Carpet Magic

The demand for Tibetan rugs—handmade in Nepal—has brought the contemporary carpet back to life.

Anyone with half a brain can design wallpaper for the floor," declares rug impresario John Kurtz. "The idea is to take wool and color and come up with something with a heartbeat to it, something that people will look at today or in a hundred years and say, 'that's beautiful.' " Kurtz sees a growing appreciation for what he calls "the power of rugs, their ability to pull together everything in a room, to make everything sing. They shouldn't be an afterthought—that's like buying a painting to go with your sofa." Rug designer James Tufenkian agrees. "A rug can anchor a room; it can define space, as a focal point or a subtle backdrop. Unlike most furniture, a good rug is one of the only things you can use for decades and it will still have value."

Kurtz and Tufenkian are among several high-end producers currently fueling a contemporary-rug revival with their handmade Tibetan rugs. Combining traditional techniques and artful, original designs, these sumptuous rugs are cropping up in stylish interiors across America. Think of them as art for your floor, tactile tableaux with contents as diverse as their colors—lyrical abstract forms, swirling natural motifs, timeless tribal emblems, Rothkoesque color fields. Like paintings or poems, they elicit a subjective response. And with the selection of fine Tibetan rugs greater now than ever, there's something for every taste, from muted minimalism to vibrant pattern and color.

Contemporary rugs are flourishing after a long fallow period. During much of the postwar era, American homes were inundated by wall-to-wal carpeting (remember when shag was as common as crab grass?). But now that such surfaces as wood, tile, and concrete have come back into vogue, so too have area floor coverings. Monotone sisal and its reedy relatives, however, have already been overdone; and fine antique rugs, both Oriental and European, are dauntingly expensive and too old-fashioned for some tastes. Many people just don't want their home to declare, "I'm happy with a rug that could have been in my great-aunt's parlor."

"Our younger clients, like the Silicon Valley crowd, are not as interested in traditional designs as previous generations were," says Frank Carr, of San Francisco's Sloan Miyasato showroom. "They want contemporary rugs, and they're mixing them with all kinds of furniture, including fine antiques, which can be cheapened by new antique-pattern rugs." (In the trade, a rug measuring eight by ten feet or larger is traditionally called a carpet, but in common American parlance carpets of all sizes are called rugs.)

The rising interest in contemporary rug design reflects the resurgence of modernism; the last time such rugs made a big splash was during the great modernist ferment of the twenties and thirties. Influenced by Cubism and the modernist urge to reconceive every element of daily life, both International Style devotee and fashionable Art Deco types saw modern rugs as vital complements to the new, clean-lined furniture and lighting. Superb examples were created by Picasso, Léger, Eileen Gray, Jacques-Emile Ruhlmann, Bruno da Silva Bruhns, Marion Dorn, and other artists and designers. From Parisian salons to the Bauhaus, rugs were expressions of modernist élan.

Many of the best new designs are so-called Tibetan rugs that are actually made in neighboring Nepal. The weaving industry there stems from the influx of Tibetan refugees that began with China's takeover of Tibet in 1950 and peaked in th late sixties, when the Cultural Revolution wreaked havoc in that land. The refugees introduced to Nepal the Tibetan method of weaving, in which yarn is looped around a horizontal rod and cut, row by row, resulting in a dense pile. (Oddly enough, the only other place associated with this technique was the Savonnerie factory, a royal favorite in prerevolutionary France.)

Today Tibetan and Nepalese weavers work side by side in numerous workshops in and around Katmandu. The process they use is ancient, but it has a high-tech twist: The designs are usually drawn and painted by hand in the West, then scanned into a computer, yielding graphic files that are sent via the Internet to Nepal. The computer allows for quick and easy modifications of color and size, and at least one firm uses a computer-driven color plotter to generate the full-scale graphs that the weavers work from. As up-to-date as e-mail, the current crop of Tibetan carpets has more in common with contemporary abstract paintings than with the symmetrical, border-framed patterns of traditional Oriental rugs.

