Sonya Winner: The Story

Your family seems to have been filled with creative minds. Growing up, did you always think that you’d like to be part of the art and design world?

From an early age, I was always interested in design. My grandfather was a printer, he was at the forefront of color printing technology, and extremely interested in color. My father was very creative and artistic and my mother is musical, she’s a concert pianist. I always enjoyed art and was quite good at it. I used to go sketching on Saturdays with my father who had a secondary career as an artist. We used to sit by the River Thames and paint together on Saturday mornings. We’d have a fold up stool that we’d take with us, our paint box with the watercolours and our sketchpads. We would sit together, sketch and chat to passer-bys. That was one of my favourite activities at the time and a special time with my dad. Then, we’d go off to a coffee shop and have a nice piece of cake and hot chocolate.

You’ve spent some years before the rug business working across different design industries. What have been some of your highlights?

I studied graphic design, and at the start, I was very interested in packaging, designing logos, brochures and promotional materials, in how to send out visual messages. Using the language of design to communicate with people was fascinating for me, which is why I studied graphic design, rather than being a painter. I wanted to solve puzzles and communication problems through visual cues.

Just after leaving university I worked in a graphic design company, but was quickly offered projects of my own, so I bought one of the first Apple Mac computers and I set up my own little business in my bedroom. I was in my early 20s. I had a couple of other people helping me. We had a number of clients and we would design some board games, brochures for Swiss banks, logos for theatre companies. The variety of the work was very interesting, every single project was a new challenge, it meant starting from scratch.

After a while, I had some ideas for books. I developed a concept for several non-fiction books and sold them to publishing houses. Book design is an extremely creative field and I enjoyed it very much.

From there, I got interested in the forefront of digital photography, which was just starting all those years ago, in the early 2000s. I decided to become a photographer, so I  got my friend Richard to help me choose a camera and some lights and I set up a photographic studio in my home. I bought a very large printer that took 1m wide and 20m long rolls of canvas, and started photographing people and their families, printing them out on canvases and selling them. One day, my neighbour invited me to go horse riding. I set up the camera to take some early morning pictures of flowers, as the early morning light is so beautiful. I left the camera on the tripod with the flowers to come back to, I went horse riding, and didn’t come back for 6 weeks. I fell off that horse, broke my back and my wrist in 6 places and I was stuck in hospital for quite a while. That was the end of the photography.

Just before the horse riding incident, my friend, Ruth, invited me, alongside other 39 designers, to design a rug for her modern furniture showroom celebrating the showroom’s 40th birthday. During my recovery, the rug was launched with the other 39 rugs in her exhibition. To my surprise, the design was shortlisted for an award by Elle Decoration magazine and subsequently featured in many press articles around the world.

Left: Henri Matisse’s The Snail Right: The After Matisse Rug

It was then that I decided to move into the rug business. Having spent many, many years helping people to promote and launch their products through graphic design, I always had the idea that I would like to have my own product and the rugs were a great way into it.

What I loved then (and still do) was that with rugs the creative possibilities seemed to be endless. You can create different shapes, a myriad of limitless colours, you’ve got different materials you can use, different pile heights to play with. I was very bold with what I wanted to do because I had nothing to lose. At the time, I was in a dark place, and while everyone in the interiors world was creating things in grey and beige (a trend called griege) I wanted to use colour to make myself and other people feel good. I had then (and still have now) a real love for Matisse’s work. I was examining his Snail cut out and his jazz cut outs which were done at the end of his life. 10 years before he died, he was incredibly ill. He was mainly confined to a wheelchair, but he kept on creating and he was more daring and more creative in the last 10 years of his life than he had been before. He would instruct his assistants to cut out huge sheets of paper painted in the colours he was looking for and to position them on the walls of his studio. I was confined by my back brace for 6 months. I found solace in looking at what Matisse did when he was unwell. Even though he was stuck in a chair, his mind was wild and adventurous, he created amazing things. I found that inspiring. I looked at his work and it made me feel happy and free.

Then I received the finished rug made after my design – the After Matisse Rug – I placed it into my home and I was convinced then that that was what I wanted to do – the rug completely transformed my home. It made it feel vibrant and full of life.

From the initial success of that first rug, I decided to start a new business designing a collection of rugs and selling them online. After a year, I exhibited at the London Design Festival. As a result, we had 450.000 visitors to our website in one day, which resulted in enquiries from people all around the world, and from that point the business started to take off.

Sonya Winner at London Design Festival
Sonya Winner at London Design Festival

After so many enquiries came in regarding your first design, did you think the business would be an instant success?

I didn’t really know what I was doing. I didn’t have any rugs to sell but people wanted to buy them. So, I sent myself off to India alone, for the first time, to meet with weavers and have my designs translated into rugs. That was a challenge. Initially, the weavers wouldn’t make them. It was too complicated, too many colours, the shapes too irregular. But eventually I persuaded some weavers to make them and the results were quite startling. It became a very close collaboration of learning and mutual support, that carried on across the years.

