanon and the US as well and in fact you’ve got this new collection which has been done in collaboration with the cabinet makers, Little Halstock called Seat of Power taken from that original design or rather has its inspiration in that design.

Luke Irwin
It sort of marries together because effectively you and I have the same power, we have one vote, all of us have the same power and what I wanted to do particularly at this sort of odd juncture in history is in some ways we feel that that equal power has been somehow hijacked or de-valued or whatever so I came up with a chair design where the frame of the chair is the hammer and sickle and the upholstery of it is this doves and stripes original rug design which when it was originated funnily enough I showed it and Bush was still President and I was showing it at a show in New York and somebody came on to the stand and they go ‘what’s this about?’ and I go ‘well there is no actual real political undertone to this, you can interpret it anyway you like, you can say now because of Gulf War and terror strikes and all of that that peace is leaving America or with your new President Obama you could say that you are re-exporting peace’ but it was initially there was no political undertone to my dream but initially it is perceived as goodness that America historically has actually pushed out into the world and now ten years on from that with isolation itself and closing the doors and nationalism which coming from Ireland I’ve seen first-hand and possibly one of the very few places in Europe, certainly Western Europe where you have seen nationalism first hand, what it does and it is bloodshed and it is chaos and it is venal and it is vicious and so I am violently against any form of shutting down the boundaries. Now the chair itself effectively what it is, is it’s in some ways a work of art rather than something you would have at your kitchen table. But it is a conversation piece in which conversation happens and that is the idea behind it – people actually start thinking and the person in the chair I wanted to create somewhat of a speaker’s corner. You can sit in it and you could discourse about power as you perceive it and that is to be a postman and a bus driver as much as some celebrity, you know, we are slightly obsessed with celebrities if their opinion matters and counts more than anybody else’s but one of the great things about in a way, a few great things about Trump and things like Brexit is that this disaffection with celebrity, with elite that actually all our voices matter and a lot of it has been a push back against this elitism that is perceived within you know, intelligencia or whatever.

Elliot Moss
And really you are very lucky because you get to express yourself and talk about those very things through your work and indeed I want to talk about artisanship as well. That’s all in my final chat with Luke plus we will be playing a track from Kurt Elling, that’s all coming up in just a moment.

That was Kurt Elling, the soft and gentle sound of Kurt Elling In The Winelight. My Business Shaper just for a few more minutes is Luke Irwin. He has been talking about making things and making things that have a message and that’s really a privilege I think, you can do clever things like that and take that very creative mind of yours and make things. Not many people make things anymore, at least not in the way you do. Do you see yourself as a spokesperson for the importance of making things properly or is it just about Luke Irwin making things properly?

Luke Irwin
I don’t presume to speak for anyone else or anything, I think we have lost the ability to look and to judge and to see, you know, if you walk down the street now you will see most people looking at their phones. We can’t judge, we judge quality now by its cost rather than actually picking it up and if its tea, smelling it, or if it’s a rug, touching it or whatever, we’ve lost that ability. A lot of things I do for my own amusement or intellectual stretching of we can do this and I don’t look around, I don’t read any interiors magazines, I don’t… you have to follow what it is that you think is the right thing and then sometimes you are ahead of the curve and everybody goes ‘oh my God it’s amazing, that’s clever and that’s brilliant and blah blah blah’ and other times you are… you just get it wrong and it just doesn’t happen. With design you can’t have a fear of failure.

Elliot Moss
It strikes me as you are talking Luke that your… there was a column by, I can’t think what his name is, back at the FT and it was called Life In The Slow Lane and it was all about what you’ve just described and most people run, including me, we run through life and we on this crazy trajectory. Yours is very, is a lovely old fashioned view of the world which is give me space I’ll think, I’ve got… I can make stuff, enough stuff that the business you know, I am making a good living and all that but you really enjoy that and it is almost two fingers up to all those people, probably when you were growing up who said well where’s your proper profession dear boy? Is there a bit of that?

Luke Irwin
Yes and no. I mean I live half a week in London and half a week in the country.

Elliot Moss
With lots of chickens I read?

Luke Irwin
There is about… I think the fox got some, I think there is about six left.

