Despite mounting evidence to the contrary, there are still gentlemen in this world — men who dress conservatively, speak softly and are impeccably courteous and well mannered.
Well, there are two of them, anyway, and they can be found in St. Louis Park, at Navab Brothers Oriental Rug Company.
On a recent chilly winter morning, brothers Sam, 63, and Farzan, 60 (who goes by “Far”), settled into chairs in the showroom of their 29-year-old enterprise. They sat surrounded by stacks of gorgeous, colorful rugs, gathered on buying trips to exotic cities like Istanbul, Jaipur, Lahore and Kathmandu.
During a wide-ranging interview that touched on environmentalism, globalization and even tribal rug patterns, the soft-spoken, globe-trotting brothers shared a story of revolution, dislocation, perseverance and eventual commercial and artistic success.
In the early morning stillness of their showroom, they demonstrated an old-world sensibility about art, culture and fine decor, but also evidenced wisdom about how to succeed in a business that might seem to have been made obsolete by polyester wall-to-wall carpeting, but which has persisted, and even thrived.
Coming to America
Indeed, the brothers have become astute at acquiring and selling handmade, traditional products in a machine-made age, dominated by discount stores — online and throughout the Twin Cities.
In Iran, where the brothers grew up, handmade rugs have always been a valuable commodity.
“When you get married, part of your dowry is rugs, and they are passed on to you through inheritance,” Sam said. “They’re a hedge against inflation, like a savings account under your feet.”
While the two brothers grew up in a home in which all the rooms were covered with rugs, they never paid attention to how they were made, the intricacy of the craftsmanship or the meaning of specific colors or designs.
Oriental rugs, in fact, weren’t at all part of their life plans.
Sam was interested in hotel and restaurant management, a profession he studied at the University of Wisconsin, Stout.
Sam first studied political science in the U.K., followed by more studies in New Delhi, India. In 1977, he came to the U.S., following his brother, who arrived in 1976.
Far had planned to study art in Chicago and New York City. But a friend in Chicago, who had gone to Macalester College, insisted he’d love Minnesota.
So Far ended up graduating with a bachelor’s in filmmaking from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design.
‘Rugs are in your blood’
Then came the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The Navab brothers’ father, Esmail Navab Safa, one of Iran’s most renowned poets and lyricists, lost his government position and his work was banned by the new regime, led by the religious and political leader who became known as Ayatollah Khomeini.
Sam and Far, who were both in the U.S. at the time, had planned to eventually return home.
But they suddenly found themselves refugees.
Their father feared they would be persecuted if they came home, just as he was.
“Our dad told us: ‘Don’t come back,’” Sam said. “We had no country to return to, and no money.”
It was time to earn a living.
Sam took a job as a busboy at Nicollet Island Inn and, within six months, had been promoted to a managerial position. As he moved up and around some of the most popular restaurants in the Twin Cities, he was approached by a customer, a fellow Iranian, who asked him to join his team at a new Oriental rug business in International Market Square.
“But I don’t know anything about rugs,” Sam protested.
“You’re Iranian,” the customer replied, “they’re in your blood.”
After accepting the job and working on that team for four years, Sam realized the truth of this statement, and asked Far, who had been working at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, to join him in creating their own enterprise.
They spent many years running their business at 50th and Bryant in southwest Minneapolis.
For years, the business was what the brothers describe as “a two-man show,” with Sam cleaning rugs and Far repairing them.
Gradually, they began to include rug sales in their business. Along the way, they acquired American Rug Laundry, and opened a custom rug business, Legacy Looms, which caters to the design community and is based in International Market Square.
In 2001, the brothers set up their current flagship store on Excelsior Boulevard, which has become something of design district in St. Louis Park with a variety of shops specializing in home interiors.
Rugs sales now account for about half the brothers’ business with other services making up the rest. They employ a team of 16 people to keep all their operations running.
The American Dream, realized
Today, the two brothers live on opposite sides of Lake Harriet in Minneapolis, Sam in Tangletown and Far in Linden Hills. Sam and his wife, Ramesh, married for 21 years, have two grown daughters, one at DePaul University in Chicago and one at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
Far and his wife, Azadeh, married for 33 years, have an adult daughter living in New York and a son who’s a junior at St. Olaf College in Northfield.
Along with all their many other travels, the brothers travel back to Iran frequently. But they feel most at home in Minnesota.
“I’ve lived most of my life here, so this is more my home than anywhere I travel,” Far said. “We have built our lives around the community here.”
