Magic Carpets

Artist-designer Chichi Cavalcanti

Not many artists will gladly tailor a monumental commissioned work to harmonize and integrate with the colors of your room and the furnishings in it. In fact, one stereotype of the fine artist is that of the creative purist who refuses on principle to dabble in decorating. But Chichi Cavalcanti is, in her own words, "a bit of a hybrid." Working with interior designers and their clients, the artist-designer creates bold, abstract compositions best appreciated when walked on or touched. Her medium is textiles: exquisite, one-of-a-kind rugs and wall hangings that have been exhibited all over London, her home base, in such diverse venues as Sotheby's, edgy contemporary art galleries, the gallery at Marks & Spencer's headquarters, and the Ted Baker shop in Harrod's.

Some of her designs are geometric grids with alternating black and white cubes. Others use lines that create labyrinthine patterns or combine to form Vasarely-style circles. But many are more spontaneous, gestural abstractions in warm, saturated colors such as paprika, chocolate, and saffron. The rugs are plush thickets of tufted wool, inspired collages durable enough to be displayed underfoot. The wall hangings of felt serve as dazzling contemporary tapestries, at once beautifying walls and insulating them from sound and cold. All are happy unions of form and function: modernist magic carpets.

Cavalcanti is a real artist who talks about wool in much the same way sculptors talk about marble: "Rugs are the perfect thing," she says. "I love the brightness of color you get with pure wool. The medium is really appropriate for what I am trying to achieve as an artist."

Born and raised in Brazil, Cavalcanti moved to London to complete her artistic training, studying at the London School of Photography, Guildhall University, and Camberwell College of Arts. The brilliant colors of Rio de Janeiro and Brasilia, two places where she spent her childhood, are evident in the 130 different colors she offers clients when collaborating on original compositions (though clients can also have wool custom-dyed to their specifications). The creative process continues with a monoprint or collage that is then translated by centuries-old carpet-making mills in Belgium and the north of England.

"My use of colors is very much inspired by the Brazilian landscape, especially along the coast," Cavalcanti explains. "I think of how intense colors look under the harsh, tropical light and attempt to translate that into my work." With bold strokes of terra cotta or smoky blues, these rugs brighten expanses of space in modern interiors, warming them with vibrant color and plush, inviting texture. Even her black-and-white compositions vibrate with op-art intensity, creating a dynamic energy field.

"I love painting because I love the power of illusion," she says, "but I also wanted to incorporate my own background—Latin America has a great wealth of popular art—so I chose textiles, because they are a popular art form. Using textiles as a medium was my way of bringing that influence into my painting work. I didn't want to be a big-ego artist," Cavalcanti adds. "That kind of vanity is not my thing. If anything, my work very much denies that. There's no mark on it; I don't sign it or put a logo on it; there's only a label on the back." (Further proof that she values function as highly as form: Her carpets' backing features industrial-strength latex to prevent them from slipping.)

"My biggest influence is Oscar Niemeyer, the architect behind Brasilia," she says. "This amazing city, plonked in the middle of nowhere, had a big impact on me and really shaped my taste." There have been other inspirations too. "I love painters like Frank Stella, Bridget Riley, and Ellsworth Kelly," she says. "I've always liked big formalists, so my work is quite formal. I work with color and composition rather than subject matter."

New York designer Tom Charnock says he likes working with Cavalcanti because she brings artistry to the selling of her work. It's not an impersonal order bouncing out of a machine. Recently, Cavalcanti actually did a series of paper collages to show a client of Charnock what the finished rug would look like. "We took that to the client," he says, "and it proved a great visual. It was like presenting her with a little gem. The client was so enamored of Chichi's little handcrafted rug mock-up that she asked to have it returned after the rug was completed, so she could frame it; it now hangs proudly in her husband's office, where we put the rug."

Cavalcanti enjoys collaborating with designers and architects, approaching commissions just as an installation artist tackles a site-specific project. "I like to see where the work is going to be placed," she says. "I draw inspiration from the place itself. I try to lead the eye from here to there, creating a design for each rug that will, hopefully, guide your eye through the room and lead you from this point to that in the space. I love to think people might actually, though quite subliminally and without knowing it, walk a path on the rug."

Cavalcanti says she has always been a collaborator; she never wanted to work as an isolated "creative spirit" type. "I didn't want to be a lone painter in a studio. I wanted to do things that people could relate to in a functional way. The debate rages on about whether painting is a dead medium, but I think that it's more alive than ever, and it lives on in things like contemporary textiles. For me, textiles are a way to keep painting exciting and relevant."

Carpets from $150 to $480 per square yard; wall hangings from $500-$10,000; order through the Esposito Group in New York, 212-269-9787.