Thursday, 25 December 2008

Owen Jones' Grammar Of Ornament And The West's Feelings About Eastern Design

LONDON, Dec. 26, 2008 -- A man and his sketchbook.

Not something that is going to change the world.

Perhaps that is what Owen Jones thought as he set out in 1831 for four years of travel in Italy, Spain, Greece, Turkey, and Egypt.

After all he was just 22 and lots of young well-bred Englishmen his age were out doing the Grand Tour, with their notebooks or watercolors in hand.

Still, he had some ambitious plans. After six years of apprenticing as an architect, he wanted to earn fame of his own. So, he set out to make the first complete survey of the Alhambra -- the Moorish citadel that overlooks Granada and dates to the 14th century.

Along with a French colleague, Jules Goury, Jones spent months making meticulous drawings of the palace's ornamental details, along with detailed plans of the buildings. Then in the middle of the project Goury died of cholera.

At that point, Jones might have stopped because the job was already more than enough work for two people. But he continued alone and in the process discovered his lifelong passion: cataloging mankind's vast variety of design traditions.

The Alhambra drawings were published in London in 1845 and helped spark a wave of new interest in Eastern design among Jones' fellow architects, commercial artists and interior designers.

By then Jones was already busy on what would become his masterwork: a global survey of architectural ornamentation drawn from the rest of his travel sketches and exhaustive library research.

His masterwork, The Grammar of Ornament published in 1856, included some 100 full-color plates of designs ranging from Greek, to Roman, to Byzantine, to Moorish, to Egyptian, to Persian, to Indian to Chinese.

This plate is one of the many presenting Persian designs.

Jones even included the incised patterns on wooden weapons from the Pacific islands, making his plates easily the most extensive and influential design catalog produced up to his time.

The Grammar was partly so successful because it both caught and advanced the spirit of Jones' own rapidly changing world. It came out just as Britain and other colonial powers were becoming fascinated by the vast variety of lands they ruled and Europeans were hungry for more information about them.

That fascination was perfectly embodied by the fad of Orientalism that created a market for everything from travel literature, to exotic paintings, to archaeological excavations.

This Orientalist painting by Frederic Lewis in 1857, entitled Harem Life in Constantinople, is typical of the genre.

But if Jones' catalog provided a sourcebook of world designs that greatly interested other Western architects and craftsmen, his contemporaries did not always use his reference work as he intended.

Along with the images, the Grammar included Jones' personal guidelines for the proper use of ornamentation in artwork.

One of his propositions was that "the first principle of architecture is to decorate construction, never to construct decoration." Another was that the purpose of all design is to create a sense of repose through proportion and harmony.

But most Victorian-age commercial designers thought just the opposite. They took the most effusive designs in the Grammar' and copied them wholesale as wallpaper, curtains, and furniture covers.

The result was that -- instead of the Eastern designs being integrated into Western ones -- the Victorian era's famously overstuffed parlors became even more wildly overdecorated and disharmonious than before.

Still, Jones did eventually get the chance to try to turn some of his maxims into reality. As a prominent architect and interior decorator, he was named superintendent of works for Britain's Great Exhibition of 1851.

The Exhibition was the first World Fair and its centerpiece was the Crystal Palace, a huge iron-and-glass building designed in a vaguely Moorish style. It was filled with artifacts and replicas of artworks from around the world and visitors mobbed it daily.

The six-month exhibition was a huge success. By the time it closed, some 6 million people visited -- equivalent to about half of Britain's population at the time.

And the exotic Moorish design of the Crystal Palace proved such a crowd pleaser that its life did not end with the fair. Instead, it was moved to a permanent London site where it remained as an exhibition hall until it was destroyed by a fire in 1936.

The Crystal Palace probably had a more direct impact on Western architecture than did Jones' Grammar. That is because it helped inspire the construction of a whole string of other vaguely Eastern-looking buildings as entertainment centers.

Shown here is the Regal Theater in Chicago, which originally opened as the Avalon Theater in 1927. Other famous "Eastern" playgrounds include Grauman's Chinese Theater, which has been a Hollywood landmark since 1927.

But in a strange twist of East meets West, the sudden enthusiasm for Eastern styles never spread beyond theaters and music halls.

The reason seems to be that Victorians could associate Eastern designs with pleasure palaces but could never reconcile them with normal workaday life.

Terry Reece Hackford observes in a 1981 thesis for Brown University that Moorish design commonly held "pleasurable and often erotic associations" for the Victorian public in the 1850s and 60s and this quality of association "limited the context in which an Eastern style was appropriate."

Does that mean that Owen Jones was ultimately wrong in thinking Eastern motifs could become a major source of inspiration for Western architects and interior designers?

The answer is both yes and no.

It is true that Eastern designs have had little impact on the way Western homes are constructed, despite some appealing possibilities. Here, for example, is a rare use of Moorish arches to open up a dining room area.

But Jones' catalog did become increasingly influential over time, and helped inject Eastern ornamentation into the Arts and Crafts Movement and, later, the Art Nouveau Movement. Both trends combined Eastern and other motifs to explore new looks in the decorative arts.

Today, the Grammar of Ornament remains very well known to professional designers. There is every reason to suspect that, as artists keep looking for new inspirations, Jones' sketchbook will keep producing surprises.

(The plate at the top of this article is of a window in the Alhambra, drawn by Jones and Goury.)




Related Links:

Wickipedia: Owen Jones, Architect

V&A Museum: The Alhambra

Terry Reece Hackford: The Great Exhibition and Moorish Architecture and Design in Great Britain

Owen Jones’ propositions concerning architecture and decorative arts

Plates from The Grammar of Ornament: Giornale Nuovo

Friday, 5 December 2008

Bespoke Carpets And The Fun Of Designing Your Own Oriental Rug

PRAGUE, December 5, 2008 -- One way the Internet is changing the oriental carpet business is by giving rug lovers the chance to directly contact producers.

It has not always been this easy.

Traditionally, customers have been separated from producers by numerous other people. The intermediates include wholesalers and retailers who, for their own good reasons, like to keep the names of producers vague or secret.

After all, who wants to be bypassed?

But now, anyone can find the names of rug production houses by simply doing a word search. A little Googling tells who produces Persian, Turkish, and Caucasian carpets, the subtypes they specialize in, and whether they use machine-spun or hand-spun wool.

And that opens a whole world of possibilities for people to directly commission their own carpets. If a producer agrees, one can even design one's own carpet or, more realistically -- because designing requires considerable experience -- modify an existing design to suit one's taste and fancy.

For those who want to play with designs, the first step is choose a model -- perhaps from a favorite rug book. Here is a Karabagh Tree of Life design taken from "Caucasian Prayer Rugs" by Ralph Kaffel (1998).

Now comes the challenging part. That is, finding a high-quality producer who works with the kind of rug type you like and who is willing to accept a single bespoke order.

