Many of us know Amanda Birnie, founder and visionary of Curio Rugs, as the talented and highly sought-after photographer with a sharp eye and brilliant portfolio. So when she opened up Curio Rugs, fans of her photography wondered why the switch of gears. But it's a lot less surprising once you connect the dots. With the same passion and excitement you witness from behind the photographer's lens, Amanda's discernment is even stronger in her search for the highest quality and most beautiful vintage rugs.
So what compelled the career change, and why now? I talked with Amanda about launching a new business in the middle of the pandemic when she already had a sustainable career, and why she chose vintage rugs as her next creative outlet.
Read my Q&A with Curio Rugs founder, Amanda Birnie, below:
What sparked the idea of creating Curio?
As an interior photographer, I have always LOVED rugs. I would often buy a rug, have it my home for a few weeks, and resell it afterwards. I found buying cheap rugs was a waste of money, and always yearned to have a house full of vintage rugs that would never be wasted or thrown away. When 2020 hit, I had just had my second baby, Julian, and since I can't just sit there and not work, I figured I could do this while I had both him and my daughter at home, as we know daycare was also canceled. My entire photography career was basically on hold, so this became the right time to fulfill my dream of starting an online rug shop. I didn’t start this with intentions of growing it as big as I have, however, the more I sourced rugs and the more I got to know all of my suppliers in Turkey and Pakistan, the more I realized that I could make this into a real business, and begin to phase photography out of my day-to-day. Work life balance as a photographer is basically non-existent, so I am incredibly happy to make this change into the full-time rug business. I will continue to shoot a few weddings per year for now, and let my heart guide me through my decision to continue past 2024.
When did you know this was a viable business?
I think about month five or six. I had already sold about 300 rugs by then, and I realized that this is truly a passion for me and that it could be my way out of full-time photography in the next couple of years.
What was the first rug you sourced?
My first source was a batch of rugs, and these two are the most memorable ones from that first batch. I remember when I paid the supplier for the first time (that I spent countless hours to find) I felt like I was going to throw up. Such a risk that was. But it paid off. I am still with that supplier today, as well as a few more I have been working with for 1.5-2 years. I have built beautiful friendships with them.
Mackinac Island - This beauty is one of my all-time favorite rugs, named after my favorite place!
Istanbul - The yellow and sage in this rug was so unique. This rug is asked about often, and we've never seen another one like it since!
Where does your passion for vintage rugs come from?
My passion for rugs came from photographing interiors and learning a bit of history about vintage rugs while shopping for rugs for my own home. They are incredible works of art, filled with rich history. Each and every piece is completely different. Some rugs even tell a story. I am still learning about the meanings of specific designs and motifs – there is so much to learn. Also, people don’t throw away handmade/vintage rugs. They either keep them forever, pass them down, or sell them. You don’t find rugs like this in the trash like you do with modern day plastic/polyester rugs that get disgusting after a year. They are special in that way, and I believe anything vintage or reclaimed helps our Mother Earth.
What do you know now that you wish you would have known when launching the business?
Money. It is so different for me since I have been a service-based business my whole life. You have to put a lot of money into this type of business to get any return. It’s such a risk.
Which is your favorite rug of all time?
OH MAN. This will be hard. I've had so many favorites. Can I do my top three? I can’t just choose one, but there are three that are so memorable and I always wish I would have kept them.
Designer's 103 Runner - This runner was the a true conversation starter. I wanted to keep this so badly for our kitchen, but it was too short. I still think about this one all the time and her amazing and delicate bird motifs. Such a special and unique piece. I think this is probably one of the fastest selling runners ever as well.
Designer's 6-403 - Denim tones are my favorite tones in vintage rugs because they feel ombre and vary throughout the rug. The denim field of this rug mixed with the pink, olive, and sage floral motifs is something I had never seen before. My biggest goal with our rugs is that they will inspire something inside of you; to take some risks with the design of the room and spark joy every time you look at them. The possibilities and patterns you can mix with this rug are endless.
Lahaina - This rug. I still dream about her. I typically do not love pink tones, but this rug was the most perfect watermelon/pink color ever. She had so many amazing colors like sage, olive, army green, tangerine, sky blue and the list goes on. Also some really adorable animal motifs that are thought to have a good omen in rugs. Another one I almost kept, but she went to a good owner in Minneapolis.
What rug sold the fastest?
I think this rug sold in like 3-5 minutes after posting it on story pre-sales. (Note: we do pre-sales most Mondays - Thursdays on Instagram stories. Be sure to turn on your "bell" to get notifications. We usually sell about half the rugs on our presale, so they don't even make it onto the website.)
What are common misconceptions you’d like to clear up about vintage rugs?
- They are expensive. Yes, they are expensive, but honestly not much more than a rug you would buy at a high-end, big box store like West Elm. Investing in a rug is like investing in a nice durable couch, a fancy TV, or an expensive pair of shoes you want to last. I’ll tell you right now, this rug will last you 20x your TV and 20x your couch. They are worth the investment, are timeless, and retain their value if they ever do need to be re-sold again someday.
- They are difficult to clean - This couldn’t be more false. Most vintage rugs are made from either 100% wool, or from 100% wool and cotton. Natural fibers wick away stains and dirt. Vacuuming weekly will usually get most dirt out, especially if it’s a good vacuum and if it’s a low pile rug (like most in my store). Wool also naturally wicks away liquid, making it easier to sop up a spill. Also, vintage rugs are made from hand-dyed wool, meaning the colors never completely match. If you were to get a stain, chances are it would be camouflage in the ever-changing colors of a vintage rug. As for cleaning the smaller rugs, you can literally just put them in a bath with mild soap, and then let drip dry in the sun. 100x easier than cleaning a rug with a plastic back.
- My kids will ruin it - Not true! Rugs were made for hundreds of years this way and are made specifically to be durable and to be walked on for decades – if not centuries. Your kids WILL ruin a polyester rug though, and you’ll never get those stains out.
- My pets will ruin it. Ok ok. Pets can ruin everything, let’s be real. Some cats and dogs have more ammonia in their urine than others, and this can definitely react differently depending on the wool and the dye used many decades ago. Cats can also ruin everything, but sprinkling baking soda on any cat stain and letting it sit for a few days before vacuuming out will get the smell out of a natural fiber product like our rugs. Vinegar can work wonders on any rug discoloration made by a pet.
Any advice you'd like to give shoppers?
I have three pieces of advice:
- If possible, start with the rug when planning your refurnish. Find a rug you love, and then build around that. Keep in mind that with vintage, you have to find a patter/colors you love AND it has to be the correct size. It's easier to start with the rug than end with the rug. A lot of designers say "start from the ground up" when they design, and that includes with flooring choices, too.
- Don't get too caught up on finding the exact rug you found in a photo. I often will have people email or message me and ask if I can find "this specific rug" for them and send me a photo of a space they found on Pinterest or Instagram. The answer in no, I cannot -- those rugs are one of a kind. I can find you something with a similar vibe, but not the exact one. There have been times where I have found almost a replica of rugs customers are looking for, and they still don't think it's close enough. You have to have an open mind, and yes it's helpful to have some design or color wants/needs, but you have to let the rugs speak to you and you cannot get caught up with finding a replica of what a designer or influencer has in their living room.
- Don't get too caught up in the shade of colors. I often get messages about the colors. If you love the rug in the photos, chances are you will love it in person. Our return rate is incredibly low. This makes me proud that we are representing our products in photos in a true way for our online shoppers.
Be sure to follow on along Instagram as Curio continues to grow. And if you have any questions about vintage rugs, don't hesitate to reach out! Amanda loves helping people find the perfect rug for their space.