CloseUp: Andrew Haughton

The Nomads Tent
21 St Leonard’s Lane
Edinburgh & the Lothians

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What took you into your current job?
In 1980, I graduated from a Craft Furniture and Design course in London and worked as a furniture designer and maker for many years. Through my friends at the Mihrab Gallery in Edinburgh, I was introduced to a Manhattan carpet dealer and, for two frantic years, I raced around the UK looking in antique shops and salerooms for large antique carpets to send over. It was an intense learning curve in a subject I found very exciting. One day in 2008, I went to an exhibition at The Nomads Tent and was bowled over, almost literally. Here was a place that held the material arts as precious in a way that was like a sanctuary. I wrote to the owner, Rufus Reade, asking for a job. He gave me a job, and eventually that led to me buying the business.

Describe a typical day (if there is one!)
At 10am, the big doors slide open, some music goes on, parcels from web orders are placed for collection, customers wander in and we try to balance offering help with leaving them to enjoy the place. New visitors often say: ‘This is an Aladdin’s cave’ – I think we would worry if we stopped hearing that! I sometimes think The Nomads Tent is a cross between a shop, a museum and a hoarder’s guilty secret.

What are the most enjoyable/least enjoyable parts of the job?
Customers are why we open up each day. Sometimes a long conversation develops, sharing life details and learning. That can be wonderful and fun and often seems more important than ‘business’. Least enjoyable? Paperwork. Computers have failed to make life easier.

Hmong girls playing, Sapa, N. Vietnam. Photograph courtesy of Heidi Alexander
Hmong girls playing, Sapa, N. Vietnam. Photograph courtesy of Heidi Alexander

How do you source so many beautiful things? 
In Iran, we trawl the bazaars for carpets and kilims. In India, we find furniture, textiles and small artefacts made by these extraordinarily creative and industrious people. We travel less frequently to Turkey, Morocco, Vietnam and a few other places. Most trade is conducted through intermediaries such as cooperatives, wholesalers or trading platforms such as the old bazaars and street markets. Being connected to trusted networks helps bypass unscrupulous traders. We have traded with some suppliers for 30 or more years, and they have become good friends.

How much is the business impacted by politics, changing regimes, wars?
Many customers ask about the difficulties we might have buying rugs in Afghanistan or Iran in light of the various troubles. Afghanistan produces a huge array of really good traditional and, more recently, state of the art modern floor coverings, but I have never travelled there, I depend on my long-time friend, Masoud, who ships rugs into the UK. Iran is still the most varied and ancient rug-producing country which no rug shop can ignore. The political tug of war, the sanctions and chest-thumping on both sides, means travel there is easier in the company of our agent of nearly 30 years, Abbas. If he says come and visit, we know it’s fine to do so!

Interior of Nomads Tent
Interior of Nomads Tent

How has the business changed in the time you’ve been doing it?
In 2008 most purchases were made with cheques and about 40% in cash. Now we take no cheques, everything is on phone apps, cards and less than 1% cash. Fashions change and that affects what people want and what we buy, but the need to furnish a home doesn’t really diminish. Customers who bought rugs 40 years ago sometimes bring them in for repair or cleaning. Or sometimes their grown up children bring in an inherited rug and we hear the sad news of a departure.

How did the pandemic affect your work?
In the first year of covid, trade dropped off a cliff but after we photographed all our stock and put it on our website we were busier than ever. A lovely customer brought us presents one day during that unearthly time of empty streets and I nearly wept.

What’s the first work of art you remember seeing?
I recall a painting in our sitting room when I was a child, a dreamy classical ruin from the 18th century which a later artist had partly covered with a very fine but quite random bouquet of flowers, to magical effect. It now hangs in my sister’s house in Clapham. I never saw the like since and no-one has ever explained the mystery.

If you could own any work of art by any artist (practical considerations aside) what would it be?
The utterly fabulous Wagner Garden Carpet (a 17th-century Persian carpet considered to be one of the earliest examples of the form) should really be in my little house in Edinburgh but my friend Noorah al Gailani, curator of Islamic Collections at the Burrell Collection (where the carpet is on display) would probably object.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
‘Do it now’. Putting off a task involves remembering it as well as actually doing it. That is more work than the task itself.

What are you looking forward to? 
In October we’ll present a collection of painted furniture, chests, trays and assorted items from a supplier in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, who we have worked with for over 25 years. I am also considering a really great event for early 2025 but it’s a secret just now.

Mrs Mallai Eri silk weaving, Umden village, Megalaya, N.E. India
Mrs Mallai Eri silk weaving, Umden village, Megalaya, N.E. India

:: The Jodhpur exhibition will run Oct 6-29. Artmag subscribers are warmly invited to attend a preview party on Oct 5, 6-8pm

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