Luke Irwin recalls the precise moment he decided he was going to become a rug designer. In 2003, he was at a lunch party near his home in London and was seated next to a young boy whose father was a Tibetan master rug weaver with three mills in Katmandu, Nepal.
"At the time I was working in a miserable, depressing antiques place where nobody ever came in," he said. "I was looking for things to create that would generate interest, whether it was lighting, cushions, whatever. When I heard about the rugs, that was the first moment I thought, 'This could be interesting.'"
As it turns out, he was right.
Irwin spent the next six months thinking about design, drawing on his experience in the world of art and antiquities.
He decided to create a line of modern, graphic rugs based on crop circles and jumped on a plane to Nepal to see the father of the boy he had met months earlier. He got a collection into production, and with that first line had enough positive response to get out of the antiques store and focus on rugs.
Seven years later, Irwin opened a shop on Pimlico Road in London, where he deals in rugs that are hand-knotted in wool or silk cashmere and are made using generations-old methods in the foothills of the Himalayas and in Rajasthan, India. As a result, they usually cost $7,000 to $10,000, although he has sold some for more than $20,000.
"They are at the top end of the top end of rugs," he said. "The cost is in the construction. You can make a rug which is perfectly good to look at, both in color and design, and retail it for a few hundred dollars. But it's all in how you make it."
His clients include members of the British royal family, U2 and the Rolling Stones.
In September, he was in Los Angeles to oversee the launch of his collection at the Schumacher/Patterson, Flynn & Martin showroom in the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood. He entered the New York market earlier in the year and now also has a presence in cities including Boston, Dallas, Chicago and Atlanta.
Dara Caponigro, creative director of the Schumacher/Patterson, Flynn & Martin showroom, said she was initially drawn to Irwin's work when she was editor in chief of Veranda magazine. When the opportunity arose to partner with him at the showroom, she jumped at it.
"[I] was immediately impressed by his passion for what he does and his incredible eye," Caponigro said. "Luke's rugs are unique. They are so beautifully made, so subtle and so right for today's world of design because they are artful without being overpowering."
Irwin's inspirations are varied. A new offering is based on Modernistic geometric patterns, a previous one on Italian peasant design of the 18th and 19th century. He is particularly well known for his Ikat collection, which features the repeated pattern associated with the elaborate Ikat dyeing technique used in Indonesia and other parts of Central Asia.
Irwin admits that rugs are "utterly subliminal, something you see in your peripheral vision."
But they also have impact and can "blend a room together," he said.
"When you notice a good rug, you know that these people really thought about this. And the very best interior designs start with the rug and build the room from that."