PHOTOGRAPHY & TEXT HANS FONK

She provoked a revolt in America’s carpet world. Creativity and social responsibility have equipped her in her quest to revive and modernise the traditional Tibetan carpet-making industry and introduce the products in America. She translated classical motifs into almost minimalist patterns and had the carpets made locally. The product, starting with sheep shearing and then spinning the wool and dyeing the yarns, is entirely performed by hand, with absolutely no child labour involved. It is a process that makes of every carpet a unique work of art. Stephanie Odegard may live and work in Manhattan, but she has lost her heart to various other countries, including Nepal, Jamaica, India and Fiji, where she has launched projects to present old crafts in a new light and guarantee the workers a decent living.

In the 1980s she presided over the reintroduction of modern carpets in the United States. For many years the main interest had been focused almost exclusively on Persian rugs, dhurries and sisal matting. The fact that she – a woman – had the guts to revive the lethargic American carpets market with new, pure designs, caused a veritable revolution. She introduced hand-made Tibetan carpets of the highest quality, simplifying the traditional motifs and creating in that way an entirely new, modern look.

Stephanie Odegard: “Initially most people had difficultly understanding what I was doing. At that stage, people from the arts world and leading interior designers were the only ones who appreciated the intrinsic beauty of my rugs. They saw the beauty of hand-spun, dyed woollen yarns and the hand knotting that makes every carpet a unique work of art. In Nepal they create as the knotting process progresses. It makes a great difference.”

When, in the 1980s, she was working as a consultant for the World Bank in Nepal, she encountered people among the Tibetan refugees, as well as among the Nepalese themselves, who were skilled in hand knotting and weaving. The beauty of the traditional artisanal products immediately appealed to her, and she started collecting them.

“I came to the conclusion that those traditional, often ancient patterns could have a modern flavour if minor alterations were made. I began by capturing the essence of the Tibetan designs, often in one colour. I got rid of all the frills. The result was a more or less minimalist rug that, in its very simplicity, radiated great beauty. I formed a small collection of around twenty rugs that I imported to New York. On the carpet scene, where there were no real designers, scepticism prevailed.  It was a world of imitators, with an absence of any kind of innovation. My collection worked as a slow-starting shockwave.”

Few people in that world of carpets paid attention to the word ‘copyright’ and thought that her ‘original design’ had little legal significance. It took the necessary lawsuits to protect the copyright: both for herself and for the artisans in Nepal who made the rugs.

The motto for the 25th anniversary of her Odegard Carpets Collection: Environment, Breaking the Cycle of Poverty through Sustainable Design and Social Responsibility, was no fluke. She not only changed the face of the age-old Nepalese carpet industry,  but she also succeeded in raising the living standards of thousand of artisans and their children. She founded RugMark Nepal (today known as GoodWeave), an organisation that checks the working conditions in the factories and seeks to end child labour. Her new approach to the Nepalese carpet-making art has meant that many craftspeople found new work and were guaranteed a fixed income. They could send their children to school and give them the foundations for a better life.

“Through our work we have achieved a great deal for former child slaves. We’ve ensured education and good jobs for them. Those children are really smart and know how to persevere. GoodWeave and responsible buyers have a tremendous job battling against human trafficking. Consumers want to pay less and less for carpets, especially with the Internet, so child labour in carpet production is a growing phenomenon.”

The craving for pure beauty and social responsibility is an important guideline in Stephanie Odegard’s life. She has served as a volunteer for the UN Peace Corps, as a marketing consultant for the United Nations, the World Bank and is frequently called in by the governments of Nepal, Jamaica and Fiji to take part in sustainable projects aimed at improving the inhabitants’ social conditions. Over the last twenty years she has been particularly active in Jamaica and Fiji on behalf of small-scale industries, also with respect to the export of their products.

“The idea is always to elevate existing indigenous craftsmanship to a higher level. When things are produced in a certain country the product gets ‘soul’ and we make sure the people there receive fair payment. After all, it’s about the people who put their very hearts into the products. Many of my clients are art collectors who can appreciate that”, Stephanie told us – mentioning in passing that her carpets grace the painting galleries of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. Together with the museum curators she conceived a series of rugs to complement the art on the walls.