HANOVER, February 19, 2009 – No-one is surprised anymore at how many Western consumer items are produced in Asia.
But it can be a shock to see how many Western handcrafts are rapidly going the same way.
All over Europe, there are merchants selling crystal vases and glassware that once were locally made but now are just as likely to be made in China. The same is true for Baroque porcelain figurines, pewter candelabras, and handmade lace. If store owners remove the “made in” sticker, many buyers never notice the difference.
The East's workshops are excellent enough, and low cost enough, that they not only successfully compete with Europe’s traditional artisans, they also are putting many out of business. The news in December that cash-strapped Waterford Wedgwood is ready to sell off its once star acquisition Rosenthal – the famous German porcelain and china maker – is just one example.
A recent walk around Domotex, the carpet world’s largest annual trade show in Hanover, Germany, shows that Europe’s textile heritage is also no stranger to the trend.
The carpet show brings together producers from Turkey, Iran, India, China, Pakistan, and Nepal. For four days, they meet and trade with the wholesalers who supply Europe’s retail stores and boutiques with the whole spectrum of low-cost to luxury-grade oriental carpets. The styles on show range from classical to tribal to contemporary styles, so one expects to see a bit of everything.
But what one does not expect to see is something like a Moldovan village rug – the kind that is filled with memories of Old Europe. And yet here is one hanging on the wall of an Indian carpet-maker's booth with its characteristic design of roses -- the same roses that Moldovan peasant women traditionally weave into their ankle-length skirts and colorful headscarves.
Standing near the Moldovan rug is its producer, R. K. (Raju) Rawat of Manglam Arts, Jaipur. He is an affable man in a checkered sports jacket who looks pleased when a visitor recognizes how much his rug resembles the originals.
Rawat, who produces about 50 Moldovan rugs a month, says he got the idea some five years ago. That was when he saw some genuine Moldovan rugs on sale at an earlier Domotex show.
"I was attracted by Moldovan designs because of their feeling of freshness," he says. "They make you think about roses and gardens, and everyone loves roses."
But the dealer says getting Indian weavers to reproduce them was not easy. "I found one particular village that was interested, and the weavers were very flexible, but it still took a few years because they had just some photos to work from, they didn't have the original piece in their hands."
He pauses and then adds proudly, "but they did it!"
Have the Indian Moldovans been well received? Certainly.
"We brought them to Frankfurt's 'Heimtextil' show where designers and architects come and they really appreciated them. Even people from Moldova come and say this is fantastic!"
Mr. Rawat is a businessman and perfectly within his rights to reproduce any design he likes. But one has to wonder. If distant weavers take over this bit of Europe’s heritage, how long will it be before the rugs’ real origins become first, irrelevant and, then, forgotten?
It is not just a question that interests Europeans. Vast amounts of Persian carpets are hand-woven outside of Iran and almost all Caucasian carpets today are woven outside of the Caucasus.
The foreign producers reformat and simplify the original designs to fit their own concepts of what the global market wants.
In the case of the Caucasian carpets known as Kazaks that are woven in Pakistan, Afghanistan and India, the market has grown so used to their deliberately harmonized styles that those few weavers still working in the Caucasus get little competitive advantage by sticking to their traditional and much more spontaneous patterns.
Thinking about such things prompts one to walk around the rest of the fair in hopes of finding some genuine Moldovan rugs on sale as Rawat once did. It’s a daunting task. Domotex is a huge trade show, with several aircraft hangar-sized rooms filled with hand-woven carpets.
The carpets sprawl across the floor space in a vast array of knee-high and thigh-high piles, so the vast hangars resemble a giant bazaar. The richest carpet producers have glass enclosures. Others simply sit among their wares.
Everywhere, muscular porters are flipping back carpets as buyers look on with calculators in hand. As sales are made, in lots of dozens of carpets at a time, the porters stack them, bundle them in black plastic, and haul them away.
It is like looking for a needle in a haystack but, amazingly, almost invisible among the mountains of oriental rugs, there is a little stack of Moldovans. They are at the stand of a Turkish dealer, Ozmelek Hali.
How did they get here? One of the salesmen tells what he knows.
Before the trade show, the company went around the Istanbul bazaar collecting them from other dealers because it knows the carpets interest some European retailers. The rugs came to the Grand Bazaar in the suitcases of Moldovan travelers, who sell them cheaply for cash.