Usually, bespoke producers will welcome commissions to produce large-sized rugs, but they are less interested in small-sized ones. And it is the smaller scale pieces that may best suit the individual customer because he is also going to have to pay the shipping and customs fees.

One artisan who is reviving traditional Caucasian carpets in Baku, but who is also willing to entertain single rug requests, is Vugar Dadashov of Azerbaijan Rugs. Like many producers with a sophisticated web page, he has become used to attracting the interest of not just retailers but individual rug lovers, too.

In the case of the Karabagh Tree of Life above, Dadashov saw no reason to refuse even a very unorthodox request. That was to let a child modify the design by choosing her favorite color for the background. The color choice? Yellow.

Yellow, of course, is not a color you usually see a lot in Karabagh rugs. But Dadashov and his designer accepted the whimsy of a child's world and in a few weeks mailed a cartoon of the modified design for inspection.

The cartoon flew airmail in an envelope covered with colorful postage stamps -- something as rare for a child to receive in this day of e-mails as, well, a letter from Azerbaijan.

After that, the project was in the hands of a single weaver. The weaver was just one woman because Dadashov believes reviving Azerbaijan's best rug-making traditions means letting weavers work again from their own homes. That restores individuality and, in the case of the yellow Tree of Life, makes one wonder how many design changes over the years came from women entertaining the whims of their own children and friends.

Weaving always takes months and one's anticipation rises steadily during that time. How much will the paper design change as it is transformed into a three-dimensional, pile rug? How different will the colors of the dyed wool be from those of crayons and colored pencils?

For adults commissioning a rug, these questions are entertaining enough. But for children, they are magical as they open the imagination to distant lands and ancient traditions.

And then, finally, there is a e-mail photograph of the finished rug. It is different from the design in many ways, yet also the same. In the upper-right is one more surprise: the child's name in Arabic letters and the weaving date according to the Hijri calendar.

The remaining step of actually getting the bespoke carpet home offers a quick education in several aspects of international commerce.

That includes the relative per-kilo costs of shipping via a foreign postal system vs. an international courier service. And, more interestingly, it includes learning about customs tariffs and where to collect duty-payable packages -- something that can take you deep into the heart of your own local postal system.

Still, one will emerge wiser and better informed about the rug trade.

One will learn that some imports -- like Afghan goods -- are virtually customs free because of bilateral government agreements to help develop Afghanistan's economy. And this, along with relative labor costs, is another reason why carpets from different countries can vary so greatly in price.

After that, there is only one more decision to make. To follow the trend by ordering more bespoke rugs, or to go back to shopping retail.




Related Links:

Azerbaijan Rugs

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Epic Journey: How A Trio Of 1920s Adventurers Filmed The Bakhtiari Migration

HOLLYWOOD, November 21, 2008 -- The nomadic tribes of southwestern Iran fascinate rug lovers for their great variety of weaving.

But what is less known is how much they once fascinated Western cinema audiences.

Eighty years ago, people crowded into movie theaters to see a silent film about Iran's nomads that has since became a classic of documentary movie-making.

The film is "Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life," released in 1925. It follows a branch of the Bakhtiari tribe on its seasonal migration to summer pastures. Along the way, it offers an astonishing look at a nomadic way of life which, today, has all but disappeared.

The film was made by three intrepid Western adventurers and begins with their traveling east from Angora (today Ankara), following the caravan routes to Iran. As the trio says at the outset, they are in search of a "Forgotten People" -- the nomads -- whose life is unchanged since primordial times. And they find their subject in the Bakhtiari tribes, which migrate with the rains and grass to survive.

The epic feel of the film comes from the scale of the migration: 50,000 people herding half a million animals on a 500 mile trek. And the drama and suspense grow with the spectacular nature of the terrain. A raging river and a 5,000 meter high mountain range separate the nomads from their goal.

One unforgettable scene is the crossing of the Karun river, which is swollen with Spring snow melt. The tribes have no boats to cross and the racing water is a forbidding sight. But as proof of the age-old ingenuity of man against the elements, they have a solution.

The nomads' answer is to inflate goatskins and use them as floats for rafts to carry across the women, children, and weakest animals. The men paddle across individually, holding onto their own floats like inner-tubes. Whether anybody can swim and, indeed, whether it is even possible to swim in such rough water without drowning, is left to the imagination.

The Karun river, Iran's most voluminous, originates in the high peaks of the Zagros mountain range in Chahrmahal va Bakhtiari Province and flows to the Persian Gulf. The nomads cross it only to face their next and still more daunting challenge -- crossing the mountain range itself.

The difficultly of the task can best be imagined by thinking of the Alps. The crossing point is a snow-covered mountain called Zard Kuh which rises up 4,500 meters, just a few hundred meters short of Mont Blanc's 4,800 meters. There is no visible trail over it and, as the thousands-strong, barefoot tribes march toward it, no hint they will find one.

But, again, there is a solution. The first groups of men unpack shovels and, in the same way one might dig out a driveway, steadily clear a path up the mountain. It is unimaginable work, made possible only by the sheer numbers of men available. And over a period of days, the hordes of humans, goats, and mules zig-zag their way up the slopes and over the range.

Such scenes cannot be seen today on anything like this scale. All over the world, nomads have been steadily settled by governments determined to end the land disputes that arise from herders moving freely over vast territories. And, indeed, as this 1925 movie makes clear, past generations of nomads moved like small armies. The thousands of tribesmen have rifles slung over their shoulders and could both hunt game and fight the authorities with them.

But for anyone who might think that the nomads, once settled, simply become like everyone else, the film is a welcome reminder of just how extraordinarily different the nomads' experience is. And the images can only increase one's interest in the mysterious symbols that even settled nomads continue to weave into their carpets -- the echoes of primal hopes, fears, and strengths.

Who made "Grass," and why?

That story is almost as interesting as the film itself.

The co-directors -- who doubled as cameramen -- are two American soldiers who remained in Europe after World War I. As Central Europe fell into a power vacuum with the defeat of the German and Austro-Hungarian empires and the civil war in Russia, they joined the fight to carve out an independent Polish state.

One of the pair, Merian C. Cooper, was a volunteer pilot in the fledgling Polish air force and flew numerous missions against Russian troops until he was shot down in Ukraine. Taken prisoner, he escaped again eight months later. (He is shown here in Polish Air Force uniform).

The other, Ernest B. Schoedsack, worked with the Polish war relief.

The third member of the team, who appears on camera chronicling the migration, is Marguerite Harrison. She was an American journalist with the Associated Press who also spied for Washington in Russia and Japan. She was imprisoned for ten weeks in Moscow's notorious Lubyanka prison.

The three, who all met in Poland, decided to film the Bakhtiari migration following the box-office success of one of Hollywood's first documentary and ethnographic films: Nanook of the North (1922). Here they pose in Ankara in 1923 at the start of their journey. Their own highly adventurous life imminently qualified them for their work, which included nearly freezing to death with their subjects.

