The couple behind Fort Street Studio combined technology and painterly designs to inject a different energy into an ancient industry.
Ask anyone in the know about interior design and carpets and the first name on their mouth will be Fort Street Studio. The company, known for its luxurious, hand-knotted carpets is the brainchild of artists Brad Davis and Janis Provisor and is the leading name in carpets.
The story of Fort Street Studio started in 1989, when Crown Point Press, a fine-art etching press based in San Francisco invited the artists to China to make prints in the traditional Chinese Watercolor Woodblock technique. Always interested in Chinese art but never able to visit, Davis and Provisor jumped at the opportunity.
In three weeks, they went to Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou, and Huang Shan. “While in Hangzhou, we had a sense that we would return one day to spend more time there, and in 1993/94 the opportunity arose for us to do so,” says Provisor. “We decided to take a year’s adventure away from NYC, grabbed our young son who had just turned 6, and away we went to Hangzhou and Hong Kong.”
In the book A Tale of Warp and Weft: Fort Street Studio, Davis says everyone thought they were crazy, because at that point he and Provisor had significant art careers, showing in the United States and Europe.
Due to the 1993 recession, the art world in the US had turned to conservatism, and it was the perfect time for an adventure. China, meanwhile, was beginning to open up. “One felt that you could do and make almost anything,” says Provisor. While neither of them can point to any specific influence, Provisor believes there was no doubt that the experience of living there; meeting people, and encountering daily life had its impact.
“Artists are like sponges, soaking in what they see, smell, understand, and translating all this stimulation into their work,” she says.
Davis, who was part of the Pattern and Decoration style movement in the late 70s and 80s, used fabric as merely a decorative border element on his paintings. Their interest started when he met a retired manager of a state-run carpet factory.
Davis then asked Provisor if she was interested in collaborating on a carpet for their loft in New York. At the time, they were based in Hangzhou, the center of the silk industry. In their small studio area, they made watercolors, which could be translated into a silk carpet.
“We had no idea how difficult this would be. We were setting ourselves up against a time-honored tradition of how to design for a carpet to be woven,” Provisor says. But artists are always ready to take on a challenge, and are nothing if not solvers of problems, she says. What began as a one-off developed into something far different than anything they anticipated.
The duo was inspired by an art deco-era carpet they both had that featured a flower with a bleed-through shade from one color to another, and they sought to replicate that effect. “That was the first real intuition about how we could make a carpet that looked like a watercolor,” says Davis in A Tale of Warp and Weft.
Mrs. Liu, the retired carpet manager, had reservations, citing the impracticality of attempting to make even a sample. At the time, carpets were designed in shapes or forms within patterns rather than with bleeding watercolor effect. “Creating a readable pattern in a knot-by-knot manner was the innovation,” shares Provisor. “When we began there was no software for this, all carpet patterns were drawn by hand full scale.”
The eureka moment happened when someone suggested Davis try Photoshop. “Brad had an idea that a knot was a pixel, and then found someone eventually to help him realize his ‘light bulb moment’ into a weavable pattern,” says Provisor. This, she says, became the innovation.
The whole process took around six to eight months of trial and error, with none of their carpets making it o the loom for almost two years. “It was sort of crazy, but we were determined. Before this we were very ‘low tech,’ not even owning a computer!” says Provisor. Nowadays, programs exist that make this a simple step in the design process, but for the couple at the time, it was very much just them—and whoever was teaching Davis Photoshop.
Once they were able to convince their weavers to work on the pattern and start producing carpets regularly, the next step was to break into that world. is proved easier said than done. Like any business that had existed for centuries, the carpet industry was resistant to change, be it on the innovation front or the design front.
“The industry has changed remarkably in the last 25 years, but it was a tough and closed business when we began,” says Provisor, adding that they had tried multiple avenues, from working in multi-line carpet showrooms to wholesaling, and to furniture showrooms. “When we first entered the market people were either amazed at the watercolor effects or believed we were a one-note wonder that wouldn’t last. But, we were always looking for new techniques, new ideas that spurred us on,” she says.
Eventually, both of them realized it was better to have their showroom. Fort Street Studio was then born.
Today, the brand’s line of carpets is in the home of tastemakers and titans of different sectors. They have also collaborated with Louis Vuitton and Hérmes for stores and showroom design.
“There are many aspects of being in charge of your studio that is very satisfying. Seeing your work from conception to the finished product is a great feeling,” says Provisor. “Seeing what you’ve made existing in people’s homes is also quite meaningful. Working with talented interior designers and others in the world of design gives us great pleasure, as well.”
The full story on Fort Street Studio can be found in Volume 1 of Lifestyle Asia 2021.
A Tale of Warp and Weft: Fort Street Studio will be available on amazon.com and rizzoliusa.com on April 13. The Fort Street Studio showrooms are located in New York, London, and Hong Kong. For more information, visit fortstreetstudio.com.