(This article appeared in the Centre Daily Times on January 8, 2006. It is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher.)
By Jennifer Thomas
Masood, Mitra, and Michelle Arjmand
STATE COLLEGE -- Each Persian rug sold by Desert Rug Co. owner Masood Arjmand is a unique hand-woven piece that reflects the culture and history of the land in which it originates: Iran.
It was just a few years ago that Arjmand, drawn by his Iranian heritage to the beautiful pieces, went looking for rugs for a log cabin he was building.
When he had some difficulty finding Iranian-made rugs, Arjmand said he learned that few Persian rugs were made in Iran anymore.
The shortage was the result of a nearly two-decade trade embargo dating to the hostage crisis.
The embargo had kept rugs out of the United States until 2000 and decimated the Iranian rug industry. The industry was hurt further by competition from mass-produced rugs being made in India and Pakistan, he said.
It sparked an idea within Arjmand, a retired State College businessman.
"I looked at it and thought it could be a very good business," the 58-year-old said. "So, I spent all the money I had and bought rugs."
Five thousand of them, to be exact.
The Desert Rug Co. was born, and the family-run business -- which he runs with his wife, Mitra, daughter, Michelle, and son, James -- became a chance for Arjmand to share a piece of his heritage and culture with central Pennsylvania residents, while helping residents in his native country.
"It's really nice when you're doing something that you own," Michelle Arjmand said. "It's different."
Just $500 keeps an Iranian rug maker employed for a year, Masood Arjmand said. Twenty percent of profits from the rugs he sells are donated back to the Iranian rug workers in the name of the American people, he said.
"I thought I could do something good here," he said.
The business opened in September with a showroom at Beaver Avenue and Pugh Street.
That showroom will close when the business moves into a bigger space in Creekside Plaza at 1748 S. Atherton St. at the end of January.
Customer Chuck Fisher, of State College, said the rugs the family sells are comparable to those found in cities such as New York and San Francisco.
He has bought four rugs from Desert Rug Co. and says he would once have had to travel outside the area to find them.
The Arjmands' business plan, in which profits are donated to the workers, is a admirable one, Fisher said.
"The people that are going to make money are the people that are making the rugs," he said.
"And the cost to the consumer is going to be less."
That is part of Masood Arjmand's goal.
Arjmand left Iran in the dark of night 25 years ago.
An education in the United States -- including a master's degree and doctorate earned at Penn State -- had given him a taste of freedom in the early 1970s, and it was something he was eager to find again.
He returned to Iran and became a biology professor at the University of Shiraz, but began plotting his escape during the revolution in 1979, he said.
"In 1981, I left Iran because as the fundamentalist regime stabilized power, they just wanted everything to be according to the idea of Islam," he said.
And that, he said, meant the elimination of evolution theory from the biology courses he was teaching at the university.
Arjmand knew it would only get worse.
A smuggler took him to the Pakistani border, where he slipped into the country. He later ended up in Germany, where he got a visa to teach and established a new life.
"I owe them my life," he said of the German people who helped him acquire his visa.
Left behind in Iran were his wife and daughter. Eighteen months later, they too were smuggled out of Iran.
"Sometimes you don't have choices," Mitra Arjmand said of the separation.
After several years in Germany, the family came to the United States, seeking freedom, Masood Arjmand said.
"Once a person is free, anything is a possibility," he said.
The Arjmand family came to State College in 1985, carrying all their possessions, and Arjmand settled into a teaching position at Penn State. In 1986, he started his own business, Centre Analytical Laboratories, a firm that did environmental analytical work and pesticide-residue testing.
Arjmand sold that company in 2001 and planned to spend more time at his log cabin.
Then he went shopping for a Persian rug from his native Iran and learned of the industry's problems.
"It became a mission," he said. "I still feel I should help them."
Arjmand estimates he has about 1,000 people in Iran working on the pieces sold in his State College store.
A 4-foot-by-6-foot rug can take a single person one year to complete.
"If it's more detailed, it takes longer," he said.
Woven from hand-spun wool that is colored by organic vegetable dyes, each rug is distinctly different, yet at the same time, bound by Persian history.
"As they age, they become better," Arjmand said.
What the Arjmands are doing is amazing, said customer Philip Masorti, of Pennsylvania Furnace.
He said the company offers beautiful rugs while also honoring the owners' heritage.
Masorti purchased rugs for his home and office after doing extensive research into the style of floor covering.
"It's the real deal," he said. "They're phenomenal. They're really artwork for the floor."
Masorti said he had an expert analyze a rug from Desert Rug Co., and found they were high-quality, handmade rugs with indigenous dyes.
And he said, he could purchase them for hundreds or thousands of dollars less than the $12,000 or $18,000 price tags he found in New York.
"I asked on several occasions if they really wanted to sell me the rugs at these prices," he said.
"Knock-offs are more expensive. ... They're clearly not driven by profit."
But the rugs offer more than just a great bargain, Masorti said.
"He is really, really giving us a chance to get a piece of authentic Persian culture for our living rooms," he said.
Jennifer Thomas can be reached at 814-231-4638.
Photo credit: Centre Daily Times
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(This article appeared in the March 2006 issue of State College, the Magazine. It is reprinted here with the permission of the publisher.)
Freedom From The Floor Up
By D.K. Higgins
Masood Arjmand and his daughter, Michelle
“I came to the United States, I went to school, I tasted
freedom,” says Masood Arjmand, a former scientist
who is now the owner and CEO of the Desert
Rug Company. “When I went back to Iran, I wanted
to help my country. Suddenly these guys showed
up and they said this country is Islamic—no alcohol, no music,
even no shaving your beard. No teaching evolution in biology
department. I mean, I couldn't put up with something like that.”