Sam added: “We were refugees, but we’ve both been U.S. citizens for decades now. We worked hard, and we were penniless at times, but we persevered. As most immigrants do, we wanted to make a better life for ourselves and our families. Luckily, we were able to start our new lives in the United States, where we had so many opportunities. We’ve realized the American Dream.”
None of the Navab children, so far, have shown a desire to join the in running of the family business.
“It’s not of interest to them right now,” Far said. “We try to make it exciting by talking about how it’s an international business, mentioning all the countries we visit. But we try not to push.”
The appeal of handmade products
All these many years later, the brothers are ready to admit that rugs are in their blood, and their appreciation for handmade oriental rugs has only grown over time, as have their connections to rug-producing countries.
“I think Americans are beginning to see the value of having a handmade natural product — versus a machine-made synthetic,” Far said.
The brothers, of course, acknowledge that “handmade” is not synonymous with “inexpensive.” Their rug prices start at a couple hundred dollars and go up to $50,000 for very large coverings.
Though an 8-foot-by-10-foot rug can be made in two to three hours by a machine in Europe, a handmade Persian-style rug can take six to eight months to create and can involve as many as 40 people, all the way down to the sheep shearers, who produce the raw wool, Far said.
“Our customer base is made up of people who appreciate the value of handmade objects,” Far said. “They tend to be people who have an appreciation for finer products, and who, through their families’ travels or academic education, have acquired a taste for well-made things.”
Local customers, who come from throughout the metro area, seem to value the idea of supporting artisans from all over the world, Far said.
“The American consumer has huge amount of power in shaping the kind of world we live in,” Far said. “Handmade rug making is the ultimate green process, and these rugs are used over and over. Look at museums like the Metropolitan Museum in New York or the Victoria and Albert in London: You’ll see rugs from the 16th century, still hanging beautifully.”
All of the Navab brothers’ rugs are made from wool, silk or a combination of the two.
“They reflect our personal taste that, in turn, reflects our clients’ preference for design and color,” Far said.
In addition to new rugs, the Navab brothers also sell antique rugs, which are at least 60 years old.
“Antique rugs tell us the story of how designs and patterns have evolved over time. They also have a different texture and patina,” Far said. “All rugs that are made today, even the ones with very contemporary patterns, take their inspiration from older rugs, from colors drawn from vegetal dyes, or from hand-spun wool, which give rugs a totally different feel and texture.”
Building on trust
David Heide and Michael Crull, of the David Heide Design Studio of Minneapolis, have worked with Navab brothers for many years, mostly with Far.
“The remarkable thing about Far is that not only is he incredibly knowledgeable about our business and his business, but he’s one of those people who shares his knowledge and information freely,” Heide said. “He’s been incredibly generous in educating Michael and me about rugs, so we can serve our clients better.”
Michal Crosby, another local interior designer, met Sam more than 30 years ago and has worked with both brothers over the years.
“The rug business can be misleading, but I trust them when they tell me what a rug is worth,” Crosby said. “They are so diligent in helping me find what I need, and they do a beautiful job buying.”
Independent interior designer Jeanne Blankush said the brothers are known for their ethical business principles.
They were the first merchants to tell her about Rugmark, a labeling program that highlights products made without the use of child labor.
“They have a reputation for being an honest, stable company,” Blankush said. “And not only are they nice guys, they’re interesting people. I’ve always enjoyed hearing about their buying trips and their relationships with suppliers.”
Still trotting the globe
The Navab brothers travel extensively to the rug-producing countries of the world at least once a year, sometimes twice.
That includes Nepal, India, Pakistan, Iran and Turkey.
“We just got back from India and Pakistan,” Sam said. “And Far is leaving soon for a big show in Germany.”
While some businesspeople make it a point to get their work done quickly and then leave, the brothers take time to mingle with the local people, see famous monuments and soak up a bit of local culture in each city they visit.
“We love to eat local cuisine and enjoy what the city or village has to offer,” Sam said.
When asked for recommendations on places to visit, Sam professed his fondness for Italy, but then added: “Istanbul, or really anyplace in Turkey, is great.”
Far said a trip to Katmandu is guaranteed to be an extremely rewarding experience.
And both brothers touted the wonders of India’s Golden Triangle — Delhi, Agra and Jaipur.
“We look forward to traveling,” Far said. “It can sometimes be tiresome, but when the work is peppered with enjoyment, it’s a lot more rewarding.”
Julie Kendrick is a contributing writer for many local publications. She lives in Minneapolis and blogs at kendrickworks.blogspot.com.
Navab Brothers Oriental Rug Company
4409 Excelsior Blvd.
St Louis Park