I didn’t know if the business was going to be a success, I was working from my spare bedroom and I wasn’t sure that people would be bold enough to buy these really bright, vibrant designs for their interiors. Soon, I was thrilled to see that they struck a chord and spoke to people, that the shapes and the colours created an emotional response. Originally, we had one size of the After Matisse rug, then people simply wanted to own the design, but couldn’t afford a large rug, so we started making small ones, so that people could own the colours and the shape. I got an enormous amount of satisfaction from the feedback I was receiving. People really loved the rugs, considered them art pieces and for me, that’s what I was trying to do, to make art that was translated into a rug. In time, a colour loving community had developed around me, with so many people from all over the world feeling happy and inspired by these bold designs. We always share inspiration with our customers, things we love, art pieces and niche creators we discover, we talk about the best decorative pieces to go with our rugs. This powerful community was always the reason for me to continue creating them.

Sonya choosing rug colours in her London studio
Sonya choosing rug colours in her London studio

How did you come about your studio space and have you always had a clear vision of what you wanted your studio to be?

It’s very important in life to work out what you want to do so you’ve got a focal point to aim for. I liked working close to my home but didn’t want to work from my home anymore. So, I decided to sell my house and get a smaller one and an additional nice working environment. I found this place around the corner from my new house and it was empty and hadn’t been touched for about 30 years. I was able to acquire it. I decided to make it into my ideal space. After working from home for many years, I thought about what the requirements would be to make the showroom combine being professional, practical, yet to feel cozy and inspiring. The space was big enough to have a big kitchen because I’m passionate about food and I like to invite guests and customers and friends to join us for a snack or a drink here.

Sonya Winner Rugs Showroom London
Sonya Winner Rugs Showroom London

I wanted to have a curated display of other designers whose work I like. This place offered a space to do all that. I enlisted my friend, Stella Dourtme, who works for Zaha Hadid practice, she helped design the Showroom with me. It was a dream come true to create and own this space, where my team would really want to come to work everyday, where we can design new pieces and create custom rugs together with our customers. The result of a 2 year long redecorating process is a modern, but cozy gallery setting, displaying our rugs and a curated selection of handmade niche makers I am inspired by – including jewellery, glass art and ceramics. We have a beautiful, central fireplace, that makes the place feel like home and helps our customers picture what the rug would look like in a home setting. The showroom has now become a design destination, where visitors enjoy a glass of British wine and artisanal nibbles, while discovering our and other people’s designs.

Exhibition opening at Sonya Winner Studio
Exhibition opening at Sonya Winner Studio

Have you faced any difficulties being a female entrepreneur in a male-led world? What would be your advice to other women who also want to start their own creative business? 

I experienced a lot of problems being a female entrepreneur. Even trying to obtain the property to have the business located at. The property world is very male dominated and I realised after trying many times and not succeeding that the only way to get the property I wanted was to get a man to represent me. I was continuously blocked out by men. There have been many instances in which I had to fight hard in order to work through this issue and move the business forward. There have been many times when I felt like giving up, because of how hard it was. But success isn’t linear and if you keep making little steps in the right direction, they compound together and things tip in the way you need them to. In time, I met many other women entrepreneurs – there are some wonderful communities out there that support each other through the difficulties of growing a business. Seeing these strong, inspiring women fight and succeed is a continuous source of comfort for me.

Sonya Winner: After Albers Cornflower Rug

Just in general, what makes Sonya Winner Rugs so special?

I think it’s the passion and the work that goes into the design. Some of the designs take 3-4 weeks to get correct. My way of working and creating designs is based on my passion for color and collage and working with my hands rather than with a computer. I always start with sketches, cutting shapes out of tissue papers or working with colored acetates on the lightbox. I play around and observe how colors actually work, how they mix, how they overlay and create new shades on top of one another. And that’s part of the fascination of color that’s seen through the designs that I create. There’s a bit of alchemy in the rugs that I’ve tried to achieve by taking a bit away, adding something, changing colours slightly. It’s like perfecting a recipe – when you get a cheesecake recipe that’s really perfect, you know it. It’s about getting to that level of something sitting perfectly that it’s not too much, it’s not too little, it’s just the right amount. I always have that level of perfection to get to. That’s the way I’m wired. So it always starts with working with my hands, then perfecting, getting numerous samples until the rug is right, keeping the quality control.

And alongside all this, it is the intricate work of artisan weavers that makes the rugs special, who turn a graph from a piece of paper into a beautiful, real object that people can enjoy. The weaving in rural communities in India is based on centuries old weaving traditions, on a way of life in itself. I advocate ethical trading, which is why we are a member GoodWeave, an organisation that aims to eliminate child labour, to improve working conditions for adult weavers and develop educational programmes for women in rural communities. Every rug you buy means a contribution towards our ethical program and supporting weaving communities.

Manufacturing - The Wave Rug
Manufacturing: The Wave Rug