“We’ve won Best of Santa Barbara for 25 years,” says Santa Barbara Design Center owner Michael Kourosh. “I take pride in my kids and on that achievement.”
Located on Olive Street, the Design Center showcases more than 25,000 square feet of high-quality furniture, rugs, fabrics, and home accessories. “We’re a destination,” says Michael. “We’re the largest home furnishing store in Santa Barbara County.”
To say Kourosh is a character is an understatement. He’s one of the most disarmingly funny people I have met. As he joins me for lunch, I ask him if he’s okay sitting across from me. “I’m a camel jockey,” he retorts in a charming Middle Eastern accent. “I can sit anywhere.”
His rapid-fire, quick-witted phrases and non-sequiturs have me laughing out loud as I interview him. “I do not have filters,” he says. “It’s a blessing to my soul. I don’t say bad stuff, but I’m honest. I also make amazing coffee.”
Michael was born in Iran. His father was an industrialist who built buses, but he lost his company when the Islamic revolution began. In 1986, during the Iran-Iraq war, Michael’s mother sold all of her jewelry and sent him to Germany. “My mom didn’t want me to die in that stupid war,” he says.
He went to live with his uncle, who was a rug merchant near Hamburg. “I’d go to school in the morning and in the afternoon, I’d help in my uncle’s store,” explains Michael, who studied physics at Hamburg University because his family had been into mathematics. He came to Santa Barbara in 1990 to visit cousins, and fell in love with the place. He returned to Germany to pack his bags, returning six months later to stay permanently, learning better English at SBCC.
He noticed there were no rug stores on State Street, so opened Rugs and More, which thrived for 23 years. Rugs run deep in his family. His grandfathers were collectors, and he grew up watching them give fine rugs as wedding presents. When he asked why, his grandfathers would respond, “They will spend the money. They will forget the trip. But they will have the rugs forever.”
Michael believes rug-weaving is the oldest art form. “It has a resonance,” he says. “It has a real vibration with people. I know all of the symbols. They’re the hardest art form to create. In the next 20 years, they won’t be making them anymore.”
In 2011, he moved to his business to Olive and Guiterrez streets — a commercial area now being called the Haley Corridor — and renamed it the Santa Barbara Design Center. “It was a neglected neighborhood,” he recalls. “We were the first high-end store in it. Since then, it has been flourishing.”
Michael also hosts the “Design Santa Barbara” television show, which airs every Saturday on KEYT at 10 p.m. It’s on its 13th season. “We get a lot of viewership because of that,” declares Michael, who loves being able to promote hometown designers and merchants.
In a rare moment of seriousness, I ask him if he’s experienced any bigotry in his years in Santa Barbara. “If I encounter prejudice, or somebody is out of line, I confront them,” he explains. “I’ve kicked a few people out of my store for being racists or bigots. We’re all the same. We’ve only grown differently and look slightly different.”
It’s not long before we go back to joking. Michael is a charmer, and quite the entertainer. He even gets the restaurant staff laughing. “I love making people laugh,” he confesses. “I grew up during the war. Life’s too short not to laugh.”
As our hostess takes his clean plate away, he tells her, “I’ve never had food I didn’t like — I could be a good spokesperson for a trash compactor.”
Michael Kourosh answers the Proust Questionnaire.
On what occasion do you lie?
I do not lie. Over the years I have learned you do not have to tell the whole truth if you are not asked, but lying comes from being weak.
What is your most marked characteristic?
I am happy at any given moment. I like to see people laugh and be nice.
What do you like most about your job?
I don’t like my job, I love my job! It allows me to connect with tons of interesting people from around the world and get to know them. Plus my crew is amazing and fun to work with.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Well, I don’t think anything perfect exists. But one can get close to it. My perfect happiness is being surrounded by my kids, family, and friends, spending quality time with them.
What is your greatest fear?
Being lonely. I do not mind failure, going broke, or losing material things, but, for instance, not being able to see my kids would be really hard.
Who do you most admire?
I admire people who help humanity in one way or another, like Mother Teresa, who changed the world with compassion, Albert Einstein, with his knowledge, or the Dalai Lama, with his wisdom.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Taking time off for myself. I do a lot for others, but have had a hard time dedicating time to myself in the past. Now, I am at an age where I can take some time for myself.
What is your current state of mind?
Hakuna Matata! Take it easy and enjoy the moments.
What is the quality you most like in people?
Empathy. My grandfather taught me to treat people the way you want to be treated. That goes a long way in my behavior toward others.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
Ignorance and narcissism. Unfortunately, they are rampant lately.
What do you most value in friends?
Trust and loyalty. These are the two qualities that differentiate an acquaintance from a true friend.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
I am still alive and thankful!
Which talent would you most like to have?
I love old cars, and, if I had to change my life, I wish I could be a professional race car driver.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I am passionate about a lot of things and I wish I could be more relaxed or care less about things I cannot change.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
My kids! I am very proud of them and I am happy to watch them become wonderful human beings.
Where would you most like to live?
Santa Barbara! It is the paradise, with angels living in it. I travel extensively, but have not found a better place yet. I will let you know if I do.
What is your most treasured possession?
I have to say my kids. But if you mean a material item, it is a small silver tea container, which my mother’s nanny gifted me years ago. It was her most prized possession and I cherish it. It reminds me of her big heart every day and how rich she was without having money.
Who makes you laugh the most?
My father, uncles, and cousins! They are a riot on feet. We have a non-stop laughter session every time we get together.
What is your motto?
Live happily and spread joy to the less fortunate.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
That is a tall order and I am not that tall. As a kid, I idolized Cyrus the Great for his achievements. Nowadays, I do not identify with a historical figure.