"Grass," was commercially successful and launched Cooper and Schoedsack on lifelong careers as filmmakers. The two went on to make a documentary in Thailand ("Chang" in 1927) and later teamed up again to make the 1933 classic "King Kong."

Harrison, who wrote several books about Russia and Asia, later co-founded the Women's Society of Geographers and the Children's Hospital of Baltimore.

The lives of southwestern Iran's nomads have continued to fascinate film-makers ever since "Grass."

The story of the Bakhtiari migration was retold in "People of the Wind" (1976), which followed the migration in reverse.

And the nomadic Qashqai were recently featured in "Gabbeh" (1996) by Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf.

All of the films are currently available on DVD.

The whole of "Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life" also can be viewed on the Internet: CLICK HERE




Related Links

Wikipedia: The Bakhtiari

Wikipedia: "Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life"

Wikipedia: Merian C. Cooper

Wikipedia: Ernest B. Schoedsack

Wikipedia: Marguerite Harrison

Wikipedia: The Polish-Soviet War (1919 - 1921)

Wikipedia: Greater Poland Uprising (1918 - 1919)

Ryszard Antolak: Iran, King Kong, and Paradise Lost

Friday, 7 November 2008

Can Modern Weavers Revive The Classical Carpets Of The Ottomans?

SAN FRANCISCO, November 7, 2008 -- There is one question that probably has occurred to everyone who ever paged through a picture-book of antique carpets

That is: “Why aren’t these beautiful designs produced anymore?”

But only a few people ever take the next step of actually trying to get antique carpets woven again.

One person who has tried is Christopher Robin Andrews, an architect in the San Francisco Bay area. He fell in love with carpets while a student and now, half a lifetime later, devotes his spare time to reviving classical Ottoman designs.

The designs that inspired him to start were Lottos and Holbeins -- patterns one mostly sees only in early Renaissance paintings or in a few museums. So, he has not set himself a simple task.

(Shown here is 'The Alms-Giving of St. Anthony of Padua, by the Venetian painter Lorenzo Lotto in 1542. The carpet design is named "Lotto" after the artist.)

Still, he says, there was no other solution. A trip through Istanbul's carpet bazaars in 2001 confirmed that the easier option of simply buying an off-the-shelf Lotto did not exist.

Andrews' passion for classical Ottomans comes from the fact he studied architecture under Christopher Alexander, a teacher who is also a carpet scholar.

Alexander, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, believes buildings and living spaces succeed and satisfy people only when they embody the same harmonious order we see in living things.

And he believes architects can learn a great deal about giving a life-like appeal to inanimate objects by studying, among other inspirations, the designs of the old carpet masters. He has amassed an impressive collection of Ottomans and often requires his students to draw them in detail in order to better understand the designs.

What are some of the lessons the classical masters teach? They include harmony, differentiation through color and geometry, the coupling of opposites to create nodes of interest, the balancing of directional forces, the proper use of randomness, and much more. (For a fascinating summary, see: "The 'Life' of a Carpet: An Application of the Alexander Rules," by Nikos A. Salingaros)

Andrews has made hundreds of detailed knot-by-knot drawings of carpets -- enough to become very knowledgeable about their structure. Enough, too, that when he lost patience with the Istanbul bazaar, he dared to commission weavers himself to turn his drawings (like this one of the center field of a star ushak) into the rugs he wanted.

Initially, he tried producers of "bespoke" rugs on the internet but the results were disappointing. And steadily what began as an Everyman's dream of finding a shortcut to the past became, instead, a hugely complex journey into the rug-making world.

Finally, however, he located a partner in Ibrahim Tekin, a Turkish connoisseur and carpet producer who liked the challenge. But even with dedicated weavers on the project, and an experienced dye master, the results fell short.

The biggest problem turned out to be mind-set. Neither the weavers nor the dyer had ever seen a classical carpet. So, they reflexively adapted the project to what they assumed was the goal: a variation on the design, weave, and colors of a contemporary, commercial rug.

Then Andrews and Tekin discovered the answer.

"We agreed we had to take the dyer and the workshop manager we were working with near Konya to Istanbul to visit the museums," Andrews says. "And we told them these are the carpets we want to revive and once they saw them they said, ah that's what you want! Because their inclination was to make a commercial product and their perception of the commercial market was much different from those classical carpets."

The most striking differences were in the colors. While modern decorative carpets tend towards pastels, classical carpts have deep, fully saturated hues. And while modern carpets often have exaggerated abrash, the colors of classical carpets are always consistent across a rug.

Ultimately, Andrews obtained the results he wanted. He launched his line -- Classical Carpets -- in Spring 2007 and in Spring 2008 opened at the "Double-Knot Gallery" of his New York partner, Murat Küpçü. He has also found a partner in Italy, fellow architect and rug dealer Andrea Pacciani in Parma.

On the left is a Small-pattern Holbein produced by Classical Carpets.

But the story does not end there. Even labors of love must be funded and that means finding consumers who share your dreams.

Andrews says there is a small niche market for classical revivals, and its membership is surprisingly varied.

"I am selling to collectors who can't afford the originals, we are talking about carpets you really see in museums, and even people who can afford the originals are not going to put them on their floors," he says. "So I am selling to collectors who really love these designs and want to have a carpet they can actually put on their floor. And then I am also selling to some people who don't know anything about these carpets but who simply see them for the first time and get excited about them."

He adds that one group which has proven resistant to the revived classical carpets is -- oddly enough -- interior designers:

"In a way the carpet designs are perhaps too powerful. Modern architectural interior design really puts carpets in the background and when you look at the historical context of these classical carpets, they were popular in the 15th and 16th century when people did not have a lot of furniture, so something like a carpet had to make a big statement in a room. And now decorating really doesn't work that way. Most people don't want a carpet that is going to take over a room."

Still, serving just a niche market agrees with Andrews. For him to remain directly involved in all steps of the business, and keep his day job, the operation has to remain on the scale of a couple of carpets a month.

So far, Classical Carpets has reproduced designs ranging from Lottos to Holbeins to Ushaks, including a Chintamani. Many of the carpets are commissioned.

What are the current best-sellers?

In May, Andrews made a trip to Transylvania with Alberto Boralevi and Stefano Ionescu, both experts on the Ottoman collections kept in the area's Gothic churches.

After a lot of study in situ, he has reproduced 4' x 6' (1.22 meter x 1.83 meter) pieces like this one that catch the eye of Transylvanian enthusiasts.

The prices for all of Classical Carpets' weavings generally range between $120 to $200 a square foot ($1,290 to $2,150 a square meter), depending on carpet size and knot count.

(Note: The picture at the top of this article is a detail of the center of Classical Carpets' Lotto rug.)