Elliot Moss
That’s more than I got. Well more than most people have got.

Luke Irwin
I mean I like chickens, they are low maintenance animals. I like chickens.

Elliot Moss
Seven billion chickens on the planet apparently. Extraordinary.

Luke Irwin
The same amount as humans.

Elliot Moss
Yeah, amazing. Maybe they are not being so chivalrous and kind as you are to the chickens. But seriously that sense of space and of it being an antithetical to what most people think a career looks like.

Luke Irwin
Yes but it is, I couldn’t exclusively live in London. I couldn’t exclusively live in the country. I have to have both and the country is like the oxygen and I don’t mean that literally like pure air or anything, it’s room to breathe and to look and to think and it was a few years ago I was doing an interview and my wife took the mickey out of me because of it because I said ‘I am sitting…’ and this was just off the top of my head… ‘I am sitting in my garden and if you ask me what the colour was I’d say it’s green but actually now I look it’s twenty eight shades of green’. Most of us don’t stop and look and think and consider and actually boil it back to just being animals which we are and the senses that we have which have now been diluted because of the genius of technology.

Elliot Moss
You will carry on doing this won’t you? I mean this isn’t…

Luke Irwin
I have no choice.

Elliot Moss
…yeah exactly, I was going to say you feel compelled to do it because this is probably what you are about. It is fantastic you found the thing that you like doing which also happens to be what you do to make money. It’s been a real privilege talking to you Luke and I wish you very well with your new little foray into the world of cards which people should check out if they can, it’s the Billet Doux collection which will pop up in some very nice designer hotels, all these little French sayings with lovely drawings which again were in your head but someone visualised them for you which is fabulous and I look forward to all the new creations and reading all about them and hopefully seeing you again. Just before I let you go though, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Luke Irwin
The song choice is West End Blues by Louis Armstrong and I chose it because nobody else ever has.

Elliot Moss
Here it is just for that reason.

That was West End Blues by Louis Armstrong, the song choice of my Business Shaper today, Luke Irwin. A project view of the world derived from his time in theatre, really interesting if you think about that and the application of business. He became measured with his attitude towards risk, really important if you are going to set up your own thing. I love the way he talked about turning his whimsies into tangible things, he makes stuff and he does that through creativity that’s in his head and that point which I think is really relevant to us in this incredibly busy life that we all lead – stop, look, think and consider and you will see different things. That’s it from Jazz Shapers, ta-ra and have a great weekend.

We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers. You will find hundreds of more guests available to listen to in our archive. To find out more just search Jazz Shapers in iTunes or head over to mishcondereya.com/jazzshapers.

Luke Irwin is an award-winning rug designer, specialising in the making of hand-knotted, custom made rugs. Previously, he worked in both theatre and Christies before establishing his own company in early 2004. Luke was inspired to start his own rug design company after a chance encounter with a Tibetan weaver’s son whilst at a family lunch in Dorset, and he became fascinated with the rug-making process. Much of the inspiration for his collections is rooted in history and based on everything from original textiles, dreams and poetry, to crop circles and architecture.

One of Luke’s rugs, “Doves and Stripes”, was inspired by Obama’s political fight in the 2007/8 election and was eventually presented to him via the Irish foundation Jack & Jill. In 2015 he discovered a Roman villa underneath his home while laying electrical cabling, which led Luke to develop the novel design and unique manufacturing techniques of his “Mosaic” collection, which had won numerous awards, including Wallpaper’s Award for Best Design Product 2017.

Luke opened his flagship store on Pimlico Road in 2010, and exhibits at trade shows across the world. He has also collaborated with household names, including Anthropologie, The Conran Shop and Williams Sonoma Home.

Interview Highlights

The joy and the privilege of what I do is you can turn your whimsies into tangible things.

With design you can’t have a fear of failure.

When somebody first walked in I was so taken aback that they wanted to give me money for something that I had created.

When the business is your own no two days are the same.

As you get older you recognise your own weaknesses.

Now the problem I have is there are so many designs in my head we don’t possibly have the means to make them all.

I began to have the mind-set of, what’s the worst that can happen?

You have to follow what it is that you think is the right thing and then sometimes you are ahead of the curve…and other times you just get it wrong.

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