Bitten by the rug bug a quarter-century ago, John Kurtz soon became a dealer and expert in Oriental rugs, and even hosted a PBS series on the subject. In 1993 he was invited by the United States Agency for International Development to help Nepal's rug-weaving industry adapt to the American market; after seeing th skill of the weavers and the quality of Tibetan wool, he was inspired to start making his own rugs in Nepal. His company, New Moon (founded in 1993), features an array of eye-pleasing designs that dra on traditional and natural motifs, from geometric patterns to exuberant swirls an floral forms. "I paint the original designs, then adjust the colors after we do test weavings," explains Kurtz, who was a Combat Artist in Vietnam. "Rugs are a more sculptural medium than painting—wool absorbs and reflects light differently than paint. Colors in a rug give off a vibration, an you don't know how they will interact until you actually see them woven together."

James Tufenkian started Tufenkian Tibetan Carpets in the mid-eighties, in partnership with Tsetan Gyurman, an exiled Tibetan master weaver he met while traveling in Nepal. In addition to traditional patterns, the company markets appealing contemporary designs by Tufenkian himself and by such prominent outside designers as Barbara Barry and Kevin Walz. "Fifteen years ago the selection of colors and styles was very limited," he says. "People who wanted something other than the reds and blues that predominate in traditional Oriental rugs didn't have much choice. Now the range of palettes has grown immensely, and there are styles for every interior."

Tufenkian extols the luxuriant "footfeel" of Tibetan wool, as resilient as the high-altitude Himalayan sheep it comes from, and the "exquisite imperfection" of handmade rugs—the subtle variations that result from processing, dyeing, and knotting wool by hand. In general, the best rugs made in Nepal—by such larger-volume companies as Tufenkian, Odegard, Michaelian & Kohlberg, and Endless Knot Rug Company, and also by smaller ones like New Moon, Elson & Company, and the Tibet Rug Company—are made entirely of long-fiber Tibetan wool, which is hand-carded and hand-spun. While some vegetable dyes are used, the major producers rely mainly on Swiss chrome dyes, which allow for color consistency and a palette of more than 200 hues. They avoid machine-carding and heavily scouring th wool, which breaks down the fiber and removes lanolin. Lanolin makes the wool more durable and dirt-resistant (think of it as natural Scotchgarding), but also causes it to absorb dye less evenly. This effect,plus the variations of hand-processed yarn and different dye batches, results in the quality known as "abrash," the subtle variations in hue and saturation that are a hallmark of traditional handcrafted rugs. (At least one large domestic manufacturer is now simulating abrash in machine-made rugs.)

"Customers used to object to these variations but now they are more educate and can appreciate them," says Stephanie Odegard. After working on overseas development projects for a dozen years (the last one, for the World Bank, involving the Nepalese rug industry), Odegard started making rugs in Nepal in 1987. "My initial concept was very minimal, with simple, linear, two-tone designs," she recalls. "People in the industry told me they wouldn't sell, but I went ahead." Since then she's become a top importer and her designs have been copied by other producers (some of whom she has sued successfully). "We introduced combinations of silk and wool, which, to my knowledge, hadn't been done in Nepal, and now it's a big trend," says Odegard, who's been inspired by such diverse sources as traditional Tibetan motifs, architectural details, Fortuny fabrics, and Fijian bark cloth.

Prices for most fine Tibetan rugs are between $50 and $100 a square foot, depending largely on the quality of the wool, dyes, and other materials (silk yarn and vegetable dyes add to the cost), and on the workmanship, which includes knot count. Standard counts are 60, 80, and 100 knots per square inch. "But that's misleading," notes Kurtz. "A sixty-knot rug may be closer to thirty knots, and you'll be lucky to get eighty knots in a so-called one-hundred-knot rug. The only way to tell is to count them. You tend to get more interesting patterns, colors, and textures with a higher knot count." Of course, variation is a by-product of handcraftsmanship, and knot count is only one criterion. "I'd rather have a sixty-knot Tibetan wool carpet than an eighty-knot one made of New Zealand wool," says Jim Webber, whose Tibet Rug Company is perhaps the lowest-priced high-quality producer. "Finer weaving is not necessarily better, it's just finer," concur Kurtz. "Obsessing about the knot count is like judging a painting by the number of brushstrokes. What is important is the beauty of the pattern and the balance of colors."