Related Links

Classical Carpets - Christopher Robin Andrews

Links to Photos of 15th to 17th Century Carpets and Their Depiction In European Artwork

Oriental Carpets in Italian Renaissance Paintings: Art Objects and Status Symbols

New York Times: Using Old Masters To Shed Light On Turkish Rugs

"The 'Life' of a Carpet: An Application of the Alexander Rules," by Nikos A. Salingaros

Old Turkish Carpets: Carpets of the Ottoman Period

Barry O'Connell: Notes On Transylvanian Rugs

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Arts And Crafts Movement Carpets And The West's Longing For Simpler Days

LONDON, October 24, 2008 -- Is all great art defined by its ability to connect with the soul of a culture?

And, if so, is the soul of Western civilization to be found in simpler times than today -- for example, in the Middle Ages?

We won't presume to debate such points here. But it is interesting to note that one of the more enduring design trends of the modern age was founded on just these principles.

That, of course, is the Arts and Crafts movement of 1870 to 1910. Its designers drew on Medieval art to launch their own style of furnishings ranging from wallpaper to chairs to textiles. Incorporating influences from eastern art -- equally known to the Middle Ages -- they also created their own carpet patterns.

Many of those designs, originally woven in England and Ireland, continue to be popular in the West today. They are faithfully reproduced every year by European carpet producers whose weavers are now in Turkey, India, Nepal, and China.

The founding father of the Arts and Crafts movement was William Morris (1834 to 1896), photographed here at age 37. An architect, artist, and poet, as well as a social reformer, he devoted his life to battling what he saw as the dehumanizing effects of the machine age.

His enemy was real. In the late 1800s, the industrial revolution had already swept away much of traditional life in the West, including artisanal culture. Hand looms were being overtaken by power looms and individual craftsmen who made furniture were being replaced by factories that assembled it from machine-made parts instead.

The products the new industrial processes were ugly –- much less finished than they are today – but highly affordable and omnipresent.

Morris organized a coterie of like-minded artists and friends from his time as a student at Oxford to try to hold back the tide. They described themselves as “Fine Art Workmen” ready to “undertake any species of decoration.” And they took the Medieval Guild system of independent artisans as their model for rescuing workers, including children, from being cogs in the new machines.

The Arts and Crafts movement, as it came to be called, was obviously at odds with its era in every way. It idealized a bygone time when the consumer age was just beginning and full of confidence. And it idealized simplicity and fair artisan wages when Victorian homes were full to bursting with new and ostentatious manufactured goods thanks to labor that was intoxicatingly cheap.

But, amazingly, the movement was commercially successful almost from the start. Delving into Medieval art and other handicraft traditions for inspiration, the Fine Arts workmen created a rich Gothic style that connected with modern Britons the same way their allies the Pre-Raphaelite painters did, or the much earlier ‘Ivanhoe’ (1819) of Sir Walter Scott did. The only difference was that the artisans produced everything that was needed for a total living environment.

Here is the interior of Wightwick Manor, owned by a wealthy patron of the style. The effort to turn the home into a temple of art impossible to build from mass-produced items is fully visible.

All that is in line with Morris’s maxim: “Beauty, which is what is meant by art, using the word in its widest sense, is, I contend, no mere accident to human life, which people can take or leave as they choose, but a positive necessity of life.”

This carpet is entitled “Bullerswood” and was woven by Morris & Company, London, in 1889. Its design of scrolling arabesques and stylized flowers and birds is colored with a range of vegetable dyes. It is a prize of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum but its huge size – 4 meters by 7.5 meters – prevents it from being on permanent display.

The Arts and Crafts movement did not completely reject machines and did use some, including for weaving. But its insistence on the finest workmanship eventually priced the products out of all but the wealthiest households. So, the artisans never realized their utopian dream of turning every man’s home, even the most ordinary, into an earthly paradise.

But the movement did set the stage for later schools of design which more populary raised interior design to the level of a fine art. They include the American version of Arts and Crafts, which made much more extensive use of machines to lower the cost of craftsman-produced furnishings. They also include Art Nouveau and Art Deco. In all these styles, the handicrafts of Medieval Europe and borrowings from Islamic and Asian sources remained major inspirations.

Morris once acknowledged his debt to Oriental Art this way:

"To us pattern designers, Persia became a Holy Land, for there in the process of time our art was perfected, and from thence it spread to cover for a while the world, east and west."

Today, Morris remains the best-known face of the British Arts and Crafts movement but he is far from its only successful practitioner. Other leading designers are Gavin Morton and G. K. Robertson, who created this carpet woven in Donegal, Ireland, circa 1900:

Original Arts and Crafts carpets now command high auction prices that put them beyond the reach of most collectors. But the patterns are so popular that many are readily available as reproductions. That includes this replica of a carpet designed by architect and painter Charles Voysey:

The design is "Duleek" -- named after one of the towns near Donegal, where the carpet was woven in the 1800s.

A quick look through the internet shows reproductions of designs like this one are available from $ 25 - $ 50 per square foot ($ 269 - $ 538 per square meter). Those low prices are not due to the use of machines, as the artisans of the Arts and Crafts movement might have feared. Instead, they are due to globalization and the outsourcing of Western hand weaving to the East, a future they never envisioned.

(Note: the picture at the top of this article is a detail of the central field of "Holland Park," a carpet designed by William Morris in 1883.)




Related Links:

On the Arts & Crafts Movement:

Interactive Textbooks: The Arts and Crafts Movement

The Arts and Crafts Society

On William Morris:

Wikipedia: William Morris

William Morris Gallery

The Textile Blogspot: William Morris Carpets

The Earthly Paradise: Bullerswood Carpet

Arts & Craft Carpet Reproductions:

J.R. Burrows & Company

The Craftsman Home

Michael Fitzsimmons Decorative Arts

Jax Arts and Crafts Rugs

Poster: Donegal Rug by Morton and Robertson

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

A Room With No View: How Wall-To-Wall Carpeting Took The Place Of Oriental Rugs

WASHINGTON, October 10, 2008 -- One of the many things that makes rugs such a fascinating hobby is comparing the ways our ancestors regarded them with how we do.

It is well known, for example, that the late 19th century marked the peak of Western interest in oriental carpets. No other period comes close to it in viewing Eastern rugs as an integral part of Western interiors.

Just how much they were prized by our great-grandparents can be seen in a picture such as this. Titled 'Divan,' it is by the Croat artist Vlaho Bukovac in 1905 but could have been painted anywhere in America or Europe at the time.

By contrast, just about no-one would think of making such a picture today.

But why were people a century and-a-half ago such huge lovers of carpets? There are many answers to consider, including one that is as often overlooked as it is simple: the dreadful condition of their floors.

The story is told by Randall L. Patton of Kennesaw State University (U.S. state of Georgia) in a study entitled 'A History of the U.S. Carpet Industry.' He explains how American companies became hugely successful by developing inexpensive wall-to-wall carpeting to solve the country's flooring problems. And, along the way, the tale explains much about how oriental carpets were driven from Western homes.

To follow the argument, one has to remember that many of our ideas today about 19th century homes come from visiting manors that have been turned into museums. In these great houses, the floors are of hardwood that is as carefully laid down as a mosaic and as highly polished as the furniture.

