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Rug company still brings Orient home after 100 years

by: Vern Uyetake, David Atiyeh stands in a sea of rugs at the Atiyeh Oriental Rugs and Carpeting store in Tigard.

Oriental rugs are on a roll.

Of course, they've been popular for about a millennium now, but in recent years Oriental rugs are in higher demand than ever. Just ask David Atiyeh, whose family brought Oriental rugs to the Portland area over 100 years ago.

'There is nothing like a nice Oriental rug,' Atiyeh said. 'After centuries, that's why they're still popular. In fact, they've never been more popular than they are today.'

Rolling out the rugs

Atiyeh should know. His grandfather George and his great uncle Aziz came from Syria to the U.S. and established Atiyeh Oriental Rugs and Carpeting in 1900. The business became a dynasty with George's sons, twin brothers Edward (David's father) and Richard, and Vic, who went on to much greater fame as one of Oregon's most popular governors from 1979 to 1987.

David kept the tradition going, guiding the company through the changes that assured it would reach its centennial. One of the biggest came in 2001 when Atiyeh Bros. moved from downtown Portland, its location for 101 years, to next to Lake Oswego on Bonita Road in Tigard.

So after all these years what keeps customers coming back to Atiyeh?

And why are Oriental rugs still so desirable?

'Each rug is so unique and different,' Atiyeh said. 'They're one of a kind. Buying one is a very personal experience. The decision to buy a rug should be deliberate and careful. We encourage customers to shop around and compare.

'We don't worry at all if they want to go someplace else. If they're educated and informed they'll make a good buying decision, and that's what we want.'

Choosing a rug

When it comes to buying an Oriental rug, Atiyeh recommends looking for a combination of styling and color with a right feeling for space, whether it's a traditional or more modern style of rug.

Prices vary as much as the size of the rugs, but generally a high quality room-size (8 by 10 feet) Oriental rug costs in the range of $4,000.

'You can get a handmade rug for $2,000 to $2,500,' Atiyeh said, 'but there could be quality issues. A machine made rug doesn't have the uniqueness of a hand-woven piece. But a hand-woven rug is not necessarily a good product. It can be more coarsely knotted, have poor structure, design structure and consistency of finish.

'The ideal customer is one who wants to wait a year or two before buying an Oriental rug and who reads, spends time, and even takes trips overseas to look at rugs.'

Atiyeh is in an exacting line of work, but he says, 'It's a fun business.'

And it's a business he expects to boom as Atiyeh Bros. enters its second century.

'For a 30 to 35-year period carpets were by far the most popular floor covering,' Atiyeh said. 'Fifteen years ago there was a shift. Woodfloors, stone and other hard surfaces became popular, and that increased the demand for rugs. We finished our best Oriental rug year ever in 2006.

'Today there are greater choices for design, color and qualities, which have given us more options. We don't try to be everything to everyone, but we try to select the best rugs we can.'

A unique floor covering

Atiyeh is confident he is offering a unique product that is appreciated more than ever.

'An Oriental rug adds a beauty of feeling, with its design, color and just the sensation of walking on it. No other floor covering can do that. It offers a versatility that other floor coverings can't.

The company's move hasn't disrupted business, they said.

'The move to the new location was debated by the family,' Atiyeh said. 'The Portland area was growing tremendously and we needed more space. We needed things our downtown location couldn't offer.

'The move has worked out very well. Now we're in one of the easiest areas to get to. But even when we were downtown, Lake Oswego was already our number one customer base.

'In our first 10 and a half months we did more business than we had done in any single year in 101 years downtown.'

A personalized product

Certainly, there are many factors in a business being able to push past the century mark in this ever-changing society. But perhaps the bedrock reason for Atiyeh Bros.' continued success is David Atiyeh's desire that their customers buy the Oriental rug that is just right for them.

'It's a philosophy that's been passed along,' Atiyeh said. 'Our focus needs to be caring for the customer. It was engrained in me growing up; work hard, hustle, do what's right.

'The rewarding part is seeing customers come back year after year. Our rugs are passed down through generations of families, and they come to us to see that they're maintained correctly. Seventy percent of our business is repeat business.'

In case you have any doubts about the longevity of this philosophy, Atiyeh can reproduce a copy of an article that Aziz Atiyeh sent to a Portland newspaper in 1906, which went to great lengths to enlighten readers on the importance of outstanding customer service.

An impressive aspect of Atiyeh's ideal is a knowledge of Oriental rugs. When it comes to Oriental rugs, Atiyeh believes a little education is a wonderful thing.

'An Oriental rug has to be made by hand and it must use natural fibers,' Atiyeh said. 'Its value is subject to the skill of the person knotting it and the quality of dyes and wool. Our primary role is to select and screen to get the rugs with the best attributes.'

To do this, Atiyeh and his associates go to warehouses in New York City which hold thousands of rugs, and they look at 10,000 to 20,000.

They come from India, China, Napal, Turkey, Iran, Armenia and Pakistan.

'We're lucky if we come back with 150 rugs,' Atiyeh said. 'There are always rugs, but the key is finding good quality.'

Sometimes assuring value means bucking trends.

For example, Atiyeh noted the t-washing process. It involves giving Oriental rugs a muted, more antique look, and for 10 or 15 years it was quite the rage. However, 'a lot of rugs of lesser quality went through the process.'

As a result the whole market for t-washed rugs had crashed by the end of the 1990s.

'We've probably lost some sales when a new fashion comes along because we won't have as many of that kind of rug as the public wanted,' Atiyeh said. 'It's a judgement role we have to play. We have to make sure a rug is long lasting.'

A long lasting rug adds character and beauty to rooms for years to come.

'An oriental rug has great historical references, but it's one of the most adaptable floor coverings you can have. It can transform and complete a room,' said Atiyeh. 'It's a unifying element in a beautiful room setting.'