Sonya Winner: The Story – extracts from an interview


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 he set up a printing company called Chromoworks specialising in the colour printing technology. My father was a creative thinker in business and also an accomplished artist and my mother is musical, a very accomplished pianist. I was not particualarly academic at school and now realise I am quite dyslexic but art was one of the few subjects that I enjoyed and excelled at. My dad always encouraged me do keep at being creative – we used to go sketching on Saturdays. We would 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 water colour paint box and our sketchpads. We would sit together, sketch, paint and chat to passer-bys. That was one of my favourite time of the week! Afterward we we would go for a deliious 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, to start with I was very interested in package design, designing logos, brochures and promotional materials. Using the language of design to communicate with people was fascinating for me, which is why I studied graphic design, rather than being an artist. I wanted to solve and communication problems through visual cues ie design!

After finsihing my degree 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 quickly became busy and soon I had a couple of helpers working from my bedroom studio too!  We had a variety of different projects including designing board games, creating brochures for Credit Suisse Frist Boston,designing  logos for theatre companies and record lables etc. The variety of the work was very interesting, each project was a new challenge.

I also had some ideas for books. which I developed and sold to publishing houses. These were fun and creative projects which I enjoyed theses books were my frist products that were available for sale.

In the early 2000’s  I became interested in digital photography, which was just starting to emerge. I set up a photographic studio in my home and bought a very large printer that took 1meter wide by 20m long rolls of canvas, and started a portrait photography business.photographing. One day, my neighbour invited me to go horse riding. I set up the camera to take advantage of the early morning light to photograph some flowers. I left my camera set up on a tripod  to come back to and went horse riding with my neighbour, but I didn’t come back for 6 weeks!! Having fallen from the horse, I broke my back and my wrist in 6 places and I was unable to move from my hospital bed for 5 weeks. That was the end of my photography business.

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 their 40th birthday. During my recovery, my rug was launched along with all the other designers’ rugs in their exhibition. To my surprise, my rug design was shortlisted for an award by Elle Decoration magazine and subsequently featured in press articles worldwide!

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

The recognition this rug received gave me the encourgment I needed to start designing more rugs! and before I knew it I had started a business designing rugs!

What captivated me about rug design was the creative possibilities for designing rugs are endless. There is no limit to the different shapes, colours, yarns, 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 used colour to lift my spirits and found others responded to this too.

So from the initial success of my first rug, I decided to start a new business designing a collection of rugs and selling them online. In the first year I exhibited at the London Design Festival. As a result of th epublicity surrounding the exhibition we had 450.000 visitors on our website in one day, resulting in enquiries from around the world, and from that point a real business was born.

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

After so many enquiries came in from your first design, did you think your business would be a success?

I didn’t really know what I was doing. I only had the few sample pieces made so had no rug stocks to sell but people even though I had customers wanting to buy them. So, I set off to India, to meet with weavers and discuss with them how to weave my rugs. Initially it was a real challenge, the weavers wouldn’t make the rugs to match the samples. It started to say it was too complicated, too many colours, the shapes were too irregular. Eventually I foudn a small group of weavers who were willing to make rugs to match the samples that had been made. Over the years it has become a close collaboration of learning and mutual support.

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. Ive been thrilled to find that people around the world have been able to relate to my designs – the shapes and colours have created the emotional response that I originally set our to achieve!

I get an enormous amount of satisfaction from the feedback I receive. Over time, a colour loving community has developed around me, which is very exciting. We love to share my inspiration and the inspiration of our team with our customers eg: things we love, art pieces and niche creators we discover, and pieces for your home to compliment our vibrant rugs. Sonya choosing rug colours in her London studio

Sonya choosing rug colours in her London studioTell us about your studio space and have you always had a clear vision of what you wanted your studio to be?

I really believe that if you work out how you want to live your life you can make your dream a reality! I realised I wanted to work close to home but didn’t want to work from my home anymore. So, I decided to sell my home and downsize so I could have home and a showroom/studio space.

First I found a new home and as if by magic soon afterwards an ideal showroom space became available a few minutes walk away! With much perseverance I was able to acquire the space and then immediately set about designing it to work with the rug business I had developed whilst working from home to create a practical, inspiring space that also felt home like and cozy. The space was big enough to have a big kitchen (I’m passionate about artisanal food) and I love to invite guests, customers and friends to join us for a snack and drink here.

Sonya Winner Rugs Showroom London
Sonya Winner Rugs Showroom London

I also always wanted to have a curated selection of other designers whose work with their hands in small production. This showroom space was ideal for this too. I enlisted my friend, Stella Dourtme, who works for Zaha Hadid Architectural practice, to work with me to design the space. I’ve realised a dream to create this space, to work with my small team and invite our customers to see our rugs. It took 2 years to design and renovate the space into a modern, but cozy gallery, displaying our rugs and a selection of  jewellery, glass art and ceramics. We have a beautiful, central fireplace, that helps our customers picture how our rugs would look like in a home setting. The showroom has now become a design destination in North West London!

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 showroom as the property world is very male dominated!  I realised after trying to find a home for the business many times without success that the only way to get the property I wanted was to find a man to represent me!! There have been many times when I felt like giving up- but success isn’t linear process and Ive discovered if you keep making little steps in the right direction, they compound together and and gain momentum and suddenly you find you are in place you were aiming for!  On this journey Ive met many other women entrepreneurs – there are some wonderful communities out there that support each other through the difficulties of growing a business. Seeing inspiring women fight and succeed is motivational and it is really imporatnat to help one another!

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 become a design Im really happy with. I always like to start working with my hards – collage, pens, paint, etc rather than with a computer.  I play around and observe how colour works, how they mix, how they overlay and create new shades on top of one another. Colour revel themselves to me and teach me more everytimg I experiment with creating a new design… I find colour fascinating – I never tire of it. I believe there is alchemy in these rug designs – 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 cant stop fiddling with the design until Im totaly hapy with it – and that takes a lot of time! That’s the way I’m wired.

And alongside the design process, is the intricate work of artisan weavers that makes the rugs special. They translate a design plan into a beautiful, 3 dimensional object that people can enjoy in their home. The weaving of our rugs is done in rural communities in India is based on centuries old weaving traditions. 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 has contributed towards teh GoodWeave ethical program supporting rurual weaving communities.

Manufacturing - The Wave Rug
Manufacturing: The Wave Rug