WASHINGTON, May 30, 2008 -- One of the most elegant times in America was the Jazz Age of the 1920s and 30s.
It was a time when, after the horrors of World War I, there was a taste for extravagant clothes and debonair film stars. Long silk gowns, men in 'smoking' attire and, on living room and bedroom floors, not antique Turkish and Persian carpets but – surprisingly – newly made Chinese ones.
Why Chinese? The answer is the strange story of the 'Chinese Art Deco' rugs. They were carpets that perfectly fit the spirit of their time and today still evoke that time and no other. But they came about almost by accident.
One of those accidents was the fact that World War I badly disrupted the usual Mideastern trade links for luxury carpets from Turkey and Iran. Another was that people wanted a break from the past in the design of virtually everything, from buildings to furniture to fabrics.
These opportunities were recognized by American entrepreneurs working in Tianjin, China. The port city, south of Beijing, was a major center in the international wool trade and until the 1900s had no history of rug manufacturing. But the expatriate U.S. traders soon turned it into one of China’s biggest weaving areas as they filled the vacuum in the American market, first with traditional Chinese carpets and then with more and more Western-looking variations of the originals.
Here is an example of a Chinese art deco carpet. The carpet is available to collectors from the Nazmiyal Collection in New York.
The most successful design that emerged was something that perfectly fit the Art Deco style of the day. The carpets so complimented what was going on in the West that they became known as Chinese Art Deco even though there was no Art Deco movement in China itself.
One American entrepreneur’s name in particular is associated with the rugs: Walter Nichols.
He produced so many of them in Tianjin that Chinese Art Deco rugs are also known generically as ‘Nichols’ rugs. But it has long been debated whether he and other American producers actually designed the carpets or whether the Chinese artists which they employed did so.
Elizabeth Bogen, one of the few rug scholars who has studied Tianjin rugs closely, believes it was the Chinese artists.
She finds her evidence in the fact that while the rugs were made for the American market – where Art Deco was characterized by industrial-looking, streamlined forms – great numbers of the Chinese weavings are effusively curvilinear and floral. And those curvilinear patterns seem much less inspired by what was happening in America than by the more naturalist-looking Art Deco tradition in France, half-a-world away.
So how to explain the contradiction in styles? Bogen observes that by the 1920s there were Chinese students who had studied art in many major art schools in Japan and Europe and were familiar with international trends.
In Paris, particularly, they found Western art was being heavily influenced by “Japonisme,” or a fascination with Japan’s styles. If these students later became artists for the Chinese Art Deco rugs, it might explain what Bogen calls the rugs’ “exuberant experimentation with Chinese, Japanese, and European design styles and pallets.”
Bogen made these suggestions in her article “What the Wool Trade Wrought,” which appeared in the September-October 2001 issue of Hali Magazine.
The design origins of the Chinese Art Deco rugs may never be fully known. But the whole story leads to some interesting speculation about how Eastern designs get modified for Western tastes and whether the results are in fact Eastern or Western creations.
Bogen argues that the Tianjin rugs were not just the result of an interplay of market forces but also of “contemporary currents in Western art – currents that in turn were heavily influenced by exposure to the arts of Japan and China.”
Put in other words, this is a reminder that the greatest tradition in art, even in the most traditional arts, is to freely borrow ideas across borders. To try to classify art – and particularly the contemporary art of any period – as belonging to one region or another is to miss the excitement of how art reflects a universal human experience as much as it does a local one.
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Elizabeth Bogen: What The Wool Trade Wrought
Elizabeth Bogen: "In Search of Walter Nichols"
Chinese Art Deco Rug Galleries:
Art Deco Society of Washington, D.C.
ArtLex Visual Dictionary