Rugged Individual

Rugged Individual

At the top of the staircase to The Kilim Company, a subterranean shop tucked between Donut Crazy and Toad’s Place, a bulldog welcome sign is framed by a few exotic rugs. It’s barely a hint of what waits at the bottom: a room draped in one-of-a-kind rugs from Turkey, Persia, China, Afghanistan and Pakistan, bearing shades and shapes of every color, hanging on walls and racks and unrolled and folded in piles and stacks.

Steven Rosenthal, owner of the business and a professor of Middle Eastern History at the University of Hartford, walks with enthusiasm through the space, calling attention to this rug and that. There’s even a rug on the back of his jean jacket, woven in subtle colors, part of a rug design from Pakistan that shows itself whenever he turns around. “Why don’t you sit down here,” he says, pointing to a stack of rugs. Topping the pile is a deep red pattern with cream accents and a mosque motif. I mention the gorgeous colors everywhere, and he responds, “It’s not just the colors, it’s the textures,” before offering me a cup of hot coffee.

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Yale Center for British Art

The Kilim Company started in 1979 in the same room where we’re sitting and talking, but Rosenthal’s love for rugs began even earlier, in Turkey. “Do you want the long version?” he asks me before recalling his story. I do.

It began with a sign in the window of a travel agency in Athens: “Airfare to Istanbul, $14.” Rosenthal was studying abroad as a junior at Yale and thought, “How could I turn that down?” After graduating, Rosenthal returned to Turkey to volunteer with the Peace Corps and, eventually, to perform research in the national archives while working on his PhD (also at Yale). The archives closed every day at 3 p.m., at which point he would head to the grand bazaar to improve his Turkish. It was there that he was “bit by the rug bug,” especially the kilim style.

“A kilim is a flat-weave rug,” he says. “If you were older, I could use the analogy of the pot holders you made as a kid, but I’m sure you didn’t make pot holders as a kid. These are made by nomads and peasants for their own consumption and the designs are usually more spontaneous,” as opposed to commercial designs, which are usually copies of copies. My eyes bounce around the room, which contains plenty of unique pile carpets as well, and I begin to notice a kind of storytelling woven into the rugs, depicting people, animals, buildings and environments. “I like the humanity of ,” Rosenthal tells me, as he begins to share their stories.

“I’m drawn to those that speak to me historically, as a historian of the Ottoman empire… For example, you see the picture of the soldier over there? That is a very special rug and you have to understand history to get it,” he says, pointing to a rug at the back of his shop. He tells me about the War of Liberation—Greece’s four-year invasion of Turkey after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, with the Turks ultimately driving the Greeks out. Of the man on the rug, he says, “That is a soldier from the War of Liberation. His family was commemorating his service, and you can tell because of the particular kind of medal that he has on his chest. The reality of it for me is that until the 1980s in Istanbul, you could still see really old men wearing these medals commemorating their service 60 years before. I would talk with them and get the most amazing tales.” Rosenthal continues to move about the room, showing me saddle bags and more rugs and more stories.

The uniqueness of each rug echoes the uniqueness of Rosenthal’s establishment. The Kilim Company feels like a relic in an era of conglomeration and slick branding. “I’m one of the last of the few non-big box stores,” Rosenthal says. “What makes this place different from most places is that I carry mainly rugs that are art. A normal carpet store will show you a carpet and they will say, ‘Do you want it in 3×5, 4×6, 5×7?’ This is called programmed carpets. They’re handmade but they’re made in a kind of factory framework. Whereas most of the stuff that I have simply has spun out of the mind of the weaver.”

Before I leave, Rosenthal hands me a maroon business card, the back bearing an image of a kilim rug. “I almost added the frays in there, but then thought that’d be too much.” He says he hopes I’ll return sometime but that I shouldn’t feel pressured to buy anything. Rugs are his business, yes, but they’re also his passion, and sharing it seems to be its own reward.

The Kilim Company
290 York St, New Haven (map)
Mon noon-5pm, Tues & Thurs 2:30-5pm, Fri-Sat noon-5pm, or by appointment
(203) 865-1665 (office) | (914) 512-1176 (mobile)

Written and photographed by Lindsay Skedgell.

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