Awards 2000 The Shell Award for Sustainable Development

The Shell Award for Sustainable Development

Commended: Alain Rouveure Galleries

Alain Rouveure knew nothing of Nepal when he arrived there with his rucksack in 1979, in flight for a year from the London rat race. He was, however, interested in textiles because his mother had worked for a silk manufacturer in Lyons. And, as a designer himself, he knew a striking design when he saw one. He did see some striking rug and carpet designs, even if these were made for tourists, in soft Indian or New Zealand wool dyed in garish, synthetic colours.

Nepal, he points out, has few roads, so you have to walk further and stay longer, and this brings you into close contact with local people. In the Katmandhu valley he met many Tibetan refugees including a group headed by Kisonam and his wife Nyma. They are, he says, the sweetest people and they were struggling to make a living out of gaudy rugs for tourists. But he discovered that they also made rugs for special customers in the traditional way they had used in Tibet. They made them with wool from nomadic Tibetan flocks, a third more expensive than New Zealand. They used natural dyes: blue from indigo, yellow from the bark of berberis trees, browns and creams from walnuts, ginger yellow from rhubarb root. He asked them to make him a rug and, when he saw it, he loved it.

He had trained in design in France. As a graphic designer in advertising, he earned three times as much as his father when he was only 18. In 1977 he moved to London at a time when British unions were refusing to accept artwork from non-members; but he was earning good money by 1979. That was when he decided there must be more to life than selling goods that people didn't really need. So he set out with his rucksack and, having made his new friends in Nepal, decided to invest his inheritance from his mother to help them. He gave them a budget and asked them to make rugs within that budget; he would return for the rugs next year. They produced 12 which he sold at a party in London.

He soon fled the city for an old railway station near Moreton-in-Marsh in the Cotswolds, continuing to visit Nepal and return with rugs to sell. He acquired a smattering of Tibetan and Nepali but found people much preferred to practise their English on him. In Europe, he looked for Tibetan rugs in museums and antique shops, photographing over 450 designs for Kisonam to use. He wanted Tibetan culture to be a living tradition in Kisonam's rugs, and to show both Tibetans and foreign connoisseurs that new rugs not just old ones have real value.

He was in growing demand as a lecturer. He also found that people expected him to have a gallery to show the rugs, so he opened one, Friday to Sunday. From Monday to Thursday he worked in London but not in advertising. He was some of the time a waiter, serving Lauren Bacall and Sir Alec Guinness at La Poule au Pot, Pimlico. He had friends in acting and he designed and decorated the interiors of their houses.

Out in Nepal, the work was developing, and a second family, that of Kaju Lama, got involved, making a community of 70 people in all, much envied by local Nepalis. The main workshop is surrounded by small houses where skilled craftspeople, often from a long distance, can live rent-free. "You can't use any old weaver," says Alain. "It requires six months' training."

Spinning, dyeing and weaving are all lengthy jobs. Handknotting a rug six feet by three takes two people at least a fortnight. It isn't sweated labour. The working day is normally 8.30 to five. Traditional rugs need adult weavers not children, and good pay ensures they do not send their children to work elsewhere. Alain Rouveure is keen to offer jobs to unmarried mothers, since they have no chance of an arranged marriage. He pays a teacher and two nannies to run a kindergarten for their children. Alain visits twice a year but he regards his main task as that of selling the rugs in Britain and showing his Tibetan and Nepali friends that there is a market for high-quality goods made in traditional styles.

Spinning, dyeing and weaving are all lengthy jobs. Handknotting a rug six feet by three takes two people at least a fortnight. Alain also buys other Himalayan craftwork: tribal art, traditional pottery from the town of Bakhtapur, silver earrings for which he provides designs. This provides a range of goods for his gallery.

He has always stressed to the Tibetan weavers that they should continue to work for other customers, so they still have a livelihood if he can no longer sell on their behalf. But he has every intention of selling their rugs for many more years.

Alain Rouveure Galleries, Todenham, Near Moreton-in-Marsh GL56 9NU UK
Tel/Fax: 01608 650418