James initially intended to become a crusader for social justice by studying to become a Civil Rights Attorney. An interest in handmade rugs (and a desire to earn money towards tuition) led to a side business buying and selling rugs. After graduating law school in New York City, he did what many young men do before entering the workforce. He traveled. On a 1986 trip to Nepal he met master weaver Tsetan Gyurman, and a friendship and business partnership flourished. Both men believed they could modernize the traditional rug business and create high-end luxury carpets while revitalizing industry and creating opportunity in their native countries.
A trip to James’ ancestral homeland of Armenia in the early 90s stirred feelings of opportunity and obligation. “My social philosophy was born long before I ever saw poverty,” he says, “but when I saw it firsthand it just personalized the matter and gave me the jolt of energy to get moving.” And move he did. Spurred on by the commercial and social success of the Nepalese factory, James established a factory in post-Soviet Armenia. The land and its people gave back. Over 1,000 locals trained by Tibetan artisans hand craft modern and traditional patterns while the indigenous Caucasian Mountain sheep provide the fine wool that is still used.
Today Tufenkian Artisan Carpets has showrooms, dealers and clients around the world. James personally travels to Armenia and Nepal several times a year to oversee design and production. He designs much of the Tufenkian line himself, drawing inspiration from nature, fine art and traditional motifs. He produced his first designer collaboration with world renown designer Barbara Barry in 1996. “Designing for James Tufenkian is one of the most wonderful things I have been able to do in my career. James trusted me, which allowed me to do the very quiet rugs I love, and to experiment with nuance and construction. He and his company have soul which translates into the product, a thing of true beauty and value.” Friendships and collections with other world class designers followed, resulting in his successful Designers’ Reserve collection, featuring designs from Barbara Barry, Clodagh, Vicente Wolf, Kevin Walz, Mark Pollack and Laura Kirar.
While the rugs themselves were receiving world wide acclaim, James was reinvesting in the countries that produced them. Worker welfare programs were initiated in both factories, including a ban on child labor, and health and education programs for the workers and their families. James established The Tufenkian Foundation in 1999 – a non-profit umbrella organization for the many educational, social and environmental needs of the newly independent Armenia.
James’ businesses in Armenia also expanded. In 2001, he launched Tufenkian Heritage Hotels – a unique line of boutique hotels designed by Armenian architects featuring custom furniture and, of course, Tufenkian handknotted rugs. The newest hotel in the nation’s capital of Yerevan will open in December 2012. His business ventures also include the award winning line of Harvest Song artisanal preserves, which are made from local fruits and canned on site.
Some travelers find themselves. James found his life’s purpose: Making beautiful things of enduring value; Making a profit from selling them; and, Using that profit and the employment provided to enrich the lives of workers and their communities.