But, in fact, most 19th century homes had floors that were hastily cobbled together by the builders from softwood boards of random sizes. The builders neither stained nor varnished these arrays of panels and they left the homeowners the task of figuring out what to do with them.

So how did people cope with such floors? One way was to leave them bare but "whiten them" by scrubbing them with a stiff brush and sand. Or they could be bleached with lye.

Still another possibility was to paint the flooring to resemble a carpet. That option took many forms that are detailed in wonderful detail on a blogsite named 'Victorian Interiors and More.' The subtitle of the blog is "Victorian life wasn't quite what you may have thought it was."

The site offers this description of using a stencil to paint a floor, as quoted from an 1859 short story that appeared in 'Godey's' magazine:

“Tomorrow, you must drive down to Dayton, Albert, purchase some pearl-colored paint, enough to put two coats on the floor, and some green, enough for a border. Take a sheet of tin, mark three large leaves in a group upon it, and take it to the tinman. Tell him to cut out the leaves like a stencil letter; you can, by putting it down and painting over it, make a handsome border of green leaves for your carpet.”

Beyond painting the floors directly, one could put down painted coverings. A cheap way to do that was to glue newspapers to the floor and paint and shellac them.

Another, more expensive, option was to put down a painted floor cloth. As the Victorian-expert website notes, "generally they were placed in hallways and parlors." In kitchens or any room where water was likely to be spilled, oilcloth was the better choice.

And then, of course, there was matting - the most often used floor covering of all. Inexpensive mats were woven from coconut fiber, straw, and corn husks, while expensive ones were made from wool.

As time went by, and the industrial age brought more wealth to the middle class, all these homemade solutions began to give way to what people really wanted: large and attractive woven carpets.

It was not an indulgence. As one observer at the time noted: "the general use of carpets was a necessity some few years ago from the fact that the floors of our houses were generally built of such poor material, and in such a shiftless manner, that the floor was too unsightly to be left exposed." That is Horace Greeley, writing in his 1872 book 'Great Industries of the United States.'

Carpet manufacturers -- domestic and foreign, hand loom and power loom -- fought hard to satisfy the demand for large rugs. The battle continued on a grand scale until the progressive introduction of hardwood floors through the century finally reduced the demand for wall-to-wall sized carpets and increased interest in smaller accent rugs.

Through these decades from the second half of the 19th century to the early 20th century, the most desired carpets of all were handwoven oriental ones. Their widespread appeal was heightened by their historical association with the rich and by the fad of "Orientalism" that accompanied the expanding colonial age.

Plus, they got a boost from the World Expositions like those in Paris and Chicago, which helped to familiarize millions of people with the artistic traditions of the Islamic world, China, and Japan and popularized them.

But it was also during this period that power loomed carpets began their steady progress into American homes, a progress that would eventually push out every competitor.

In his history of the U.S. carpet industry, Patton notes that by 1870 power loom technology had been refined sufficiently to produce "reasonable substitutes for higher quality hand loom woven goods." The American machine carpet makers published lavish catalogs, advertised directly to consumers, and sales ballooned to roughly 80 million square meters by 1923.

Then came the Great Depression and a fall-off in business of all kinds. But out the ashes emerged a far more formidable power loom industry. First, based in the northeastern United States and using wool, it struggled just to regain the heights of the turn-of-the-century. But in the 1950s, the industry relocated to the area around Dalton, Georgia, switched to cotton, and discovered a magic formula.

That formula was "tufting" a technique traditionally used by local women to produce bedspreads. The technique is to insert tufts of cotton yarn into a pre-woven grid of backing material and then boil the backing to shrink it and lock in the tufts.

Once mechanized, the tufting process reduced the cost of making carpets by half compared to weaving and opened the way for wall-to-wall carpeting to sweep the market. The tufting industry later overcame some final objections that its cotton carpets were less durable than woven wool ones by switching to synthetic fibers and then no more obstacles remained.

Patton says that by 1990 Americans were consuming over 12 square meters of carpet per family per year, compared to about 2 square meters in the early 1950s. "Tufted carpets achieved total dominance of not just the residential carpet market," he notes, "but the residential flooring market in general."

The omnipresence of tufted carpeting in American homes and businesses today has not entirely forced woven carpets -- power loomed or hand loomed -- from the scene. As the author notes, high-end consumers do still appreciate the special qualities of wool and woven carpets continue to dominate specialty commercial markets such as hotel lobbies.

But the triumph of cheap wall-to-wall carpeting does mean that many American housing contractors now simply lay down carpeting rather than hardwood floors as the first and least expensive choice. And that, ironically, creates a situation not so different from the one faced by our great-grandparents.

That is, when your flooring is highly affordable but monotonous, how do you liven it up?

For the past many years, that question has been waived as homeowners have continued to welcome wall-to-wall carpets in white and other single tones. The carpeting, just like white walls, complements today's minimalist interior designs and poses no color problems when choosing the rest of the furnishings.

Still, nothing remains the same and history has a way of repeating itself. Today, people argue over whether it is good taste to add an oriental accent rug to an already machine-carpeted room. Tomorrow, it may become the first thing they rush to do.




Related Links:

Randall L. Patton, A History of the U.S. Carpet Industry

Victorian Interiors and More

History of Carpet Tufting

Victoriana Magazine

World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, 1893

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

A Postage Stamp Commemorates Isfahan As 'The City Of Polish Children'

WARSAW, September 26, 2008 -- Isfahan is best known for its architecture. It is so beautiful, Iranians say, that to visit the city is to see “half the world.”

And, Isfahan is famous for its carpets in classical Persian court styles.

But in Poland, the city is known for still something else. It is “Isfahan - the city of Polish children.”

This summer the Polish postal service issued a stamp that explains why.

The stamp shows a small boy dressed in a cadet’s uniform. Draped behind him is an Isfahan carpet emblazoned with the Polish eagle. And next to him is the city’s nickname in Polish: “Isfahan - Miasto Dzieci Polskich.”

The stamp commemorates two things: a huge tragedy in Poland’s history, and how Iran helped rescue some of the victims. But to understand the whole story – which today is largely forgotten outside Poland – one must go back to the very start of World War II.

In 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union attacked Poland and divided it between them. Both the Nazis and Soviets sent huge numbers of Poland’s elite to prisons and labor camps. But the Soviets went a step further. They deported some 1.5 million Polish citizens to distant points in Siberia and Central Asia.

The deportations of military families, police, doctors, teachers, and anyone else suspected of patriotic feelings were intended to simplify the Polish territory’s incorporation into the Soviet Union. It also provided more laborers for the Soviet Union's collective farms as Moscow prepared for an inevitable war with Germany.

The horror of this time is vividly told in the accounts of the deportees. Families were packed into boxcars in Poland and confined in them for six weeks as the trains rolled east, for example, to Kazakhstan. Anyone who tried to escape was shot.

