The only thing that can top Paige Albright’s command of Birmingham style is her encyclopedic knowledge of oriental rugs. For the past 20 years, Paige has thoughtfully curated her vast collection of global rugs with her Birmingham clientele in mind. Walking into her Mountain Brook shop, Paige Albright Orientals, is like walking into a museum, where gorgeous pieces of art—snapshots of different cultures around the world—are beautifully displayed. Paige’s impressive and in-depth knowledge is also on display as she walks inquisitive customers through her shop. She takes on the role of docent as effortlessly as she does that of local business owner, curator, designer, appraiser, student, speaker or mother.
Your career path includes an education in art history and English with an interior design concentration and eight years in the residential design industry. Tell us about your professional journey and what made you decide to specialize in oriental rugs.
I started working with my mentor, Alice Schleusner, at the King’s House in 1999, and that is when I really shifted from interior design to oriental rugs. I found that I really enjoyed it, and it was totally different than anything I had been doing. But I definitely think having that design background has been huge with my business, because I can speak the language with my designers.
So, in addition to having the store, you work directly with designers?
Yes, we specialize in hand-selecting things specifically for clients who visit the shop, as well as designers. Designers will come in and give me their measurements, fabrics, dimensions, colors, budget and how the elements are going to be used. Then it’s like solving a puzzle to find the perfect piece. We feel a personal connection to the rugs that we’ve collected over the years, so we also restore and repair pieces for our clients. I have vendors in New York and overseas who specialize in repair and restoration. They are licensed through the U.S. government, as we are currently in an embargo. They use traditional weaving techniques from hand-dying the wools to making sure the knots are woven correctly. It is truly an artisan process.
Where do you get your oriental rugs?
We travel to New York and Atlanta rug markets, but we work with vendors all over the country. We literally dig through thousands and thousands of rugs looking for the best selection. We work really hard to have an extensive and diverse inventory. We focus on antique pieces that are unique and different—whether it’s Moroccan, Persian or Turkish, they are artwork from the different regions. But we are mostly focused on the client’s response to it. We want the client to love and enjoy it, because it is a commitment; it’s an investment and it’s art. And, if we don’t have it, we’ll go find it. We have curated this collection over time and have built our relationships with our vendors, so that they will not only send us whatever our clients need, but sometimes, they’ll call me and say, “This is a Birmingham rug.”
Describe a rug or style that is quintessentially “Birmingham.”
Soft colors, warm, not overly dressy, yet understated—casual elegance. It’s charming. It’s elegant. It’s welcoming. I think Birmingham has great style. And our vendors, they are all just intrigued. They all want to visit.
Why do you think they are intrigued?
Well, this business is a male-dominated business. It’s dominated by people from different cultures, and it’s full of generations of family businesses. So to have this Southern woman in this business is very unique. When we go to New York City, my vendors often invite me to lunch. They love to order in Persian food and sit around the table catching up because it’s also like an extended family. We’ve known each other for almost 20 years.
What was the most exciting rug you’ve ever discovered?
Oh, wow. We were in New York visiting one of our vendors, a very well-respected collector in the industry, and he has an incredible inventory stacked to the ceiling—books and tapestries and paintings and artwork. He is just a really interesting bird and very accomplished. When we told him we were going to the new Persian exhibit at the Met and asked if he wanted to join us, he said, “Oh wait, wait, wait! Don’t go anywhere.” He then locked the door to his small showroom, which we thought was a little unusual and went back to his huge safe. He pulled out what looked like a roll of fabric but after he unrolled it, it turned out to be a silk tapestry that he had found in a client’s attic and it dated back to the 16th century. It had been hanging in the Taj Mahal at one point in time. We were all sitting on the floor, examining it, looking at the beautiful weave and construction and discussing provenance. He then told us, “When you go to the exhibit tomorrow, you are going to see some pieces like this, but mine is older than anything they have at the Met.” It was really, really cool.
What are some design tips or interesting ways to use rugs in your home?
Don’t be afraid of color and pattern! I love to mix different pieces together. Be open to using your rugs in new ways. You can upholster chairs, ottomans or pillows. I have some at my house that I’ve just thrown over a table. You can hang them on the wall, like a tapestry. I’ve got a framed antique kelim fragment that’s very special. It belonged to my husband’s grandmother and is hanging in our den. I also like to use my rugs when I entertain. At one of my parties, I put a large 9×12 Heriz in the front driveway, like a big welcome mat. I have even put the same rug, different party, in the middle of the backyard and set tables on top. Don’t be afraid to use and enjoy your pieces! Use them upside down if it suits you.
What is the most common misconception of oriental rugs?
People think that oriental rugs are always a heavy color palette or that they are outrageously expensive. I mean, they can be anything. It doesn’t have to be the finest of the fine. It can be worn and charming. It just has to speak to you.
What inspires you?
I love to read and travel and see different cultures. Every time I go to New York or rug market, I see something new. I love to discuss and debate interesting pieces with my vendors. They have such extensive knowledge. We also attend seminars. As a matter of fact, I’m going to an international conference in D.C. next month on Oriental Carpets and Textiles. It is being held at the newly re-opened Textile Museum with over 20 lectures by international conservationists and authors. I’ve got some required reading and homework to do to prepare for that!
Do you have apprentices, so to speak, or employees that you take with you?
Yes, Mary Clayton is a textiles major, and so she’s really interested in the construction, the knot, the technicality and the weaving.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?
Well, the best piece of advice that I try to give my young clients is to buy the best that you can afford. Buy the best quality. Even if you have to stretch a little bit, you will always love and enjoy it. Don’t be afraid to start your collection! Buy one good piece a year and buy what you love. Don’t ever settle!
Aside from faith, family and friends, name three things you can’t live without.
A starched white shirt, Diet Coke and pearls. I have several strands from cultured to baroque. I love them with a crisp white shirt.
Visit Paige at Paige Albright Orientals and witness her vast collection of rugs for yourself!
Thank you to Meg McKinney Photos for the terrific images of Paige in her Mountain Brook shop.