Actually, you are standing on Prince Charles’s favorite design,” Luke Irwin tells me. It seems slightly treasonous to be treading over something adored by the heir to the British throne, but then, as the English bespoke rugmaker points out, that is exactly what this subtle and engrossing tapestry of ferns was made for.
The 40-year-old Irwin approaches floor coverings with an almost messianic zeal. We meet in central London, in a large basement whose floors are scattered with a dozen or so of the rugs from his five-year-old collection. Most of them are two-tone designs inspired by everything from 5,000-year-old cave paintings to the tools used by his weavers in Kathmandu. The Moonchange is a series of interlocking white circles set against deep blue; the Rolling Field model displays waves of vertical stripes in contrasting colors. There are rugs dotted with flora (the Bluebells, Ferns, Fire Flower) and those strewn with fauna (the Ostrich, Geese, Parrots, Beetles). The one called Exercise depicts multiple childlike figures doing morning calisthenics in striped shorts. Ball Games is a carpet mural of children at play. The rugs are all crisp, bold, and somehow still subtle: Each design is a perfect cross between the always appropriate, if a bit safe, sisal and the wildly over-patterned results of recent trends—the type of rug that grounds a room’s look without overpowering it. All qualities, by the way, shared by their designer.
For the better part of an hour Irwin holds forth on, variously, designing for children (“You don’t just have to do clowns or Mickey Mouse”) and the cowardice of buying from big brands (“There is no courage involved in empty status symbols”).
If Irwin has a touch of the showman about him, it can be ascribed to his first career in the theater. From 1989 to 1991 he served as assistant artistic director of the National Theater of Ireland. In 1991 he moved to London where he began working on everything from the staging of international mega-operas to representing talent. In 2003—in a much-photographed ceremony—he married Alice Elliot, daughter of decorator Annabel Elliot and niece of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, hence by marriage niece also of Charles, the Prince of Wales (and admirer of the aforementioned Fern rug).
At a dinner party at his mother-in-law’s six years ago, Irwin was seated next to the son of a master weaver from the Himalayas. That chance encounter set him on course to be a rug designer. He was fascinated by the field but wanted to do more than rework existing themes. It took him some time to come up with a concept, but when he did it was a cracker: crop circles. “You could play around with pile heights,” says Irwin, “use different weaves, and of course it is a design most people see aerially, which seemed perfect for something meant to be laid on a floor.”
Today all of Irwin’s rugs are handmade in Nepal from Tibetan silk and wool, using a traditional weaving technique. The intricate process explains why the time from order to delivery is generally 12 to 16 weeks, depending on the size and the season. “Monsoons can delay the drying process,” says Irwin, “and late October through early November is a national Nepalese holiday.” Each design can be customized to a client’s desires. Some choose to experiment with smaller, almost welcome mat–size proportions; some go for round or octagonal shapes; others want to cover the length of entire rooms. Irwin is currently at work on a silk rug that runs 40 by 20 feet. (Because of the nature of customization, he quotes prices by the square foot: The 100-knot weave begins at $110 per square foot, the slightly less dense 80-knot at $65. Most styles measure at least 9 by 6 feet with a starting price of $3,500.)
Irwin is irritatingly discreet about his clients, letting only tantalizing scraps of information slip about rugs he has made for “huge houses in Notting Hill” and “apartments on Park Avenue.” He is happy to talk about his more public projects, however, such as the series of rugs he did for the British National Trust and the carpets he created for the Dunhill “homes,” a network of clubs that the British luxury brand is opening this year in London, Tokyo, and Shanghai. In America the rugs can be seen on many of the floors of Bergdorf Goodman. Soon its well-shod clientele will be able to buy the designs beneath their feet: Irwin is working on a line exclusively for the store.
Luke Irwin prefers visiting each site so he can consult and advise clients on color, design, and size. He can be reached at 44-1725/553-000 or lukeirwin.com; lukeirwin.com. His carpets can also be ordered through A.M. Collections (212-625-2616).