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Mania for Armenia

Rug designer James Tufenkian wants everyone else to love his native land as much as he does:

By Janet Forman


Growing up in L.S. in the 1950s the strongest connection rug designer James Tufenkian had to Armenia was in the kitchen. He’d smell the cardamom, cloves, and cumin in his mother’s traditional dishes, and listened to stories of his grandparents’’ fight from Armenia in the 1890s after series of massacres.  In 1981, Tufenkian took his first trip to Armenia and everything changed. “I could no longer enjoy my comfortable life while Armenians were starving, freezing and at war, “he says”. “I could do something to help, and I had no excuses not to.”
He got involved by doing what he does best. Tufenkian is founder and CEo of Tufenkian carpets, and in 1993, he opened a factory in Armenia.(Until then, all of the hand woven rugs were made in Nepal.) “We retaught weavers everything their grandparents used to know about carpet –making, but forgot during Soviet times , “he says.  By 1999, the Armenian arm of Tufenkian carpets was doing so well that Tufenkian used profits to start a foundation that now supports more than 50 projects, such as recording sacred Armenian music and teaching kids computer skills.
Among the foundation’s successes was knitting ladies, a group of 200 women who make comforters and pillow shames. Their handiwork shows up in the latest Tufenkian endeavor: new boutique hotels. “Everyone knew Armenia needed a tourist infrastructure”, he recalls.” Someone in the aid community proposed moving mobile homes to the great tourist sites of the country. It was as if he saw Armenia as a crummy little country that should be content to survive in a crummy fashion.”

Tufenkian hired Irish designer Clodagh to help do the interiors of the 14-room Avan Villa in 2001. Constructed out of pink tufa stone and overlooking the capital, Yerevan, the hotel is decorated with hand-woven 19th-century rugs called kilims and think Tufenkian carpets. Each morning, Armenian coffee and walnuts are served on a hillside terrace. A year later, he introduced the Avan Marak Tsapatagh on lake Sevan , two hours northeast of Yerevan. The hotel uses materials  that look like they came right from the earth: cave-like flagstone showers, rock tabletops, sinewy wrought-iron posts. The third hotel, Avan Dzoraget, is in a new building that resembles a castle; it’s on the Debed River, near the ancient monasteries of Haghpat and Sanahin. The modern world feels centuries away. Shepherds drive their flocks down the main street and draw water from a well in the hotel driveway. Tufenkian currently plans to open four more boutique hotels, including Avan Areni, in the Armenia’s wine country, in the south.
Tufenkian also launched a tour program. On the 152-day Armenia Reborn tour, visitors plant trees, watch children’s art classes, meet the Knitting ladies, and sample Armenia’s renowned Ararat brandy. Custom single- and multiday trips are also vailable. “”we are exposing travelers to projects and people involved in building a nation out of rubble”, says Tufenkian. “we hope that everyone will be uplifted and in the process.”