Fashion for Floors.
You can tell he loves his product.
Jan Kath is sitting at a table in his company’s showroom in Bochum, rubbing his eyes. Hanging on the walls are carpets from the “Erased Heritage” collection. Against such a vivid multicoloured background, Kath looks a little pale, almost tired. The 44-year-old is constantly travelling the world – and on the phone both day and night. “We have clients in North America as well as Asia, so I could work 24 hours a day if I wanted to. But such was the path I chose,” he remarks. The interview starts, and Kath is immediately fully alert. He likes to talk, and you can tell how much he loves his product.
I just knew it was something special.
Mr. Kath, when were you first able to tell the difference between a high-quality carpet and a regular one?
I was surrounded by exquisite carpets from a very young age. My grandfather and father were also carpet traders and had a shop here in Bochum. For my twelfth birthday, my father gave me a valuable carpet, which I hung on the wall in my room. Which was a little unusual at that age, but I just knew it was something special.
What sort of carpet was it?
A classic Persian carpet, a Bidjar. I still have it.
What does the name Bidjar mean?
It’s a town in Iran from which the carpet’s pattern originates. The designs of the textiles vary from region to region and from town to town. When I was an apprentice, still back in my father’s shop, the instructor quizzed us on that. We had to be able to tell where a carpet came from based on its designs and colours, and how old it was by its texture.
Tradition and modernity.
You still put this knowledge to use today. We’re seated here in your headquarters in Bochum surrounded by carpets from your “Erased Heritage” collection which are inspired by classic carpet motifs.
We have a huge portfolio of these antique patterns. With “Erased Heritage” we distort the classic design by superimposing further layers. The ancient pattern is visible underneath like old wallpaper behind flaking plaster.
Tradition and modernity.
We change the way in which we see things by doing what we do, but in the carpets’ production and use of the materials we employ the time-honored craft of hand-knotting. One-and-a-half years ago, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London – which is home to one of the largest collections of ancient carpets with some of the earliest examples in existence – declared that our “Erased Heritage” was spearheading new developments while staying true to tradition. So, we seem to be on the right path.
Your own path had many twists and turns, though. You quit the apprenticeship in your father’s store. Why was that?
I really didn’t want to follow in my grandfather’s and father’s footsteps, and besides I wanted to get out of Bochum and out of Europe. So I went to Asia, where I immersed myself in India’s techno hippie scene.
What did you learn during that time?
I broadened my horizons no end, I witnessed and perceived things that still influence my way of thinking today. And my work, too. You can see it on the carpet at the back there: it’s based on a Persian Heriz design, but apart from that it looks as if it’s fallen into a pot of fluorescent ink.
I had no real aim in life.
Why did you later decide to get involved in the carpet business after all?
It’s fair to say that I had no real aim in life. Over 20 years ago, I met up with one of my father’s suppliers in Kathmandu, where I was living at the time. He offered me a job. I became his man for the tough stuff, carried out quality checks, organized workflows. Soon I was freelancing for other carpet traders, too, travelling to Tibet and Mongolia. And then the German supplier called me to see if I would be interested in taking over his workshop in Kathmandu. I said yes.
You don’t seem to be afraid of making drastic decisions.
I was more naive than anything else. Suddenly I was responsible for almost 300 employees but I couldn’t even afford to hire a designer. So I ended up doing the designs myself. For the first five years I didn’t do too well, just following the mainstream.
I put all my eggs in one basket.
And when did Jan Kath become Jan Kath?
Around the turn of the millennium the whole thing didn’t make sense anymore financially. I thought: do something you really care about. I designed the Concept collection. It drew on the aesthetics of the industrial ruins in Germany’s Ruhr region, on the sense of decay, with a second layer visible behind. That was to become my signature feature. I spent my last 25,000 Deutschemarks on a photo shoot in the Zollverein industrial complex, which lay in ruins, and the production of a catalogue. I put all my eggs in one basket – and I got lucky!
Since that time, you have created 25 collections. How difficult was it to teach the new designs to the knotters in Nepal?
We set up knotting schools to train them. We produce cards which the knotters read. The cards are divided into dots, which read horizontally: seven blue, one green, two yellow. For me, every knot is like a pixel in a digital photo. The finer the knots, the more photo-realistic our work becomes.
Make the occupation appealing.
We had to build a new warehouse in order to stock all the colours. Plus, some of the knotters refused to work on the carpets. They have to switch color constantly, sometimes for every knot. It’s impossible to manage more than a centimetre (0.39 in) a day that way, which is extremely frustrating. It can take up to six months to complete a single carpet.
How hard is it to find young talent for this type of work?
These days, young people in Nepal or India have many more options open to them than 20 years ago. They can also work in a mobile phone factory or on a building site or go and work in Dubai. Although we pay above-average wages and offer families living quarters on our factory grounds, day nurseries, and pleasant working conditions, young people are nevertheless no longer interested in the strenuous task of knotting.
So what are you doing about it?
I’ve just launched a campaign with a fair trade organization to make the occupation appealing to young people again. I’m seeking to preserve a craft that has so far been passed on from one generation to the next, but is now at risk of dying out. Today, we’re able to produce virtually any antique design. Clients come to me requesting a traditional carpet, and we can supply it. We’ve developed a special finishing technique to give the carpets a patina that makes them look as if they are several centuries old.
How do you do that?
Normally, any tiny protruding hairs on the back of the carpets are burned off. We tried out what would happen if you did the same to the front. So we singed the carpet, burning the silk and wool threads down to the knot. Then we scraped the soot off and hey presto, we had a carpet that looked as if people had been walking around on it for 300 years. Even experts can’t tell the difference. The carpets also undergo special washes. Exactly how it works is a trade secret. At any rate, this process enables us to produce carpets that look exactly the same as ones that cost 150,000 euros.
A number of mainstays.
Your other carpets aren’t exactly cheap either, though. Who buys them from you?
Our business has a number of mainstays. We also work as subcontractors and consultants for fashion companies and a furniture manufacturer. The private customers who come into our store appreciate high quality. Time and time again, I watch how women drag their husbands into our stores. They follow reluctantly. But after ten minutes, they really open up. And because of us, younger people are also showing an interest in carpets again.
And a lot of celebrities, too.
Yes, but to be honest I find the people who have to work hard to buy my products more interesting. I ask myself: what will they pick out, what kind of ideas will they come up with? Dealing with celebrities can, of course, be interesting and fun, too. Recently, I visited Sven Väth in Ibiza. He owns several of my carpets. It turned out that we’d actually met 20 years previously. Back in my techno days. Once again, things had come full circle.