The International Stories Behind the Rugs at Portland's Kush
Rug transport, India style, photographed near Mirzapur.
When an earthquake hit Nepal in April, Kush Rugs felt tremors in Portland. Owners Brian Robins and Rebecca Lurie couldn’t reach Nepali suppliers for days. Finally, e-mails arrived: don’t stop ordering rugs. The Himalayan craftspeople vowed to continue production.
While many Portland businesses rely on global trade, the rug business is peculiarly sensitive to events in places like Nepal, India, Pakistan, and Iran. “Consistency is challenging,” Lurie says. “We do business in countries that are always in the news.”
Every year, Kush—usually represented by Lurie, a former anthropology major with a yen for travel—scouts out rural villages to find rare and high-quality work. “Every country is making great rugs, and every country is making cheap rugs,” Robins says. “We want people to walk in and see rugs they can’t see anywhere else.”
Even absent catastrophe or crisis, the logistical challenges are formidable. A single rug can take up to a year to finish then ship—via every combination of bike, truck, air, and bureaucracy. “Where’s that rug?” Robins recounts. “It’s in customs. Has anybody heard of it again? It’s both a blessing and a curse. We can’t just sit back and say, well, we’ve got our lines, and we’re good.”
Kush also must tune in to local nuances. “If you’re dealing with someone who’s Afghan or Indian versus somebody from Turkey—those are different forms of communication,” says Lurie. “Does ‘yes’ mean ‘yes,’ or does it mean, ‘I’m saying yes, but you know I mean no’?”
The store donated 3 percent of its May sales to Nepali relief efforts, and Lurie plans to return in the fall. “Ordering rugs,” she says, “contributes directly to providing jobs, rebuilding the country, and helping Nepal move forward.”
One of my favorite sources for gorgeous rugs in Portland is
As you know, a 7.8 magnitude earthquake struck Nepal just
a couple weeks ago. The loss of life has been staggering.
made a donation to Oxfam immediately
after the earthquake but is looking to do something
even more, even bigger. During the month of May,
Kush will be donating a portion of sales to
the Phoenix Fund for Nepal Relief.
You may or may not know, that Nepal produces
some gorgeous handmade rugs.
So local peeps - if you are considering investing in a gorgeous rug
for a space in your home, please consider visiting Kush Rugs in
the Pearl District! Your purchase will go a long way towards
helping the people of Nepal.
Thanks to Kush Rugs
for their generous and thoughtful hearts!
Kush provided the pop of pink! Click to view more of our wool & silk pink dragon rug.
“Blossom” is a beautifully made traditional rug available exclusively from Kush Rugs in Portland, Oregon. It was hand-knotted in India with a wool background and raised silk design. Secondly, “Static” is a more masculine rug that was also hand-knotted in India and available exclusively at Kush.
Dimension: Blossom is photographed 9’1X12’1 and Static 8'X10', but can be ordered i54 sq ft and above.
Copy: Kat McEachern, Photography: Brian Robins
Rugs are a central design piece that can be the starting point for building an entire room. Even a neutral colored rug can add to the warmth and comfort of a space, while a dramatic rug can transform it entirely. Whether you are looking for high impact or quiet unity in your rug, Rebecca Lurie and Brian Robins from Kush Rugs can help you select the perfect piece.
Both worked their way up in the rug world, Brian as a rug washer and Rebecca as a ‘flipper/shipper,’ in industry parlance. They “fell in love with the unconventional nature of the rug business, and with the timelessness, permanence, and complex beauty of the product.” We visited their showroom in Portland to learn more.
You both worked your way through the rug industry, what inspired you to start a business together?
Brian: Rebecca has been travelling for nearly half her life. She first left home for a year in West Africa at age 20, and has since visited countless countries on multiple continents over the years. Rebecca’s interest is in culture and religion, and the art forms that serve the purpose of expressing both. Rugs fit naturally into her sense of what’s important and inspiring, and after so many years of negotiating the developing world on her own, the idea to start a business seemed obvious and far preferable to working for someone else. Oh, and she loves math.
Rebecca: Brian loves film and photography. Composition and color plays a large part in both mediums and is applicable to rugs and interior design. When designing rugs he is comfortable reworking classical motifs, but is most energized by riffing off modern design and pop culture. And he hates math…
Brian: We have very different taste and perspectives from one another. Our yin and yang balance out the gallery. If we both like a rug or design, we know it’s a winner!
Your showroom is so open and feels like a luxury bazaar. What was your inspiration?
We looked for a gallery that had a rustic, industrial feel and beautiful windows, and we put in a glass roll up garage door for summer. Rugs are always the center of attention here. It’s a treat dressing up the windows and seeing people press against the glass to see in. Our design concept was to make to space feel approachable. People drop in to say hello and then realize they have been hanging out for an hour. Mission accomplished!