Tibetan rugs are a nice medium for design ideas that might be inappropriate in an Oriental rug that has a finer weave," says Teddy Sumner. "I like to match the design with the weave." Sumner's company, Michaelian & Kohlberg, was started in China 75 years ago (cofounder Frank Michaelian was his grandfather). "We manufacture in China and other countries, but seventy percent of our rugs are made in Nepal, an most of them are contemporary," he notes. Sumner, who was trained as an artist, and his staff have developed a variety of contemporary patterns, from free interpretations of traditional Asian and Europea motifs to painterly abstractions. "We ten to favor subtler colors," he adds. "Rugs have to work in their environment—they can't be fighting other things." Enchanted by Nepal since his first visit in the late seventies, Sumner based his vegetable-dyed Road to Langtang collection on sketches made during a cross-country trek, producing 16 rugs that are stylized evocations of winding roads, dramatic landscapes,plants, clouds, fire—even a local flatbread.

Steve Laska, another trekker to Nepal, founded Endless Knot and began importing rugs from the country 20 years ago. "I started with traditional designs but began producing more contemporary ones in the mid-eighties," he says. "Since then the rug trade has become more like the fashion industry. Now we produce new designs for spring and fall." Laska commission patterns from a number of artists and designers. Lori Weitzner, who designs everything from textiles to tableware for a blue-chip clientele, created a collection of 11 rugs for Endless Knot based on myths and folklore. "I wanted to show respect fo the tradition, but take it further," she explains. Her "Abzu" rug, based on a Sumerian water-god myth, intertwines wool and silk to suggest sun shimmering on water. "Etruria" evoke the gold-leaf calligraphy o Etruscan scrolls with twisted gold silk and wool yarns. An the cloud forms of "Kono" derive from a South America sky-god myth. "Even if the buyer doesn't know the origin of a design, the idea is somehow embedded in the rug," she says. "My mother and my grandmother love these rugs, but they're also rugs I would want to live with. They can warm up contemporary spaces and con temporize traditional spaces."

San Francisco's Elson & Company is known for strikingly modern designs by founder Diane Elson and others. "My interest is in the marriage between an ancient art form and avant-garde design," she explains. Examples include a series of ultra-cool rugs based on San Francisco artist Rex Ray's colorful, free-form collages, and imaginative conceptions by architects like Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, Greg Lyn, and Steven Holl, which take off from elements such as Tibetan sand paintings, monks' robes, and geological formations.

After producing hand-tufted and flatweave rugs, David Shaw Nicholls launched his line of made-in-Nepal Tibetan carpets four years ago. "Some are primarily textural, with pile sheared to different heights," the Scottish-born architect says. One such is "Badoura," a rug made entirely of undyed Tibetan yarn, which highlights the grayish wool's natural luster. Others feature muted colors and bold shapes in compositions that are classically modernist (enough so to have been selected for interiors by Philip Johnson and Maya Lin); his latest series combines rhythmic patterns of arches and other architectural forms with more vivid colors. "The colors in my Tibetan rugs echo aspects of the place, from plants and soil to prayer flags and monastery altars," he says.

Lower-quality Tibetan rugs—including many originating in India (which are sometimes misrepresented as made in Nepal)—often have a high proportion of New Zealand wool, which is less expensive and less resilient (though still high-quality). But some top designers are using a blend of Tibeta and New Zealand wool (with the latter no more than 50 percent). Paris-based Marcel Zelmanovitch's alluring 70/30 rugs—such as his Perroquet collection, inspired by the plumage of tropical birds—are highly tactile versions of his own abstract paintings. And ceramic artist turned rug designer Joan Weissman, who also makes hand-tufted and flatweave rugs, has been lauded for her textural and coloristic bravura and her imaginative use of abstract, natural, and symbolic motifs.

