When we moved our office to Chelsea a few months ago we stopped into our new neighbors, Aronson’s Floor Covering, to introduce ourselves. We had been using their products in our projects over the years, but had never met the owner, Carol Swedlow. We immediately connected and the more I learned about the company, the more I admired how she grew her parent’s business into a go-to resource of high quality, eco conscious rugs and flooring.
It all started in the 1960’s. Carol’s father, an engineer by trade, became disenchanted with designing water heaters and went to work for his best friend’s family business in floor covering, which at the time, was primarily vinyl tile and vinyl sheet flooring. Within a couple of years he was running the company. After he married, his wife- who came from a family of successful retailers- encouraged him to purchase the business. They ran the business together for 40 years, during which time, Aronson’s shifted from being a commercial flooring contractor to more of a retail store in response to the changing times.
In the late 1990’s, it was time for her parents to either sell the business or for Carol to come in and start running it. At the time, she was working as an architect but knew it was not going to be her life work. Reluctantly, she started working at the company doing a little bit of everything to learn how the business worked. It was a bumpy road and she wasn’t enjoying anything about it. Although it was a well run and successful company, it wasn’t evolved enough to strike her interest, instead, it frustrated her. She wanted to evolve it, but her parents were resistant because they were already successful.
She didn’t want to sell anything synthetic (which were the entire product offerings of the company) for environmental reasons. Ahead of the curve, she had to fight for this. What she was turning up her nose to is what made him successful which is where the struggle lied. She didn’t want to run their business their way even though she respected what they had accomplished. At the time, her father had fallen ill and could no longer run the business so they acquiesced.
Within a few years, her parents stepped back and let Carol take over. Her focus was now deciding how she was going to approach the business and what her ideas and beliefs were about floor covering- with the mindset of an architect and new business owner. What did she stand for. “I was trying to understand the business in a context that was engaging to me. We had all of these different flooring materials- how could we think about them differently, what is important about them other than what they look like, what they cost and what’s the lead time?”
Her research began. A big part of the carpet business came from England which is where machine woven carpet was invented. While there on business, her mind was opened to how the U.S. was not environmentally conscious as other parts of the world were.
The questions now became… how do we behave responsibly because that is our duty to our clients? What does sustainable mean and how do we define it? What happens to it when it is thrown away- is it bio-degradable?
“At the time, most carpet was made of nylon which can be recycled except that is was very difficult and costly to do so many people didn’t do it. We wanted to sell products that are ideally on the floor longer and when they are thrown way, can easily be recycled rather than being in landfill for 140 years.” This became the foundation of her beliefs that set her forward with the business. Even today she is considered a pioneer of this as the large carpet manufacturers are making more nylon carpet and recycling less of it, and are also in the vinyl tile business because that is how they grow their sales.
With a strong economy in NY in the early 2000s, more families moved into the city, real estate prices jumped and more people were hiring interior designers. Their clients were no longer end users, rather designers, architects and contractors. These groups wanted a different product- from machine woven tufted wool carpet to eventually hand woven wool and linen then sisal and silk carpets- all sustainable, natural fibers. On the hard surface side, they started to sell cork, bamboo and linoleum vs. the synthetic materials.
I asked how she grew the company with these beliefs over the years. “We started telling our story of sustainability through educating our clients – hosting CE classes, teaching design programs at local universities and of course, having knowledgeable people work in our company. Education is extremely important.”
Their latest endeavor is called Empire Collection – custom handmade carpets that combine the highest quality, natural materials with traditional rugmaking techniques, and made to order in 6-8 weeks. They see this collection as the new basics. An exciting time for Carol, and the company, as it is the first collection of this 152 year old company.
Carol said it was an evolution. They were working with a vendor in Portugal for years that hand weaves, hand tufts and hand knots in a portugeuse manner. They were selling it as a custom line. It was such a good seller because of its combination of quality, value and lead time so it only made sense to formalize a collection. They collaborated with textile designer, Kristie Strasen, to develop the designs and colorways, and launched it last year. The rugs are fully customizable in shape, color and design… and my favorite, have a great range of tonalities, textures and weave effects. And if you are curious about the name, it is after the great state of New York- the Empire State- with all of the collections named after various neighborhoods.
Carol is extremely humble about how she has grown her company over the last 22 years (hence no photo of her in my story), staying ahead of the curve while always staying true to her core beliefs. As a business woman, I have great admiration for what she has achieved.
Empire Collection rugs