Story by Seth Putnam Photography by Michael George and Garrett Corneilson
“I think one of the things that happens when things are breaking down is that it’s the perfect time to create something new —because the status quo is vulnerable.”
Laila Ahmadinejad takes firm hold of a sapling with one hand and cradles her young daughter, Anahita, close with the other. For the past couple of miles, the pair has been hiking the Long Trail toward the Mad River Valley’s iconic Sunset Rock overlook. It’s a medium-difficulty trek that gets exponentially harder when you have a toddler strapped to your chest. Laila pauses for a breath.
Then, tapping into her reserves, she hauls herself and Anahita up over the ridge. Suddenly, the valley spreads out in front of her, awash with the crimson, golden, and vermillion hues of autumn in Vermont. “At the very end, when we got to the clearing, I felt this huge sense of accomplishment,” she remembers. “Looking at the mountain skyline, breathing the air…it was a total sense of feeling centered. I felt like I could take on anything after that.”
Finding a way to make things work is a running theme in Laila’s life. The daughter of Iranian physicians who immigrated to the U.S. shortly before the 1979 Revolution, she enjoyed a distinctly nonrevolutionary upbringing in Philadelphia.
“I think the house I grew up in has a lot to do with my aesthetic,” she muses. “We always had white walls but really ornate carpets. When I design, I think about designing for that type of space. Rather than putting pattern on pattern throughout the room, I think about having bold accent pieces that would work in a quieter space.”
Despite their scientific professions, it was her parents who instilled a love of the arts in Laila, in large part through the traditions of the old country. “My mother is the best stylist I know,” she says. “When my she sets up the house for Persian New Year, she knows how to make a table look truly amazing with magical settings, and she has a great eye for color.”
Throughout Laila’s upbringing, her father handled the sewing, and he would spend immense amounts of time hand-lettering messages on family birthday cards. “Maybe something about that planted subliminal typographic seeds in my mind,” she says.
Laila earned a bachelor’s degree in fine art from the Rhode Island School of Design and set off on a corporate trajectory in graphic design: an ad agency, a boutique firm, jobs that pushed her toward the transience of the Internet. Despite her digital duties as a designer in the modern era, her passions lay elsewhere. “I came out of school interested in handmade graphic design, like book binding and printmaking,” she says. “We did a lot of things on the computer, but I was always interested in subverting that.”
So she went back to school, this time to the Fashion Institute of Technology, in New York City, where she studied textile-making. “It’s a very technical school,” she says. “But I wasn’t doing it for the degree, I was doing it because I needed to know certain things.”
After getting married, she and her husband, Pete Surrena, decided to move back to Philadelphia. Though the textile opportunities were much less plentiful than in Brooklyn, Laila snagged a job as an in-house designer for a rug maker, where she learned valuable lessons in international sourcing.
After another stint in graphic design, this time as a senior designer at Philadelphia Style magazine, the bottom fell out when the publication’s new owner decided to consolidate the design department in New York simultaneously with the 2008 recession. Laila found herself laid off. “It was a nerve-wracking time,” she says. “And then I thought: What a great time to start a business!”
Like a prizefighter who has shown his weakness, the economy was ripe for a knockout punch. “I think one of the things that happens when things are breaking down is that it’s the perfect time to create something new—because the status quo is vulnerable,” Laila says. “You’re in control of so much. You’re not under the thumb of bosses in crumbling organizations.”
She founded Proper Rugs, a design-focused textile manufacturer that ethically sources its rugs from Tibet and India, where makers are practicing traditional techniques that have been in their family for generations.
“When I tell people I do rugs, they assume they’re Persian,” Laila says with a laugh. “And it’s funny, because they come from a completely different place.” Instead, her work is informed by a sense of human energy and centeredness.
After her pregnancy, she took substantial time off from rug-making to focus on life at home with Anahita and Pete, who works in the tech industry. At the time of her journey to Vermont, Laila was at a crossroads. She has always drawn heavily upon travel a source of motivation, and the trip proved to be the jump start she needed. She pauses to think: “It was the catalyst for me to get back into my business.”
As we drove from the Mad River Valley up to the Northeast Kingdom, my family and I stopped off at several weaving studios. It was amazing to see what people are creating in their own little bubble, so far out in the country. There was almost nothing digital in their methods; it was very much a manual process.
Some weavers were using antique looms from the 1800s and sourcing materials from right outside their homes, like dyes made from vegetables in their gardens.
The design: Crystallized
I chose to make a flat-weave design of a favorite pattern called “Crystallize.” It’s a triangle-heavy pattern, which made me think of the antique looms in Vermont that yield simpler, geometric designs. I took the existing design, which was several shades, and brought it down to just three. It was an exercise in limitation: What can you do with a rug using restraints? How can you really push that as far as it can go?
Conceptually, the idea was to take an ephemeral moment—a feeling—and turn it into a concrete image. I was thinking about what you can do to find a place of clarity, whether it’s through meditation, yoga, Pilates—doing something from yourself that takes you outside of what you’re doing to find a moment of calm.
And what is that moment of calm? Everything came back to the core. When you feel yourself very tall, feeling energy going out top of head, down through roots, out through fingertips, it’s a strong, centered feeling.
There’s a practical manifestation there, too: Hand-knotted rugs are meant to last generations. The process of walking on them connects and strengthens the knots.
Originally I was thinking about colors of the Northeast Kingdom. What I loved the most about Vermont was the light. It makes everything look so vibrant. Neutrals become rich chromatic grays and they take on so much dimension. It wouldn’t look the same in Philadelphia or New York.
The name of the Northeast Kingdom itself is so magical, but the colors there were magical too—especially at the Notch House with the view there. At sunset, you’d suddenly see these purples form in the tress, pinks in the sky, looking into the water and see the depths of the grey-greens.
The trick was: How do you take a color you normally wouldn’t think about and turn it into something even more magnificent?
Marrying Digital and Analog Methods
I feel like drawings have a lot more soul when they’re painted by hand. Then I make them digital. Then they become handmade rugs. That’s actually one of the things I really love about the process of making rugs. It goes through so many nuances in different stages, from hand to pixel back to hand.
The Muse of Travel
Most of my designs are inspired by trips I’ve taken. The process is very layered. I’ll take photos, sketch, and sketch some more. The very first rug I did was one called “Mossy Rocks,” inspired by a hiking trip to Maine, where I saw moss growing between the rocks. The design took this really organic path and became a very graphic image in my mind, with bold shapes. The moss became asterisks. The flowers became bold, graphic petals.
When you’re doing this kind of abstract design based on concrete imagery, I think it actually helps to put away the camera and get out your sketchbook instead. It’s the tension between documenting where you are versus experiencing it. I’m much more interested in the idea of going somewhere, experiencing something, and coming back and using that as something to riff on. Your souvenir ends up being what you create from what you saw and felt.