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The luxury carpet revolution Fort Street Studio in Hong Kong launched, and the two American painters behind its vivid, arty designs

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 6 days ago
a view of a living room: This Mid-Levels flat in Hong Kong features a Fort Street Studio carpet. The carpet is among many featured in Fort Street Studio’s book, A Tale of Warp and Weft. Photo: John Butlin This Mid-Levels flat in Hong Kong features a Fort Street Studio carpet. The carpet is among many featured in Fort Street Studio’s book, A Tale of Warp and Weft. Photo: John Butlin

It has been nearly three decades since American painters Brad Davis and Janis Provisor pivoted to an entirely new medium: carpets. That unexpected journey began in 1993, when the couple was already well known in the art world.

The pair had just moved to Hangzhou in eastern China to set up a woodblock studio when they were struck by the idea of making a carpet that looked like a watercolour painting.

Hangzhou is the centre of China's silk industry, but at first they were told it would be too difficult to weave the kind of delicate colour blends they were looking for. So they developed a system that converted their patterns into pixels with the help of Photoshop, which had arrived just a few years earlier.

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It took another three years to translate those painterly patterns into silk carpets that could be woven by hand, but in 1996, they were able to launch their first seven designs. The next year, Provisor and Davis opened a showroom and named it Fort Street Studio, after the street in North Point, Hong Kong, they were living in at the time.

a group of people posing for the camera: It has been nearly three decades since Brad Davis and Janis Provisor pivoted to an entirely new medium: carpets. Photo: Jonathan Leijonhufvud © Provided by South China Morning Post It has been nearly three decades since Brad Davis and Janis Provisor pivoted to an entirely new medium: carpets. Photo: Jonathan Leijonhufvud

Fast forward 25 years, and Fort Street Studio stands out for its vivid carpets, which helped revolutionise an industry that had been doing things the same way for centuries. To mark the occasion, the septuagenarian couple have come out with a lushly illustrated book, A Tale of Warp and Weft, published by Rizzoli, that documents the story behind their studio in essays, interviews and photos.

The book's release on April 13 was meant to be accompanied by a press tour, but the pandemic put those plans on hold.

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"The first few months of the pandemic were actually good for us because we set up studios in the house," says Davis by phone from New York. "We painted, we worked on the book," adds Provisor.

"We got deliveries of food and were doing just fine. But then the ennui and boredom set in," says Davis.

It was a drastic change of pace for a couple used to travelling around the globe. After starting their carpet business in China - Davis and Provisor lived in Hong Kong on two occasions, from 1994 to 2002 and 2014 to 2018 - they began working with weavers in Thailand, India and Nepal. They say their most productive time is when they are on the road.

a group of people standing in front of a building: Lulu, a pair of wild-silk carpets, being made in a factory in Zhejiang province. Photo: Jonathan Leijonhufvud © Provided by South China Morning Post Lulu, a pair of wild-silk carpets, being made in a factory in Zhejiang province. Photo: Jonathan Leijonhufvud

"We normally don't design when we're in the showroom and running the business," says Davis. "We go out on these design holidays. We've done it in Thailand and the Caribbean, in Bali, in Italy."

"It's like a design sabbatical," says Provisor. "We set up temporary studios and that's what we do. One time we were doing a project for HermEs in Thailand, we had a small villa and Brad was just working non-stop around the clock on transformation." This is the process of turning a carpet design into something that can actually be hand-knotted. "I didn't even have time to swim," Davis says.

There's something about being in a different place, away from the routine of ordinary life, that inspires creativity. The couple say they never try consciously to make anything that resembles the places they visit, but they can't help but absorb influences. "Maybe it's subliminal," says Provisor.

a living room filled with furniture and a fire place sitting in a chair: The Canto Grey carpet by Fort Street Studio. Photo: James Merrell © Provided by South China Morning Post The Canto Grey carpet by Fort Street Studio. Photo: James Merrell

Once, while working in an Italian village, she became fascinated by a jewelled belt she saw in the window of a Valentino shop. It provided inspiration for Lulu, a pair of wild silk carpets dotted by patches of metallic soumak.

"We're open to input of all kinds," adds Davis. "I remember the first time I got the courage to ask our first factory manager what he thought about the carpets. I knew what we had done was so off the radar of what they had done - and he turned to me and said, 'I think it looks like dirt.' We were working on a path and I pointed down and said, 'Yes! Look at the irregular patterns on the ground. That's what we were looking at.'"

The couple say they aren't focused on interior design or carpet trends, which tend to be "terminally beige", in Davis' words - although in recent years that has shifted towards "grey, grey, grey". Provisor notes the rise of soft pink - "a 'let's cuddle at home' kind of colour" - as well the growing popularity of jewel tones.

a colorful rug: The Pinks carpet by Fort Street Studio. Photo: James Merrell © Provided by South China Morning Post The Pinks carpet by Fort Street Studio. Photo: James Merrell

Rather than what others are doing in the carpet world, the couple keep tabs on haute couture. "Fashion moves so quickly and there's so much creativity involved, particularly in the couturier lines. They're so imaginative. There's an enormous font of inspiration," says Davis. Provisor says she collects shawls from Belgian designer Dries van Noten and finds them particularly inspiring.

When it comes to their own carpets, Davis and Provisor are not shy about picking favourites. Provisor says she likes Pinks, which brings to mind smudges of colour on a painter's palette. Davis likes Plaid, which "creates the transparency of a watercolour in the impression of how one colour layers over another and mixes to create a third tone".

Among the carpets in their own home are Karl, an homage to Swedish carpet design, and Strada Pink, which has dashes of gold that contrast with a layer of pink that resembles a brushstroke.

a room filled with furniture and vase of flowers on a table: The Shado carpet by Fort Street Studio. Photo: Jonathan Leijonhufvud © Provided by South China Morning Post The Shado carpet by Fort Street Studio. Photo: Jonathan Leijonhufvud

Today, Provisor and Davis are freshly vaccinated against Covid-19 and counting down the days to when they can return to their normal peripatetic schedule. "We want to go back to Hong Kong and promote our book, see our friends," says Provisor. "This book was a stake in the ground after 25 years. We're not done. We want to find things that pique our curiosity."

"We wanted to document what we've done," adds Davis. "But for the next chapters, we will continue to evolve."

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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.

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