There are so many styles of rugs- how to you define what fits into the “Kush look”?
We divide our rugs into 4 broad categories. Traditional, transitional, modern, and custom. Our focus is on ethically sourced, handmade rugs. They are mostly new, although there are a few vintage and antique beauties that we couldn’t pass up.
To find your handmade rugs, you must travel frequently to some very inspiring locations!
The best work trip, hands down, is Turkey. Istanbul is the most beautiful and romantic city in the world; Anatolia is wild, vast, and ancient, and the coast is pure Mediterranean paradise. Turkish food is unstoppable, the people enchanting, and the weaving tradition is inspired.
And our favorite place to relax? Astoria, Oregon. We live in the greatest state.
Nothing beats being home! Speaking of homes, what tips do you have for someone who is rug shopping- maybe for the first time?
Take time to educate your eye. Visit at least a couple shops so that you can see the many different types of rugs available. You need to learn what moves you, and what works for the space- and then you look for a rug that does both. Start a relationship with a gallery that will allow you take rugs home on a trial basis. Seeing rugs in their intended space as opposed to a gallery setting is illuminating. Like fashion, everyone has a strong opinion about rugs. Ultimately the right rug is an expression of personal style.
What is an erosion rug?
The trend started in Nepal around 10 years ago, with Tibetan weavers working with Western designers to create abstract, raw-looking rugs with painterly expertise. Time and competition pushed the designs into more-sophisticated interpretations of this erosion concept. Traditional, tight patterns with entire sections erased—in etched lines, as if acid had dripped down the rug. We have a broad and growing collection of our own at Kush. We carry designs ranging from an abstract portrait of rust dripping down a cement wall to multitextured, formless contrasts in steel gray and lime green.
When I came to your showroom earlier this year, you also showed me beautiful sari silk rugs. Can you tell us how you discovered those?
In India, several years ago, I was knocked off my feet by the recycled sari silk rugs. Using remnant, re-spun silk from the mill ends of sari looms, skilled Indian weavers had managed to create brilliant rugs in interpreted designs ranging from Uzbek Ikats—those wonderfully tribal, narrow fabrics of Central Asia—to antique Agras with their formal and feminine abundance of florals, arabesques, and distinctively Indian design complexity.
Can you describe the Sari silk rugs for people who haven’t seen them before?
Sari silk is very inconsistent and varied; the yarns often carry with them the wild residual colors of the saris they would have been. These tones, offset by the high sheen and the often very subtle patterns create a stunning, unbelievably soft, indescribably abstract rug. Viewed from one end, they are a vivid explosion of color that I’ve never seen outside of India; viewed from the other, they are a wash of indeterminate pattern—a seemingly ancient design that you must work to see, putting together the patterns in your mind and filling in the blanks where the motifs are practically invisible.
Where do the designers at Kush get its inspiration for creating unique rug designs?
Inspiration is everywhere; the work is to recognize it. For instance, one night many years ago, I was driving across the 405 bridge toward northeast Portland when I noticed for the first time ... the white-painted columns supporting the highway’s upper deck. They had begun to peel, revealing cold, gray concrete underneath: patchy, industrial blotches spaced beautifully in white with a balance only time can create. I desperately wished I could pull over somewhere; to pause for a moment to take a picture, and turn that picture into a rug. It would be a beautiful erosion rug, I thought. And I continue to think it, every time I drive across that bridge.
Can you address the intersection between new rugs and repurposed rugs? Why do you think people are attracted to repurposed rugs?
They say necessity breeds invention, and in the world of rugs this theory has been instrumental over the last decade. A shortage of weavers, the dizzying rise in material costs, and a glut of out-of-fashion, but well-made, old rugs all contribute to the rise of the repurposed, reimagined rug. These are economical, capitalistic reactions to the modern world and businesses far and wide have responded with aplomb. What’s fascinating to me is the way the most successful repurposed rug collections are made to not obscure their former incarnations, but rather underline the forgotten glory. The old, the sense of history, is accentuated and made irresistible.I believe that as we are propelled ever faster forward into a digital age, we are more urgently drawn by a need to be connected to our earth and our human past. We yearn for significance, timelessness and history because all around us everything seems so finite, and so fast. We’re all looking for a human connection in a digital world. Handmade rugs are the ideal conduit—inherently linked to history by the strands of culture and craft while they grace our modern homes.
Gold silk sari rug, hand knotted in India.
Manhattan 8' X 10' hand knotted Himalayan wool, silk, and nettle.
Metallic silver sari silk rug with oxidized wool design. Hand knotted in India.