Then, after forcibly settling all these families and, in the meantime, executing some 20,000 Polish officers held in prison camps, the Soviet leaders suddenly changed their strategy. As the war began with Germany in the summer of 1941, they decided to raise an army instead from among the thousands of still interned Polish soldiers. And to improve the mood, they granted an “amnesty” to all Polish deportees.

The result was one of the epic journeys of World War II.

The new Polish army, under an agreement between Moscow and the exiled Polish government in London, was to be sent to the North African front to fight alongside the British. So the Army assembled just north of the border with Iran, on the road to the Middle East. And it was there, at bases in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan, that tens of thousands of deported Polish families headed in hopes of rejoining the soldiers.

But for the families to succeed, they first had to escape the farms they had been assigned to (and many local bosses refused to release them), have money to buy train tickets, and travel for months from Siberia to the south under appalling conditions.

Maria van der Linden, a survivor who was then a child, describes the trip this way in her book 'An Unforgettable Journey,' published in New Zealand:

"We had to change trains frequently, because of the varying width of rail tracks In the USSR. At every railway station we faced long queues for tickets, where numerous waiting families slept on bare floors. Conditions were filthy. People were infested with hair and body lice. There were no proper washing facilities at the stations and toilets were seldom cleaned. Infections spread like wildfire among the waiting travelers. Some people were too ill and exhausted to continue their journey and many passengers died as they waited to purchase their train tickets for the next stage of their trip."

Another child at the time, Zdzislawa Wasylkowska, recalls her journey south like this:

"We had to beg for bread of steal whenever we could. There were no washing facilities. There were lice everywhere and so many dead children. I saw many people thrown from the train. It took us another month to get to Jalalabad, close to the Afghanistan border, but they did not want to take us. We moved on to Guzar where my mother and sister became sick with typhus."

Parents unable to go farther gave their children to others who could. And as the journey went on, the number of orphans multiplied, to the point that the Polish army reception centers had to set up special orphanages to accommodate them all.

The Polish army, known as Anders’ Army for its commander General W. Anders, crossed into Iran by ship across the Caspian or by road from Turkmenistan at the end of 1942. The exodus numbered 115,000 – that is, 45,000 soldiers, 37,000 civilian adults, and 18,000 children. Just after they crossed, the Soviet government closed the border again, preventing any more of the some 1 million Polish citizens still in the USSR from leaving.

For those Poles who reached Iran, after thousands died along the way, the emotions were overwhelming. Another survivor, Helena Woloch, recalls:

"Exhausted by hard labour, disease and starvation - barely recognizable as human beings - we disembarked at the port of Pahlavi (now Bandar-e Anzali). There, we knelt down together in our thousands along the sandy shoreline to kiss the soil of Persia. We had escaped Siberia, and were free at last. We had reached our longed-for Promised Land."

Ironically, the Poles had reached a country that itself had been occupied in late 1941 by Russia and Britain. They allies did so to secure the oil fields and keep Iran open as a supply route to the Soviet army. Reza Shah Pahlavi, who had earlier brought Iran closer to Germany, was in exile in South Africa and his son was on the throne in his place.

However, if Iranians resented the Russian and the British presence, they were sympathetic to the Polish refugees and welcomed them.

Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi opened his private pool to the orphans. Polish soldiers saluted Persian officers when they passed in the street. And, over time, all the orphans were relocated to Isfahan along with many Polish families because the beauty of the city was thought to be conducive to their physical and mental health.

After the Polish Army left for the Middle East, the families and children stayed on. From 1942 to 1945, there were 2,590 Polish children in Isfahan below the age of seven, living in what became a lively community which was very interested in Iranian culture.

During this time, Polish academicians in Isfahan began an Institute of Iranian Studies. And the carpet in the background of the commemorative postage stamp was woven by Polish girls in the Isfahan school of weaving.

At the end of the war, the refugees went on to Britain or to British colonies, or to the United States and Australia. But, due to a final twist of fate, none returned to Poland. That was because the Allied leaders had agreed at a meeting in Tehran in 1943 to put Poland in the Soviet Union’s orbit. It remained there until 1989.

The Polish postage stamp issued this June recalls all this history. One of the orphans, Przemek Stojakowski, is the boy on the postage stamp. On the First Day Cover that accompanies the stamp, the names of just a few of the hundreds of other orphaned children are also printed.

The stamp helps to explain several other things, too, including why Dariusz remains a popular name today for Polish boys and how the word “kish-mesh” (Persian for raisins) came into the Polish language.

But perhaps most of all, the stamp is a reminder of a universal truth. That is, the world has a long history of tragedies. But it has just as long a memory for acts of kindness.


Related Links:

Iran and the Polish Exodus from Russia 1942, by Ryszard Antolak

An Unforgettable Journey, by Maria van der Linden

Wikipedia: Anders’ Army

Polish deportees in the Soviet Union, by Michael Hope

The Polish Deportees of World War II: Recollections of Removal to the Soviet Union and Dispersal, edited by Tadeusz Piotrowski

The Institute of National Remembrance, Warsaw

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

In Harry Potter's World, The Carpet Is A Harshang Bidjar

LONDON, September 12, 2008 -- Is a Bidjar Harshang-patterned carpet quietly becoming the most popular rug of the next generation?

It’s possible – if you think that being visibly featured in Harry Potter films is likely to impact future rug buyers’ tastes. That is, ‘future’ in the sense of today’s children growing up to be tomorrow’s rug lovers.

But before going further, it may be necessary to explain a little about Harry Potter’s world.

Harry, the boy magician, goes to Hogwarts, a school of magic. The school is modeled very much on the great British universities such as Oxford, so Harry lives in a 'House,' or dormitory, with a common room where the resident students can gather informally anytime of day.

Harry’s ‘House’ is 'Gryffindor' and the floor of the Gryffindor common room is covered by a giant Bidjar with a Harshang pattern on a brilliant blue background.

Here, Harry (right) and his two close-friends Ron (center) and Hermione (left) meet in the common room in a scene from one of the seven Harry Potter films.

The carpet shows up in most film scenes of the Gryffindor common room and, along with tapestries on the walls, gives the room a very magical, wizard-like feel. The non-figurative Harshang design, which conjures up zodiac-like images of crabs and bursting suns, is perfect for the role. (It also goes well with the wallpaper, which reproduces 'The Lady and The Unicorn' tapestries from the Cluny Museum of Medieval Art in Paris.)

Is it entirely an accident that a Bidjar Harshang almost identical to the one shown below was chosen by the set designers?

Maybe not. More than a few Europeans and Americans who are now deep into adulthood have memories of oriental carpets in university rooms. And a generation earlier, rugs were far common.

Bidjars are the natural choice for such high-wear settings. Produced in and around the northwestern Iran town of the same name, they are the most strongly made and indestructible carpets of all.

Their nickname, after all, is the 'Iron Rugs' of Persia. They are so densely woven and stiff that they cannot even be folded for transportation. Instead, they have to be rolled up.

