Barjis Chohan has a self-confessed "passion for fashion". She obtained an MA in design from London's Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in 1998 and went on to do an internship with Vivienne Westwood. Along the way, however, she realised that her priorities lay elsewhere.
"I realised that with fashion you have to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. At that point in time I wanted to settle down and start a family and I just thought that it wouldn't be feasible to go into the fashion industry."
Instead, she launched Barjis, an award-winning rug company and interior design firm, Barjis Creativz, an agency that promotes British design talent in international markets, and, most recently, her own line of designer abayas. All while bringing up her three daughters, now aged 12, eight and five.
"I was pregnant and I started painting. At some point I thought, 'That would look nice on the floor.' That's how the rug business started out. It came from very humble beginnings. Initially it was just word of mouth. Then we set up a website and started doing a couple of shows and gradually it grew," says the British Asian entrepreneur.
In fact, it grew so impressively that Barjis was named Entrepreneur of the Year in London and Most Internationally Aware Entrepreneur of the Year by Shell Livewire in 2001, Designer in International Trade by the Financial Mail on Sunday in 2002, and first runner-up for Female Owned Business of the Year by UK Trade and Investment in 2004.
The rugs are highly contemporary, custom-made and "bridge the gap between art and design", she says. It's a formula that seems to strike a chord in the UAE - on her first official visit to Dubai, Barjis earned a commission for Jumeirah Emirates Towers hotel and has since worked on a number of residential projects across the country.
"Being here, I realised that people liked my work but were also looking for new and interesting ideas from the UK market. That's how I came up with the idea of introducing fresh new talent in the UAE."
From this idea came a whole new offshoot of the Barjis brand. Barjis Creativz is dedicated to nurturing young British talent and helping up-and-coming designers find their footing in foreign markets. "I see myself not just as a designer but as an entrepreneur. I don't believe that you have to do one thing for the rest of your life. I'm driven more by challenge then money, I would say. I love doing rugs but representing other designers feels like I'm giving something back to society."
The problem with young designers, says Barjis, is they have great ideas but often lack the business acumen to back them up. Design colleges often fail to teach their graduates the tools they need to turn concepts into commercial successes. "That's where Barjis Creativz comes in. Because we've got extensive knowledge of various markets, we can mentor and groom young designers so they are successful as business people. This was a real gap in the UK market."
The recent Interiors UAE exhibition presented an ideal platform for Barjis to introduce a host of budding British designers to the Emirati market. The British Design Pavilion by Barjis Creativz offered an interesting, intelligent mix of high-end contemporary design.
Participants included Qian Wang, another Central Saint Martins graduate who has developed an eco-friendly textile that can be used as a two- or three-dimensional wallcovering, and Jo Davies, who showcased a range of handcrafted ceramic items including bowls, cups, lighting and decorative pieces. The Twist pendants made a particular impression.
The Zita Menyhart Studio presented the charming and ever-so-practical Una, a three-piece fibreglass set that consists of a low coffee table, two seats and an inbuilt ice bucket. When not in use, the chairs slide in under the table to create a highly compact, sculptural, space-saving unit. Aline Johnson Glass Design showed its bespoke, handmade statement chandeliers and lighting items, while Solomon & Wu introduced its contemporary architectural mouldings.
"I've taken traditional moulding formats, cornices, skirting, architraves and ceiling roses, and applied contemporary design to them," says Jake Solomon, the director of Solomon & Wu. "We are trying to make mouldings relevant again, so we looked for shapes that are in use in architecture right now."
Susannah Hunter presented her leather appliqué furnishings, an extension of her handbag range, which has taken the UAE by storm since making its debut in Dubai's O'de Rose boutique in March.
Alex MacMaster showcased his award-winning, wood-based lighting and furniture products, and Artwood offered plenty of reasons to reconsider how we treat our floors.
"We are a family-run company that creates some of the best hand-finished timber floors on the market. Timber flooring, especially in UK markets, is very dated; there is very little in terms of progressive design. What we are trying to offer is a piece of art on the floor, rather than just a floor covering," says Louay Azoo, the director of Artwood.
Although Barjis was present at the show more as a facilitator than an exhibitor, she did present a few samples of her latest collection, which was created as part of a competition held during Interiors 2011 in Birmingham.
Moving forward, Barjis hopes to showcase young British talent at an average of three shows per year. She will also continue to be heavily involved in the design of the Barjis rugs but is increasingly looking to partner with up-and-coming freelance designers - another prong of her "nurturing new talent" strategy.
For now, there are the abayas to tend to. The new Barjis fashion line has been shortlisted for London Fashion Week, where, if selected, it will celebrate its official launch. "I feel there is huge demand, especially in the UK, where there are modern Muslims living in the West who don't really want to dress like their mothers. They want to stand out, but at the same time they want to respect their faith. It's that passion for fashion coming through, but I was trying to find a niche market where I felt comfortable with what I'm doing."
That's Barjis in a nutshell. Forward-thinking, creative and entrepreneurial, but faithful to her values all the same.
Where to find it
Solomon & Wu
Aline Johnson Glass Design
Zita Menyhart Studio