In conversation with: Jennifer Manners

I’m sure you’re familiar with the gorgeous rugs in the Jennifer Manners showroom at Chelsea Harbour. Here she talks about her design collaborations, creating an eco-friendly fibre and her favourite possession.

You previously worked as a foreign news journalist. How did the transition into rug design come about? I’ve always been interested in interiors and design but chose to work as a foreign news journalist when I was younger, driven by the belief that I could somehow make a difference and wanting to travel. And indeed it brought me to London where I met a Brit and decided to stay. Once I had children, I embraced the opportunity to re-train (believing I would be able to work a more 9-to-5 day), and studied interior design at Central Saint Martins.

Once I started working on my own interiors projects, I discovered how hugely vital a rug is to a space as it takes up a big proportion to the eye. I struggled to find the perfect piece to complement my spaces and so I set out to design my own. Before long, other designers were asking me to do rugs for their projects too. And here I am – still not working anywhere near the 9-to-5 I’d dreamt of but I could not imagine doing anything else. I have found my true love (and still get to travel loads).

Can you describe the Jennifer Manners style? I think the best way to describe our ‘look’ is timeless and elegant with a gentle use of colour. When I design, I very much call on my experience as an interior designer. It’s easy to design a graphically exciting piece that sits alone on a ‘page’ or in a space. But I like to think a rug needs to sit in concert with many other items in the space and so consider the shapes, colours, scales, patterns and tones within a space before choosing a rug. I like to think we excel in proportion and scale – both of which make a rug work beautifully in a space alongside other things. And regarding size, I always say I don’t mind if you buy the rug from me or not, but PLEASE BUY THE RIGHT SIZE!

Jennifer Manners and Henry Prideaux rug Rondel
Jennifer collaborated with interior designer Henry Prideaux for the Rondel rug

You have collaborated with a number of interior designers and architects. What does their input bring to the collection? And is there anyone you would still like to work with? It’s a complete thrill to collaborate with other designers which is probably why I have done it so often!  I crave learning from their viewpoints and experiences and hopefully by the end we develop some really cool interpretations of our joint story. I love people and so enjoy sharing aesthetics, throwing out mad ideas and learning about their stories in the process. I think all of these little details really come through on a collaborative design.

I think my dream collaboration would be with Tory Burch, the American fashion designer. I have long-admired her designs for being slightly bohemian and inspired by travel, expressed through impeccably crafted quality and celebrating a variety of different arts from embroidery, embellishments, etc. I find her designs interesting without being too contrived – and I think that’s hard to do in fashion.

Perugia rug using the tactile /re/PURPOSE PERFORMANCE fibre

Tell me about your /re/PURPOSE PERFORMANCE fibre? I could not be more passionate about this product and am completely obsessive about playing with all of the different designs we can make using the fibre.

We took a fibre that is made from recycled water bottles and set out to make hand-crafted rugs with the material. We were not by any stretch the first to use recycled plastic in textiles, but when I first saw the raw fibre on a visit to India (where the bottles are recycled), I was seduced by the potential as a sustainable market for recycled plastic.

About three months before seeing the fibre in India, I had been shopping with my best friend in London and we’d seen a similar material made into a throw, which my friend promptly bought.  I called my friend from India to ask how she found the throw but was so surprised to learn that she had returned it because she felt like she “was watching TV at night with a plastic bag around her”.

So I knew immediately we had to make the fibre look and feel like a luxury wool or it wouldn’t work for our clients. We spent the next three years developing a two-step proprietary process that takes away the shine that makes it appear like plastic and softens the fibre to make it feel like wool.

The result is mind-blowing. The market for recycled plastic is hard because virgin plastic is so cheap and takes colour dyes much easier and so people often use virgin plastic vs. recycled plastic which we all know is disastrous for our planet. I think once people learn about plastics (which is complex and a vast topic) they would never buy rugs made of virgin plastics again (think acrylic, nylon, polyester, etc) But there is so much unknown and misunderstood. So we are trying in our small way to make a ripple that will hopefully grow.

The hugely exciting bonus is the high-performance aspect of the rugs which we hadn’t anticipated. The rugs look and feel like natural wools but are inherently stain-resistant and hard-wearing, even being bleach-cleanable and able to be used both indoors and out.

We started with hand-knotted rugs and our weavers thought we were utterly mad. But now we use the fibres in all of our handmade constructions, celebrating the high-performance attributes alongside the hugely sustainable ones. And for context, an average 2m x 3m rug uses over 6000 recycled water bottles. While we are completely in favour of ultimately limiting single-use plastic globally, it’s a thrill to know we can make gorgeous pieces that will stand the test of time both through design and function.

I think we are only at the very beginning of something profound. Currently we are exploring ways of treating the fibre to make it look like natural silks. Watch this space!

(read about more textile companies working with sustainable materials here)

Adire rug by Jennifer Manners
The Adire rug, a favourite of Jennifer Manners

Is there one rug in your collection that is a particular favourite? Of course I have several and the space for which the rug is intended hugely affects what I would use – but the Adire rug from the Modern Africa collection is still at the very top of my list. The rug was inspired by starch-resist (adire eleko) dyed cotton cloths made by women throughout the Yorubaland in south-west Nigeria. We took these patterns, traditionally made in a deep indigo, and opted for a palette of soft grey-blues and cream for a more tonal effect. I designed and ordered the rug, forgetting that I had requested the weavers to use an all loop-pile (meaning none of it is cut-pile). When it arrived, I was at first a bit alarmed as I’d never seen anything like it. But within a day I fell madly in love with the textural quality of the all-loop pile which gives the rug a more casual, gentle feel.  I have since designed several rugs in all loop-pile for the same effect.

I spent nearly two years living and traveling all over Africa with journalism and still find so much inspiration in the traditional arts, patterns and colours there. So many pieces they make and pass down to their families tell their stories and I find it so romantic. I am at once captivated by a sense of adventure and beauty that abounds in so many of Africa’s special countries.

Jennifer outside her showroom at Design Centre, Chelsea Harbour

What’s your favourite possession? I suppose we all treasure possessions more when we know there is no way to replace them. With that, my most coveted piece I own is an oil painting that my mother did a couple of years before she died. She was always so critical of her own work, as was her nature, but seeing the painting now immediately makes me recall her gentle, kind disposition and her ability to laugh so easily.  The subject is a still-life of two pears (so arguably not the most evocative of subjects) but they are rendered with gentle, mesmerising strokes capturing the light in a way that makes me feel I am sitting with her on a late autumn afternoon. And that is the most treasured possession…memories.

See more of Jennifer Manner’s work here

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