Below is a photo of the library room in Eliot House at Harvard University. On the floor – again -- a Bidjar Harshang. Only this time the carpet has a red background.

Seeing an oriental carpet in a university common room may not just be nostalgic for lots of adults who watch Harry Potter with their children.

It also is a reminder of the huge export industry which once thrived in northwestern Iran producing room-sized rugs of all types for wealthy Western institutions and homes.

The peak was at the turn-of-the-last-century, when an oriental rug on the floor was the symbol of both a wide view of the world and of a certain standing.

The story of this export industry is well illustrated by the success of Ziegler & Company. The Anglo-British firm based in Manchester, England, was among the first to realize that the West’s ‘Gilded Age’ needed giant rugs that complemented Western room decors of the time.

Arto Keshishian, writing in the magazine Antiques and Fine Arts, gives the background in his article ‘Ziegler and Their Carpets.’ He notes that by the 1850’s Europe’s cyclical interest in the orient was on the upswing again and department stores began stocking up on the existing village and workshop carpets available in Iran.

But, he writes, "unfortunately, the carpets were generally either too long or too narrow for the rooms of the new English homes, because the imported carpets were designed in a traditional format to fit urban, Persian rooms."

The Ziegler Company saw an opportunity. At the time, it was selling printed cottons produced by the Manchester mills to customers in Iran and Turkey. But it changed direction, set up its own looms in northwestern Iran around the town of Sultanabad (now Arak) and began supplying hand-woven carpets to the British market instead.

Ziegler and Company revolutionized oriental carpet production by enlarging the sizes and simplifying the patterns. The company’s artists introduced more space between traditional Persian design elements to achieve, in Keshishian’s words, “an airy visual effect.”

At the same time, “fewer color combinations were used, resulting in a simpler balance and harmony; the color green was liberally incorporated, perhaps to echo the English fondness for the countryside.”

Ziegler did not produce Bidjars and its designs, as shown here, look nothing like the carpet spread across Harry Potter’s floor.

But the principles Ziegler exemplified offer some time-tested guidelines as to how carpet producers respond to changes in the market and supply what each new generation wants.

Will the next generation surprise its parents by switching back from the abstract, tribal carpet designs popular today to the lush feel of turn-of-the-last century Bidjars and Zieglers? Only the next generation can answer and, at the moment, its members are still window-shopping – or should we say movie-shopping – the options.




Related Links:

Barry O’Connell’s Carpet Guide: Bijar Rugs

O’Connell Notes: Bidjar Rugs and Carpets

'Ziegler and Their Carpets' by Arto Keshishian

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Brussels Celebrates Savonnerie Carpets With 700,000 Begonias

BRUSSELS, August 29, 2008 – Every summer, Brussels weaves a giant carpet of begonia blooms that covers almost the entire Grande Place.

The flower carpet does not last long: just three days and four nights. And the amount of work is immense, with hundreds of volunteers arranging some 700,000 begonias (knot count of 300 flowers per square meter) into a meticulously planned pattern.

Still, Brussels considers the effort worthwhile.

The annual event, which began in 1971, reminds the world that Belgium is the world’s biggest producer of begonias -- exporting about 48 million bulbs a year.

Plus, the flower carpet reminds everyone that Belgium also is one of the world’s largest makers and exporters of carpets -- machine-made.

This year, the floral design (above) honored France’s Savonnerie carpets. Doing so, it recalled the days when European weavers first “Occidentalized” oriental rugs on a commercial scale, setting the stage for today’s immensely successful Western rug industry.

Savonnerie carpets were first produced in the early 1600s and combined Eastern pile-rug weaving with French Baroque designs. The success of the patterns – whose motifs include flower bouquets, fleur-de-lys, fruits, and acanthus leaves – was so great that it swung European taste away from oriental rugs for two centuries.

Here is a Baroque carpet in the kind of typical French interior design that defined Western standards of elegance at the time.

Just how Europe developed its own handwoven carpet industry is a fascinating story with two parts.

The first is the deliberate effort by French kings to monopolize the luxury carpet market in Europe, which was previously supplied from the East.

The second is the coincidence of this effort with a sudden feeling of Western cultural superiority as Europe’s kingdoms first became world powers.

Some steps along the way:

* King Henri IV (1533 – 1610) decides to revive France’s luxury goods industry, which was decimated in France’s wars of religion. He provides leading artisans, including weavers, with workshops in the Louvre.

** Weaving master Pierre DuPont establishes the style that will become famous as “Savonnerie.” The name is taken from the Paris soap factory which becomes the location of a major carpet workshop in 1644.

*** European forces defeat the Ottoman army besieging Vienna in 1683. The victory convinces High Renaissance Europe of its cultural supremacy over its Eastern rivals.

**** King Louis XIV bans the import of oriental carpets into France, protecting French production and ending the huge outflow of revenues to buy luxury goods from the East.

Europe’s handwoven carpets had many variations, including Savonnerie and Aubusson in France and, later, Axminster and Wilton in Britain.

Here is a 19th century Aubusson carpet from France. The carpet is available to collectors from the Nazmiyal Collection in New York.

Such carpets were commissioned only by courts and by the very wealthy. Their patterns proved adaptable enough to be a centerpiece of furnishing from the Baroque and Neoclassical periods into the Napoleonic era.

It was Napoleon, in fact, who gave the Savonnerie factory its last great royal support. Beginning in 1805, he commissioned carpets in the Empire style that defined his age.

The Savonnerie’s story finally ends in 1825 when the manufactory was incorporated with another weaving workshop, the Gobelins, which was famous for tapestries. By this time, the passion for European handwoven carpets had faded under a new set of social circumstances.

Among them was colonialism. As Europeans expanded across the globe, they came again into direct contact with oriental artwork and renewed their interest in it. By the mid-1850’s imports of oriental rugs were booming, along with Orientalism in general.

But perhaps still more fateful for the European hand-knotted carpet industry was the invention of the steam-powered loom in 1785. Carpet producers quickly discovered they could earn much more with mass production for the expanding middle class than they could with artisinal production for just the very rich. Within 50 years, the great names in European handwoven rugs disappeared or became associated with machine-made carpets instead.

Today, one can still buy Savonnerie carpets but they are reproductions hand-made in China. And one can still buy Axminister carpets, but they are machine-made in England (as pictured here).

Does all this make Brussels' Savonnerie flower carpet a bittersweet souvenir of Europe’s rug-making industry?

Champions of hand-knotted carpets might say ‘yes’ if it reminds them too much of a glorious past gone forever.

But one can also argue that history must take its course and that the way Savonnerie carpets evolved into today’s multi-billion dollar machine-made carpet industry is as amazing as any other aspect of the rug trade.

If so, the Savonnerie which bloomed in Brussels' Grande Place this year from August 15 to 17 is a perfect symbol for Europe’s carpet world.

