Style and Substance: Stephanie Odegard

Style and Substance: Stephanie Odegard

The textile designer shares her passion

The name Stephanie Odegard is quite simply linked with style, luxury and affluence. Her hand knotted rugs and home furnishings are known worldwide. And so is her commitment to human rights.

For her entire adult life this celebrated designer has managed to seamlessly weave together a love of (and life among) beautiful things, a wildly successful career and notably, service to the community. She is a designer and purveyor of furniture, textiles and home decorative accessories and, she is a woman with a social mission that just never seems to quit. Now with thirty years as a tastemaker for the affluent, Odegard has left behind her chic Manhattan apartment life and her storied rug company to move to Udaipur, India. There she is once again launching a new project to help artisans market their craft and earn a living wage to better the lives of their families.

For decades Odegard has helped artisans around the globe revive and market their traditional crafts. “In order to help people, you have to understand their religion, culture and art,” she says. Most importantly, she adds, “They must get a fair wage!” Her work began in earnest, she says, in Fiji. As a young Peace Corp volunteer she came across the Fijian art of stenciled bark cloth. She saw its aesthetic value and its potential to lift up the community so she helped the local artisans market their craft and open a craft center. From the beginning, her entrepreneurship model included using part of the profits to encourage healthcare and education for the workers’ children.

From her stint in Fiji (with a B.A. in Humanities, a background as a buyer and skills of merchandising, display and inventory under her belt) the remarkable young woman became a marketing consultant for the UN, the World Bank and other organizations. Odegard, as she puts it, has always had an “eye for beauty” so she was able to help identify cottage industries in Jamaica, the South Pacific and Nepal and in partnership with the local communities, develop the crafts for international markets.

It was, however, on assignment in Nepal for World Bank, that she discovered what would be her passion, carpets. She was enamored of the weavers’ skills and captivated by the traditional designs. As a businessperson, however, she knew the designs themselves would need a simpler, more pared down look to be popular. She created new, more minimalist designs that were, while respectful of the tradition, interpretations more suitable for contemporary upscale interior spaces in North America.

Looking back on her early years in business, she says it was “tough work”. She had the carpets made with no child labor (revolutionary for the time and place). She sent them to New York and then began arduous task of pounding the pavement to sell them out of her tiny New York apartment. “Every carpet dealer turned me down!” she says. She kept at it. The prospect of bankruptcy was on the horizon but finally one designer saw the rugs and loved them! “No way I would have quit,” she says of that tough early launch of her business. “I never quit,” adding with a chuckle, “It’s a bit of a problem.”

The driver, the fuel that kept her going, she says, the idea that by employing the weavers, she could empower them. With the early sales and later popularity of the carpets, she says her dream came true. “I could give them work make sure they had a fair wage.” Nothing in her childhood, she says, prepared her for a life in the high end design and fashion world, but it did prepare her for a life of service. Although her father died when she was young, she explains, she has lived by his words. “When you are asked to do something for a good cause, NEVER say no. You should be able to help.”

She certainly has helped. Her rug manufacturing facilities in Nepal and India have economically invigorated communities. Using sustainable rug manufacturing practices she has drawn attention to the industry’s environmental issues. Perhaps most significantly, she has led the struggle against child labor in the international rug-manufacturing sector.To that end, Odegard, along with Nobel Prize winner, Kailash Satyarthi, was one of the founders of an anti-child labor non-profit, now known as GoodWeave. GoodWeave is dedicated to fighting child labor in the carpet industry. 

Stephanie Odegard rugs are showcased in places such as the J.Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Phillips Gallery in Washington, DC and in homes of celebrities. The carpets themselves are collected as contemporary works of art and she is often called upon to speak around the world. Asked about how, since stepping out into the public spotlight, her fame affects her, she sounds genuinely mystified. “I don’t think of myself as famous. People tell me that, but I just don’t see it.”

Most probably she doesn’t “see it” because she is too busy thinking about others to think about herself. “I love my work. I don’t have a separate life,” she says. And back to that “I never quit” quip she made? Odegard recently decided it was time to start something new. She discovered a whole new world of other crafts, such as metal work, glasswork and woodcarving and a community in Udaipur, India that needed a boost. “These people do crafts from the 17th century and the only way for me to do this right was to move to India,” she says. Once again Stephanie Odegard is setting out to mentor local craftspeople, revitalize traditional crafts and create a global business based on ethical principles.