LUXURY RUGS THRIVE ON FLORIDA'S GOLD COAST:
Q&A WITH EILEEN HAMPSHIRE OF ART TO WALK ON, PART 1
By: Carol Tisch
SARASOTA, Fla. -- Eileen Hampshire is a rug historian, a curator of museum rug exhibitions and owner of a luxury rug gallery called Art to Walk On in Sarasota. Opened in 2006, with an eye toward selling off her collection of pedigreed Tibetan, Turkish and Persian antiques, the shop soon became the region's go-to source for high-end hand-knotted contemporary designs as well.
That was two years before the 2008 recession, which devastated the area's real estate market and many of its high end retail businesses. Defying the odds, the 3,000-square-foot jewel box flourished in spite of the economy, and it continues to thrive on Palm Avenue, Saraosta's equivalent of Worth Avenue in Palm Beach.
In this exclusive RugNews.com interview, Hampshire tells how she translated nearly three decades of experience as a Montreal rug dealer into a new luxury retail concept for consumers who are seeking exclusivity and 'art' for their floors.
What prompted you to open Art to Walk On?
EH: When I closed my rug business in Montreal, I kept the best of my existing stock (about 70 or 80 rugs) that I just couldn't part with. Every time we got a bill from the storage company, I'd tell my husband, John: 'One day when we're gone, someone will find our storage space. They'll sell our antique rugs for $200 apiece in a yard sale, and those rugs will eventually show up on The Antiques Road Show. The buyers will make a fortune -- so we'd better start selling them ourselves.'
When we moved to Florida in 1992, we drove across the state looking at rug galleries. I love shopping for rugs, but whether it was Tampa or Miami, I realized I didn't see anything of the caliber of rugs that I knew existed. I probably carry about the best one percent in both antique and new rugs -- art pieces.
How did you come to choose Sarasota?
EH: My parents lived here. One day after lunch with my mom , I saw this art gallery with a 3x5 index card sign in the window that said 'Gallery for Lease.' I went in, made the arrangements, went home -- and told John, 'you might want to kill me, but I think I just leased a gallery on Palm Avenue.' He said, 'Good for you.'
In the beginning it was really fun because the economy hadn't tanked yet.
When was this?
EH: September, 2006. I'm making money hand over fist because, first of all, the rugs were long ago paid for. Then, the economy went down -- the recession hit hard in Florida.
Anyway, I opened up and I never did a better thing. I've met so many fabulous people I would never have met, and I hope I can do this forever. I just love it!
What are some of the most memorable antique pieces in your collection and what is the price range?
EH: One is a Donegal designed by Charles Rennie McIntosh, founder of the Classical School of Art and Design. It was woven in Killybegs in County Donegal, Ireland, in 1910 and I bought it from the estate of a war bride in Chicago - it was part of her trousseau. Another is a Turkish Pergam, circa 1880, which I purchased from the estate of Sir Hugh John Flemming, the former Premier of New Brunswick, Canada. I still have that one. It's wool, but it looks like a silk rug.
Prices for our antiques go from $350 to $300,000. One that is very rare is the oldest Serape I've ever seen. It's about 250 years old, from the Heriz area, woven by descendants of Armenians who were brought to Iran. It doesn't have a lot of hair, but it has more hair than most guys I know!
How is Art to Walk On different from other fine rug stores?
EH: It is a gallery that displays rugs like paintings. We're the only gallery I know of that is similar to the type of luxury rug stores you find overseas: Not so esoteric, but rugs that are art pieces you can actually use and enjoy.
To my knowledge, there are very few who carry the rugs that I do -- rare pieces for the connoisseur.
What led to the addition of contemporary and transitional rugs?
EH: It's what people wanted. I soon realized that consumers in Sarasota are avid supporters of the arts, and in some of the highest income brackets. Many of them collect contemporary art, and the designer rugs we carry complement the art in their homes.