The Istanbul salesman, who has the air of a hard-working family man, observes a moment of silence after what he has just said. Moldova is Europe’s poorest nation, with 20 percent of its population working outside the country and sending back money to support the rest. The rugs are as likely to be personal heirlooms as workshop pieces. One of them has an inscription -- the name Iornuvera M. -- and a date, 1964.
It's striking how detailed the original Moldovans are compared to the copies. They are old, many are coarse and with dull colors, but they are definitely interesting.
And, it seems, appealing. Soon, three Norwegian retailers stop by. They circle the stack of old Moldovans with the keen eyes of people who have spotted what they are looking for.
The two women and a man are partners in a small home-furnishings catalog company called 'Home and Cottage' south of Oslo. It’s the kind of company that specializes in supplying rough, unvarnished chairs and dressers that look like they were stored for generations in the family attic.
Kaj Roger, the male partner, says the Moldovan carpets fit well with cottage decors. "We have a lot of cottages in Norway," he confides, "and at the cottage it should be Old Style. It's a place to relax."
Does he mean the Moldovan carpets somehow represent good old days, a grandmother's weavings, memories of lifetimes past?
The three Norwegians, who are entering middle age, do not object to any of these suggestions. One of the ladies pulls out the latest Home and Cottage catalog. She shows a picture of a Moldovan carpet in mellow golden and rust colors spread across a rough wood plank cabin floor. Then she shows another photo of a carpet draped across an ocean steamer trunk. The pictures are contrived but comforting. Old, bygone Europe.
Rawat's fresh and more brightly colored reproductions are not likely to appeal to the customers of Home and Cottage. But there is every reason to believe he will find a market. There are many successful precedents right here at Domotex, and they are not hard to spot.
In the middle of the sea of carpets, there is a small island that serves as a landmark for visitors. It is a restaurant with a terrace of tables ringed by houseplants which manages to look like an outdoor Biergarten. The restaurant competes bravely against the outside caterers who move around the trade show with freezer boxes full of curries and pilafs for the carpet producers.
To have a stand around the restaurant guarantees high visibility, so some of the biggest Persian producers are there. But so is one of the strangest sights of all: a large enclosure full of French Baroque carpets and tapestries.
It is the stand of Renaissance Carpets, a New York-based producer. Inside, one whole wall is covered with a 12 by 24 foot (3.6 x 7.3 meters) tapestry depicting scenes from a 17th century boar hunt. It is amazingly detailed, with all the characters in period costumes.
A young salesman in a department store suit is standing nearby. He has come over from New York because, he says, the company's tapestries and Aubusson and Savonnerie carpets sell equally well in Europe and the United States.
Who buys them?
"People who have houses in a similar style," he says nonchalantly, as if lots of people in the 21st century live in Baroque manor homes.
And where are they made?
The boar hunt tapestry, he explains, took three weavers seven months to complete, with a resident French artist overseeing the work. The cost is modest compared to the same piece woven in Europe. Just $ 18,000.
One can't help but admire the quality. If this is a copy, where is the original? In a museum?
"We own the original," the salesman says. The company bought it at an auction for $ 15,000. And with the purchase, it acquired the copyright.
One could ask more questions but suddenly there don't seem to be any left. If a copy can be this good-looking and inexpensive, there is no reason to insist -- except out of vanity -- that your replica French hunting tapestry should be woven in France. Who but an expert can tell if it is woven in China under a French tutor instead?
Or is that really enough? France today still has a viable tapestry industry that continues a rich cultural heritage. But as the market gets used to outsourcing, there is no certainty that it will have one forever.
One leaves Domotex with one's head spinning. Can art, whether it's in Europe, Iran, India, or Africa, be separated from its place of origin and history without simply becoming a commodity? And if it becomes a commodity, what can stop it from inevitably being reworked and simplified to appeal to the widest market, until its meaning and history are all but forgotten?
And, finally, if this is exactly what is happening with globalization, who should come to the rescue? The natural saviors are those who love the original carpets the most -- collectors. But collectors tend to collect carpets from the past, not the present. And doing so, they fail to support today's traditional artisans or guarantee the future.
Perhaps it's time to re-think the business of collecting. If the intention is to preserve carpets as a meaningful cultural patrimony, the efforts being made today may seem a lot less successful tomorrow than they do now.
(The photo at the top of this article is a detail from The Lady And The Unicorn tapestry series in the Cluny Museum, Paris.)
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