In addition to production designs, Weissman often creates custom rugs, sometimes for settings ranging from private homes to Neiman Marcus stores to a Learjet interior. Most of the high-end Tibetan rug companies routinely customize the colors and sizes of their own designs. And many will work with clients to develop one-of-a-kind designs, from smallish runners to opulent expanses of handwoven wool, like Odegard's carpets for New York's posh restaurant Daniel and the Getty Museum painting galleries, or the Rex Ray- designed rugs that Elson & Company produced for the offices of the computer-animation studio Pixar. "A lot of our custom designs come from interior designers, but occasionally we make rugs based on art work by clients' children, which lets kids live with something of their own design," notes Tufenkian. "Virtually everything we do is to order," says Paula Lajaunie, director of the SoHo showroom Entree Libre, which represents both Zelmanovitch and Weissman. "Almost everyone wants something site-specific and personalized."

In this rugs-to-riches tale, economically challenged Nepal is, fortunately, reaping dividends. Most producers of the highest-quality rugs from the country contribute to programs that improve the standard of living of workers and their families, in areas from schools and clinics to housing and water-purification systems. Odegard and New Moon are among those who subscribe to the Rugmark program, which certifies that carpets are made free of child labor and provides money for education and other aid. Others underwrite such efforts in Nepal directly. "Manufacturers interested only in low prices aren't providing for those benefits," notes Odegard. "If you buy from a conscientious producer you're helping the people." It's a worthy objective, but the ultimate dividend is perhaps a domestic one: Well chosen and maintained, a fine Tibetan rug will work its magic in your home for years to come.


Call on the Carpet

ABC CARPET & HOME
888 Broadway, New York, NY 10003
212-473-3000.

THE BRADBURY COLLECTION
Pacific Design Center, 8687 Melrose Avenue, Suite G190, West Hollywood, CA 90069
310-657-3940; fax 310-657-5553
(Rugs by Joan Weissman.)

ELSON & COMPANY
3723 Sacramento Street, San Francisco, CA 94118
$ 415-831-5800; fax 415-831-5901
www.elsoncompany.com

ENDLESS KNOT RUG COMPANY
105 H Street, Petaluma, CA 94952
707-763-9600; fax 707-763-9698;
www.endlessknotrugs.com

ENTREE LIBRE
110 Wooster Street, New York, NY 10012
212-431-5279; fax 212-431-7399
(Rugs by Joan Weissman and Marcel Zelmanovitch.)

MICHAELIAN & KOHLBERG
578 Broadway, 2nd floor, New York, NY 10012
212-431-9009; fax 212-431-9077

NEW MOON
1701 North Lincoln Street, Wilmington, DE 19806
$ 302-654-0442; fax 302-654-3416
www.newmooncarpets.com

DAVID SHAW NICHOLLS
979 Third Avenue, Suite 611, New York, NY 10022
212-317-2929; fax 212-317-0863
www.davidshawnicholls.com

ODEGARD 200
Lexington Avenue, Suite 1206, New York, NY 10016
212-545-0069; fax 212-545-0298

SLOAN MIYASATO
2 Henry Adams Street, Room 207, San Francisco, CA 94103
415-431-1465; fax 415-431-1397
(Rugs by Endless Kno Rug Company.)

TIBET RUG COMPANY
1464 Foothill Drive, Salt Lake City, UT 84108
$ 801-582-3334; fax 801-582-3501
www.tibetrugcompany.com

TUFENKIAN TIBETAN CARPETS
902 Broadway, New York, NY 10010
212-475-2475; fax 212-475-2629
www.tufenkiancarpets.com

JOAN WEISSMAN CUSTOM RUGS
3710 Silver SE, Albuquerque, NM 87108
$ 505-265-0144; fax 505-268-9665

MARCEL ZELMANOVITCH GALERIE DIURNE
45 Rue Jacob, 75006 Paris, France
33-1-42-60-94-11; fax 33-1-43-44-07-49

Jeff Book, a contributing editor, wrote about the design firm Hendrix Allardyce in Departures' November/December 2000 issue.

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