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Persian Pleasures Underfoot

One-of-a-kind rugs from Iran become a passion, a calling

AJC Atlanta & The World
By Jill Sabulis

While Persian carpets and modern mathematics seem to have little in common. Barry Kishi has found his life's calling where the two intersect.

The former mathematician throws in math terms such as "geometry" in a discussion of his business, the importing and selling of precious handmade carpets from his native Iran. But as he stands in his Chamblee shop surrounded by color and pattern, the dryness of math quickly gives a way to a passion for the art of Persian rugs.

"My family [in Iran] had rugs all over our house, practically in every room," he says. "I would guess that 70 percent of Persian people have at least one room that is designed for sitting on the floor in the traditional way." The carpets also provide color and beauty and a strong tie to almost 3,000 years of rug-making in Iran.

His life's calling came to him accidentally, he says. Escaping Iran just before the Islamic revolution toppled the ruling Shah in 1979, Kishi came to the United States in September that year to attend a Texas College. He graduated with a degree in mathmetics from the University of Texas Dallas but found himself without a job as the oil bust hit the state's economy.

He bought a used van for $750, loaded his belongings and set out for Atlanta with hope for a better life. Soon after his arrival, he met an Iranian rug dealer, who introduced him to a wholesaler from Hamburg, Garmany.

"This guy had $500,000 in rugs he needed to sell, and he asked me to go with him on the road selling them," Kishi says. "It was a two-month crash course [in business]. I was on the road with a half-million dollars of rugs on the truck and an experienced expert at the wheel."

That trip launched Kishi into his own wholesale business in 1987. He traveled up and down the East Coast buying old and antique Persian rugs at auctions. In 2000, Kishi began traveling back to his native land, staying with his father in Tehran and working through a network of agents in rug bazaars across the country.

Finally three years ago, he opened a storefront in Chamblee for retail sales on Fridays and Saturdays and by appointment (through he can be found selling his rugs at Scott Antique Market the second weekend of each month). He imports about 200 Persian carpets a year from various regions of Iran. Nonetheless, his business remains primarily wholesale to dealers.

Kishi specializes in selling rugs that are one-of-a-kind, handmade, and 50 to 120 years old. Designs usually vary with the area of origin, which also gives the rug its name. For example, a Tabriz would come from a village in or near that city in far northwestern Iran, and likewise a Kerman would hail from southeastern iran.

His most popular-sized rug, he says, is about 9 feet by 12 feet - though measurements follow the metric system and no two rugs are exact same size. Rugs start at a chair-pad-size 1-by-2, and his largest rug is 15 by 25.

The retail price fro a 9-by-12 averages $3000 for a "relatively new" rug of 50 to 75 years old, but Kishi says he has sold higher-quality, older and rarer rugs for as much as $45,000.

Prices are determined by a variety of factors, he says, including age, condition, size, rarity, type of wool, and method of appliying the all naturall vegetable dyes.

Some rugs include signatures, which add to the value if the weaver is well-known.

But prices also fluctuate with current design trends - especially in the United States, Kishi says, Geometric or floral? Burgundy or mauve?

"In general, in the United States, [customers] like a tighter weave, more density, more clarity of color, " Kishi says, "I'd say most of the U.S. cares about color coordination [with home decor]. This isn't the way anywhere else in the world," where a rug is seen as a piece of art that stands on its own.

And then there are the rare portrait rugs. Some are fairly crude likenesses - Kishi has a portrait rug of a Garman military officer in World War II. But some are so precisely woven as to resemble an oil painting. Kishi owns fine (if odd, he says) portrait rug of Karl Marx. "I have shown it to 20 experts, and no one can say for sure its origins," Kishi says.

At any rate, the Marx rug is not for sale, he says. He's attached to it, as he is with the dozens of other rugs that grace his home.

But in his shop, the scores of rolled carpets standing on end like so many three trunks are ready to go, he says between sips of sweet Iranian tea.

"My style of business is like a turtle - going very slowly, but going," Kishi says. "This is not recommended for people who want to get rich."
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