Many in the design business look back on childhoods filled with memories of rearranging the family furniture and stashing shelter magazines under beds—Ben Soleimani’s upbringing was more dramatic. The son of a prominent rug dealer in Iran, he was only 7 when the country began to convulse in the early stages of the revolution that would overthrow the Shah, install the Ayatollah Khomeini in power, and transform the Middle East. “I would hear machine guns at night and people in the streets screaming—even though we found out later that the machine guns were tapes they would play just to scare people,” he tells host Dennis Scully on the latest episode of The Business of Home Podcast.
In the heat of the conflict, Soleimani’s family left Iran and settled in London, where his father carried on the family rug business, Mansour. Soleimani, however, ended up in Los Angeles. There, he began college, but it didn’t last. “After a year, I decided, ‘Look, I’m not concerned about a degree, I’m more concerned about the things that I need,’” he says. “I took every business course at night and started to work during the day.” Backed by his father, he purchased a plot of land on Melrose Avenue and began overseeing the construction of a West Coast outpost for Mansour.
At the time, he was still a teenager, but the business was in his blood. “[When I about 8], my father would come home with a different rug every day, and as he would open the door, I would tell him exactly where that rug was from, just by the back, the edge, the color of the binding,” he says. Mansour gained a foothold in the Los Angeles market, and Soleimani began to make a name for himself with a surprising new audience: designers.
This was the early 1990s, and he says that at the time, the rug business was very much an afterthought for designers: “You did the house, then you found the rug that fit. It was not like, ‘Let’s go make a rug and get the exact color you want!’ People did not start the job by picking the rug first.” Soleimani was able to gain a competitive advantage simply by listening to what designers wanted and needed, which led to the development of a contemporary, custom line called Mansour Modern.
“A lot of the rug dealers in the business were older, set in their ways. If you told them ‘Let’s design a carpet!’ they’d tell you, ‘You’re crazy—that’s not how it works,’” says Soleimani. “A lot of it was listening to what these designers wanted. How do you make rugs just like fabrics—part of the design early on? Even with antique rugs, I didn’t argue with anyone or try to convince them, ‘This is OK!’ I listened to them when they said, ‘These colors are too harsh,’ or ‘This has too much contrast.’ I got it. I was always trying to get them what they wanted.”
Then came Gary Friedman. By the early 2000s, Soleimani had come to own a wider stretch of Melrose, including a lot that would become an RH Gallery. Through a real estate deal, he and Friedman became friendly, and in the next decade, Soleimani began overseeing RH’s rug program. It was a relationship that would prove profitable for both.
“It was a challenge, because whatever I did in the family business, [it was orders of] five, 10, 15, 20,” says Soleimani. “Whereas when I came to Restoration Hardware, everything was bigger, and it was a challenge within a budget to create good rugs. … [But] what I did for them, I think was extraordinary. I multiplied their business by big numbers. It was good for them; it was good for me.”
In 2018, however, he began looking for the next challenge. He had just had twins, and was looking to build a business separate from his family, separate from any partners or backers—one that went outside the category he’s known for. “I didn’t want to do just rugs, because today when you make a company and have a website and a client, that client is worth a lot. If we were just doing rugs, that’s only every few years people need rugs,” he says. “I needed to create a company that’s all design.”
In early 2019, Soleimani launched his eponymous brand, a whole-home company that now does everything from textiles to accessories to furniture to, yes, rugs. His strategy is to combine a robust e-commerce presence with a Los Angeles showroom, and offer great value to consumers while courting designers—both with a trade program (designers get a 20 percent margin) and a robust in-stock inventory. (Why? “People don’t want to wait,” he says.)
It’s a lot to take on, but it’s precisely the kind of challenge Soleimani was looking for. At the initial launch, he had only debuted textiles, but was laying out an ambitious plan to move into other categories on an accelerated timeline. “I was meeting the press and I said, ‘We’re doing a home line, and furniture is gonna come. And when is it coming? Within six months,’” he says. “People looked at me like, ‘This guy’s crazy—what’s he talking about? You don’t build a home business in six months!’ … I like things that are not easy, just sitting in front of you, you’ve got to go build [them]. … That’s what makes me thrive.”
This episode was sponsored by Serena & Lily and Baker + Hesseldenz. Below, listen to the episode. If you like what you hear, subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.
Homepage photo: Ben Soleimani | Courtesy of Ben Soleimani