Art underfoot: Rugs a tradition, technology

Elaine Markoutsas
Universal Uclick

Both floors and ceilings often are referred to as the fifth wall. But what’s on the floor has more gravitas in the design scheme. Rugs can warm and complete a space. They can draw the eye as a focal point, with texture, color and pattern, potentially creating a major impact. And the best designs are so much like art, you almost hate to walk on them.

At international shows, in showrooms and in galleries, you do get a better sense of the rug as art, as very large examples are hung dramatically on walls or displayed prominently on static or movable wings. Like a painting or textile art, it is easier to appreciate this way, stepping back from it and then leaning in to absorb the weave and pattern, especially their subtleties.

One of the most talked about introductions at Maison and Objet in Paris was a collection by Juan Montoya by Stepevi. A showstopping rug called Moon Island is rich in geometry, intersecting and layering circles with extraordinary depth, matte and sheen, some with an almost lacey overlay.

Much of the beauty at the high end of rug design can be attributed to the marriage of Old World tradition and modern thought and technology, as well as new ideas about materials and how to use them. Besides wool, which can range in quality depending on its lanolin content, silk, the silk-like synthetic viscose, cashmere, linen, hemp and even metallic threads may be woven in.

“We revere the history, which goes back hundreds and hundreds of years,” says Shea Soucie, principal with partner Martin Horner in the Chicago-based design firm Soucie Horner. In 2012, they launched Shiir with purveyor Oscar Isberian. “We don’t want to simply recreate. We want to innovate. That’s why we embroider, we oxidize, we mix materials. We take the best of tradition and then use it as the basis of something new.”

Designers like Soucie and Horner, who visit some of those tradition-rich rug factories in Nepal, Turkey and India, come away with a better appreciation for the craft -- as well as inspiration for what is possible.

For a time, worn rugs overdyed in brilliant hues such as teal, emerald, cobalt and magenta were trending. Some of the threadbare rugs are repurposed vintage; others are simply distressed to appear well-aged with desirable “patina.” This look especially suits boho style and resonates with a younger audience, who appreciate the modernity of bold colors on traditional motifs.

As in furniture trends, a modern aesthetic has gained followers. Now some of those faded looks actually are woven into the rug itself, creating the feeling of a fresco painting, watercolor, a photographic image that’s barely there, or a pattern with an ethereal or misty quality, like a veil of fog. In a new collection for Tai Ping, from a distance, one rug reads as a solid coral red. But close up, there’s movement, in fact, inspired by an urban landscape. At nanimarquina, the Shade collection takes its palette from the sunrise and sunset, in an ombre effect on a wool flat weave.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there are rugs startling in their realism, like a larger-than-life dark-ground floral from fashion designer Alexander McQueen (Sarah Burton has been at the helm of the brand since McQueen’s death in 2010), for The Rug Company. The bouquet seems to jump out of the rug’s center. Some imagery is the result of photography and digital technology that provide patterns for weavers.

And to suit mid-century modern and emerging art deco decor, graphic geometrics have never been more robust. At cc tapis, a new collection was inspired by an 1884 novella that explores dimensions as if they communicated with one another, with a graphic of overlapping geometries.

Other modern rugs are like sophisticated patchworks or samplers, including Italian architect Piero Lissoni’s Hunua, which mixes solids and patterns like herringbone, and German designer Sebastian Herkner’s linear planes with gridded checkerboards for The Rug Company.

In the past, lush thick rugs were considered the creme de la creme, and in antique rugs, thread counts are coveted -- the more per square inch, the finer. Though thread counts still are quoted, there are many factors that translate to value. It can take thousands of hours to weave small portions, so lead times can range up to six months for some custom rugs.

“A lot of people equate thickness with luxury, but that misses the mark,” says Soucie.” What’s luxurious to you might be a high-pile cashmere rug; what’s luxurious to me might be a thin, flat, oxidized silk rug. Thickness is not a barometer of luxury.

“From our perspective, a luxurious rug results from two things: the artistry and the soul that comes from a handweaver who learned his craft at the knee of his parents and grandparents.”

Mixing yarns and threads adds nuance and luster, as do pile variations. Soucie says that she and Martin actually lead with fiber instead of design. “We take cashmere or silk and play with it. How does it move? How does it respond to light? What’s its sheen and its hand? Once we’ve explored the inherent qualities of a fiber, only then do we begin to think about design and how we can create a pattern that best exploits those qualities. That results in rugs that truly are, as we like to say, art underfoot.”

Nature still is probably the go-to muse, whether it’s a landscape, a river stream or Cotswold moss or the sky –sunrise, sunset and the constellations.

Colombian-born Juan Montoya, a highly regarded modernist who has had a design practice in New York since the 1970s, developed a collection around the moon. “I love circles,” says the interior designer. “I love geometry. So the moon was inspiration – contemplating it at different times of the day, and how it moves, as well as the constellation of the universe. Just a shift in colors and sheen gives the carpets extraordinary depth.”

Artists also have inspired rug design. One pattern in Larry Hokanson’s Istorii collection features a rich art nouveau motif. It’s a homage to Gustav Klimt, whose shimmery paintings sometimes had touches of gold leaf. Hokanson was captivated when he saw the works at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he was a student.

As with art, rugs can be a powerful tour de force in a room’s design.

“Rugs are very important,” says Montoya. “Not as an object by itself. It’s a composition that integrates architecture and interior design and decoration. And yes, it can be hung as a tapestry.”

“We always encourage designers to begin with the rug,” says Soucie. “It’s a natural starting point because it is, after all, the foundation of a room. When you’re talking about a completely handmade custom product, you’ve got to allow enough lead time for it to be woven. It’s so worth the wait in every way. There’s really nothing like a rug that’s uniquely suited for a particular room.”

True luxury.