It's early January, several weeks before the grand opening of
the Desert Rug Company's store on South Atherton Street, and
Arjmand is giving me a tour of his Ferguson Township home—a
beautiful, contemporary dwelling that showcases, with extraordinary
effect, the wares of his rug company. Upon entering the
home, however, the first rug I notice is hanging on the wall of the
foyer. It's a portrait of the Shah of Iran's family, reproduced from
the heavily-circulated “official” photo taken several years before
the Shah fled into exile in 1979. That event spearheaded the
wave of Islamic fundamentalism that would eventually result in
America's current war on terrorism, a conflict that Arjmand, now
a U.S. citizen, proudly supports. “These guys are absolutely
destroying our civilization,” he says. “They have done it in Iran,
they have done it in Egypt, and they have the ambition to rule the
world. So we'd better do something about it.”
Moments later, after admiring a plethora of gorgeous floor
rugs, I'm standing in the living room, transfixed by another
superbly crafted wall piece. This one features a mandolin player
performing for a dancing couple and a woman reclining on the
floor, wine glass in hand. “What you see here is the artist's imagination,”
Arjmand explains. “These things are not available [in
Iran]—dancing and singing and having a good time. But that is
what these people like, and you see it in their art.”
Arjmand, who was born in 1947, grew up in Darab, a small
town in southern Iran. He was educated at the University of
Tehran and, after earning a B.S. in plant protection in 1969,
came to Penn State for his two graduate degrees. He returned to
Iran where he taught entomology and pesticide chemistry at the
Isfahan Technological University for a year before becoming the
chairman of the biology department at Shiraz University in 1979. But once the Ayatollah Khomeini took power, Arjmand knew his days
in Iran were numbered. He smuggled himself out of the country in
1981 and headed for West Germany, where he held a position in the
Research Scholar Department of Biochemisty at the University of
Freiburg. Using his network of friends in Iran, he managed to bring his
wife, Mitra, and his infant daughter, Michelle, to Germany a year and
a half later. He immediately began the immigration process so that he
could take his family to the U.S. When the process was completed, in
1985, he left a $50,000-a-year job in Freiburg to take a $15,000
post-doctoral position at Penn State. “Freedom is the essence of life,”
he explains. “Someone who isn't free doesn't have anything anyway.
And societies that offer you freedom and democracy, they offer you
other opportunities, too. Scientists travel light. If you are a knowledgeable
person, you don't need to carry anything.”
After a year as a post-doc, Arjmand was able to raise $40,000
from a group of investors so that he could start the Centre Analytical
Laboratories, a firm that specialized in testing substances for pesticide
residue. In addition to being a respected scientist, Arjmand
proved to be an astute businessman, turning Centre Analytical into
a multi-million dollar company with nearly 100 employees, including
Mitra, his primary assistant. He sold the company in 2000,
began to dabble in real-estate investment and, after buying a sizeable
piece of land near Penn's Cave, made plans to build a log
cabin on the property. Arjmand and Mitra decided that they wanted
to buy some Persian rugs for the cabin and learned that Chinese,
Pakistani and Indian rugs were dominating the market. Persian rugs,
they were told, were too expensive.
Arjmand next called a friend who owns a rug agency in Esfahan,
Iran. Although the agent dealt with members of the Bakhtiari tribe,
descendents of the gifted rug makers of the Persian Empire, he told
Arjmand that the rug business in Iran was nearly defunct, another
casualty of the fundamentalist regime. There was a surplus of Persian
rugs, however, and Arjmand sensed both a business opportunity and
a mission. “Right now, things are so bad that $500 a year puts one
rug maker to work,” he says. “So I told [the agent], ‘Collect as many
rugs as you can,’ and I bought 5,000 of them. It took all the money
that I had or could borrow, because the first [priority] was to put those
people to work. And in order to do that, I'd have to have my own
line.” He then formed the Desert Rug Company and appointed
Michelle as director of marketing and sales.
“Persian wool is the best wool in the world,” Arjmand explains.
“For that reason, Indian, Chinese and Pakistani rugs are not as flexible
as Persian rugs are. They are course and tough. And my collection
is the biggest collection of Persian rugs in the United States.
No one has tried to make [the rugs] so readily available and
they've always wanted too much money. They don't want to sell 10
of them at $1000 per rug. They want to sell one of them at
$20,000. And that doesn't work. Because how many people can
afford a rug like that? So I have put the lowest possible prices on
all my rugs.”
Arjmand recently started the Freedom Rug Foundation, an
American offshoot of his initial philanthropic endeavor, the Masood
Arjmand Foundation, that he established in Iran. “I wanted to also
call it the Freedom Rug Foundation, in Farsi,” he explains. “But if I
had used the word ‘freedom’ in the foundation's name, it would
have been considered an opposing organization. That's how antifreedom
[the fundamentalists] are.” The FRF specifies that 20 percent
of all the company's profits be donated to the rug makers in his
homeland. He hopes to jump-start a renaissance for the Persian rug
industry and, in so doing, help his former countrymen recognize
Americans as “champions of democracy and peace.”
“These rugs are not really elite items,” Arjmand says. “They are
commodities, made by poor people, and they want to have the work.
And if they are sold too expensively, then those guys are out of work.
This whole industry is going to disappear, and I want to do something
about that. It was hard for me to buy 5,000 rugs. But how hard was
it for them to live without $500 a year? So I'm hoping that once
Americans get to like the product, then [the rug makers] are going to
prosper. Every one of those rugs in an American home is a blessing
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