Related Links:

YouTube: Brussels Flower Carpet 2008 - Savonnerie

Brussels Flower Carpet: official website

Wikipedia: Savonnerie

Early Axminster Carpets, by Brenda Rose

Renaissance Carpets and Tapestries Company

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Every Era Sees Oriental Rugs It's Own Way

PRAGUE, August 15, 2008 -- Oriental carpets have caught the eye of Western writers ever since they began trickling into Europe in the 13th century or earlier.

But how Western writers look at these exotic creations has changed dramatically over the years.

In the early days, carpets were symbols of impossible luxury and power. They helped seal alliances between the Ottoman court and European kings, and ambassadors carefully recorded their acceptance and delivery.

Just what potent symbols these objects of art could be is apparent in this brief description of the victorious Sultan Suleyman II summoning the Hungarian king John to him immediately after the battle of Mohacs in 1526:

“Along the short mile the King traversed to go to the Emperor, Turkish and various fine carpets were laid on the earth as far as the tent of the Emperor.”

The words belong to the Hungarian royal chaplain George Szerémy, who was there. The picture of Sultan Suleyman II above is from an Ottoman court miniature.

Over time, carpets as trappings of royal command found their way (in reduced versions) into more and more Western households. First nobility, then merchants and then, with the industrial age, the ever more comfortable middle class bought eastern rugs. So many, in fact, that by the mid-1800s, the way carpets were displayed in Western homes could be an issue of public debate.

Edgar Allen Poe is best remembered today as an American pioneer of the Romanticist Horror genre. But he was also a well-known literary and, sometimes, social critic who contributed an essay entitled 'The Philosophy of Furniture' to Burton's Gentleman's Magazine in 1840:

“Carpets are better understood of late than of ancient days, but we still very frequently err in their patterns and colours. A carpet is the soul of the apartment. From it are deduced not only the hues but the forms of all objects incumbent. A judge at common law may be an ordinary man; a good judge of a carpet must be a genius. Yet I have heard fellows discourse of carpets with the visage of a sheep in reverie — "d'un mouton qui rêve" — who should not and who could not be entrusted with the management of their own moustachios."

Poe goes on to accuse the main commercial carpet centers of his day of violating all public standards of good taste. "Brussels is the preterpluperfect tense of fashion" in Western rugs, he claims, and "Turkey is taste in its dying agonies" for Eastern ones.

What does Poe like? Well, colors that are not too lively. "A carpet should not be bedizzened out like a Riccaree Indian — all red chalk, yellow ochre, and cock's feathers," he says, apparently having seen something like that on someone's floor. As for patterns, only non-figurative and preferably Arabesque. "Distinct grounds and vivid circular figures, of no meaning," are his maxim.

If Poe seems surprisingly argumentative about carpets, he is only a little ahead of his time. By the end of the 1800s, passions rose still higher.

Britain's The Burlington Magazine for Connoisseurs offers this view of carpet collecting in a 1903 commentary:

“There are, I must suppose, but few hobbies that claim so absorbing a devotion as does the pursuit of the oriental carpet. Every hobby, no doubt demands a good deal from its victims, but the exactions of most of them are tempered with mercy: thus the collector of old furniture does not necessarily cut himself adrift from pictures, nor does the lover of old arms from bric-a-brac; but the oriental carpet is inexorable and remorseless, and the true carpet lover gives himself to carpets and to carpets only. They are his pictures, his furniture, his bric-a-brac, his all. True, the field of the oriental carpet seeker is an immensely wide one. His horizon extends from Morocco to China, and the period during which the objects of his affections have existed, and existed as they do today, dates back to the days of the Pharaohs; in the palaces of ancient Egypt they were employed as decorations and the priests at Heliopolis used them at religious ceremonies.”

Whether these notes about the ancient Egyptians are well-researched, we can't say. But just a few years later, the same magazine makes it clear that a real connoisseur should and can get to a museum or bookstore to learn more about rugs:

"Not very long ago oriental carpets were bought only as house decorations. It is not much more than a decade since our museums accorded them notice on their own account. Today, however, we have turned over a new leaf. Bode, who may in one word be called the magnet of modern art dealing, has devoted intense labour to carpets and filled with them two rooms in the Kaiser-Friedrich Museum at Berlin. Since the transition of our interest in this species of art from art-craft to the actual art museums, the carpet has become a distinguished gentleman in the salons of science. I know of at least half a dozen books already written or in the press which will go into the new problem. The first of these works – a standard work in compass and contents – lies before me: F.R. Martin’s 'History of Oriental Carpets before 1800.'

The article, which appeared in 1908 translated from German, is signed Professor Josef Strzygowski. Pictured here is the Central Asian collection of the Russian pavillion at the 1900 Paris Exhibition, an event that greatly increased Western interest in the rugs of Turkestan.

Today, good taste, a collector's passion, and scholarly interest are all part of our outlook on oriental carpets. And there is still a sense of medieval awe that overwhelms anyone standing before a masterwork of the Mamluke, Ottoman, Safavid, or Mughal courts.

But contemporary writers also express something new, and that is anxiety - with a capital "A" - about something no previous generation had to think about. The anxiety is that today the chance of finding any new, as yet undiscovered, weaving cultures is nil and that, meanwhile, all the known weaving cultures are rapidly modernizing.

This gives rise to worries that come in both mild and potent varieties. The mild version is that carpet collecting has now reached a dead end and the thrill of new discoveries must give way to recycling what we have. The potent version is fear that the growing globalization of the carpet market will eventually drive many weaving cultures to extinction.

Here is the abstract of a scholarly paper presented in 1999 by anthropologist Tom O'Neill of Canada's University of Western Ontario. It describes how classical Tibetan weaving (below left) has turned into modern Tibetan-refugee weaving (below right) in Nepal:

"The popularity of the Tibeto-Nepalese carpet in the European hand-knotted carpet market created a modern industry in peri-urban Kathmandu, Nepal, that established the Tibetan refugee population there as well as a new class of Nepalese entrepreneur. This paper employs Igor Kopytoff's (1986) perspective on the social life of things and Keith Hart's (1982) definition of commoditization to argue that the short career of the Tibeto-Nepalese carpet as an export commodity has been one of increasing homogenization that has transformed the materials, weaving techniques, and meanings of the carpet.Easy access to the lucrative 'middle' markets of Europe has meant that Tibeto-Nepalese carpets are now standardized to compete with other categories of floor coverings, and that the unique hand-knotted quality desired by connoisseurs and collectors is slowly being eliminated."

The article is entitled 'The Lives of the Tibeto-Nepalese Carpet' and appears in the Journal of Material Culture, 1999.

How will writers of future eras view the art of oriental carpets? As the 21st century only just begins, it is far too early to guess. But if the past is any guide, the subject will remain as full of surprises tomorrow as it is today, or was yesterday.




Related Links:

Edgar Allen Poe: The Philosophy of Furniture

The Burlington Magazine: On Carpets

The Burlington Magazine: Oriental Carpets

Tom O’Neill: The Lives of the Tibeto-Nepalese Carpet