Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Kristen Rockwell: O'Bannon Oriental Carpets in Lawrenceville

Store owner weaves a life in the carpet trade
Saturday, June 13, 2009
From coloring with crayons as a child to negotiating in the twisting maze of Istanbul's Grand Bazaar, it's been a magic carpet ride for Kristen Rockwell, who is celebrating her 10th anniversary as owner and proprietor of O'Bannon Oriental Carpets in Lawrenceville.
The transplanted New Englander and weaver said she has always had color and design in her life.
"I remember my sister and I coloring in our coloring books. It brought us pleasure and calmed us down when we were upset," she says.
She graduated from crayons to weaving designs in nonconformist materials. "I was using chicken wire and paper ribbon.... They were horrible, but they were the stepping stone."
Upon moving to Pittsburgh, she happened to walk into O'Bannon, then in Squirrel Hill. She was working as a weaver but needed a steady job in retail. Owner Pat Forbes, who had bought the shop from George O'Bannon, did not need any help, but the two became friends.
"I liked to hang out there whenever I could because it just made me feel better being there with the colors and patterns," Ms. Rockwell says.
A pattern became clear to Ms. Forbes, who after 12 years finally offered Ms. Rockwell a job. Three years later, she sold her the store. Several years ago, Ms. Rockwell relocated to the site of an old grocery store at 3803 Butler St., where she has more room and natural light to display her treasured inventory.
The shop features all sizes and styles of hand-loomed Orientals from tiny prayer-like rugs to contemporary, primitive and traditional designs to rare pieces best suited for wall hangings. Ms. Rockwell prefers the terms "tribal" and "classical" to primitive and traditional. Prices range from hundreds to hundreds of thousands of dollars.
On her first buying trips in the United States, Ms. Rockwell began learning the difference between chemical and vegetable dyes. In the late 1970s and early '80s, a company called Woven Legends from Turkey created more awareness of traditional looming methods and "greener" vegetable dyes.
These dyes are more expensive because they take longer to make.
"Madder root, which gives you red, takes six years to mature," Ms. Rockwell says.
Handmade wool carpets -- the only kind O'Bannon sells -- are also more expensive than machine-spun wool. With a bachelor's degree in fiber art from Carnegie Mellon University, Ms. Rockwell has a strong appreciation for the time and labor that go into handlooming Oriental rugs.
"It's all women who do the work, and yes, young girls do learn at their mother's side, which is different than actually making the rug," she says.
Ms. Rockwell says there has been a crackdown on child labor in the Middle East but abuses continue, which is why she is very particular about which producers she works with.
She made her first trip to Istanbul, Turkey, in 1999. Her husband, who understands some Turkish, is invaluable on such trips.
"It is a very different world to walk into as a woman and a business person," she admits.
Ms. Rockwell often finds herself in back rooms, crawling over obstacles to see the best pieces. When it comes to price, she often relies on her gut response to a carpet.
"I know a fantastic piece when I see it," she says, adding that there are many levels of fantastic and many variations on the traditional Oriental rug.
"Over the course of 12 years of doing this, I can be really fast moving through a place, picking rugs. But then there are certain families of rugs that could take me days because of the beauty and intricacy."
Gabbeh rugs from Iran are one type that has grown in popularity, she says. Considered a contemporary style, these carpets feature traditional elements that the weavers have interpreted in new ways. The women have artistic freedom.
"They are using traditional elements in a very primitive sense," Ms. Rockwell says.
One unusual piece in the store shows a camel caravan. "There is a lot of symbolism. The camels are sort of your life blood. They represent power as well. The designs represent things that are about wealth to them and things that bring them pleasure," she notes.
"There has been a growing interest in Gabbehs as people become aware of these contemporary pieces and see them in person. I'll see a wave of sales of only traditional pieces, then a wave of contemporary. Then there's the household coming in to mix it up with both styles together."
Ms. Rockwell is also intrigued by Turkish fish carpets, which are made with wool left over from other rugs.
"They collect all the different wools and can be so creative after being so restricted. I know what they are thinking when they are weaving these. They are having fun and thinking color."
The fish carpets have sold well.
"People seem to love them because they are getting a real Oriental but with an unconventional pattern," she says.
O'Bannon Oriental Carpets, 3803 Butler St., Lawrenceville, can be reached at 412-621-0700 or

Correction/Clarification: (Published June 18, 2009) This story as originally published June 13, 2009 about Kristen Rockwell and O'Bannon Oriental Carpets gave an incorrect name for a supplier, Woven Legends.

Read more: