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Tread softly…

Wall-to-wall carpets are back in fashion as homeowners rediscover “barefoot” luxury. Charlotte Abrahams reports.

March 01 2012
Charlotte Abrahams

One of the highlights of last year’s London Design Festival was French designers Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec’s “Textile Field” stretched across the floor of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Raphael room. This cavernous, tiled space, popular with fans of the Renaissance master’s work, is no place to linger. However, the addition of, in effect, a giant carpet (made by Danish textile company Kvadrat) turned the room into a welcoming hangout space, where bare-footed folk walked, laid down and even somersaulted over the boldly striped wool and viscose panels. This would never have happened on those tiles because, elegant and minimal though hard floors are, they do not invite us to be comfortable.

And it is homeowners’ increasing desire to make themselves truly comfortable that explains why top-end carpet companies around the world are reporting buoyant sales. At the German company JAB Anstoetz, for example, sales were up 40 per cent last year, while Richard Meager, the founder and managing director of the British handmade carpet specialist Jacaranda Carpets, says its sales have risen by between 20 and 25 per cent year-on-year and that they are “now at a level I never dreamt of when I started the business eight years ago”. Its ranges include the Simla, available as a 4m and 5m broadloom (£168sq m), or as a bespoke made-to-measure rug (from £350).

“Fifteen years ago, people were going off carpet in favour of wood and high-tech laminates,” explains John Erkelens, the Europe, Middle East and Russia sales director for artisan carpet maker Tufenkian. “But after a while, they found that, especially in large rooms, hard floors are noisy and cold. So now we are seeing a return to carpet as people realise that it’s the only way to achieve the comfort and luxury they are looking for.”

Interior designer Charlotte Crosland agrees. A carpet fan herself – she laid a patterned sisal on her own stairs (Barbara coir by Sinclair Till, £85.90sq m) long ago – she recently persuaded a minimally minded family to cover all their wooden floors with sisal. “Sisal [a natural fibre] is a great solution for people who are unsure about going back to carpet,” she says, “because it still looks clean and contemporary but is also quiet and warm.”

Silk is also popular, despite a 40-60 per cent rise in its cost on the global wholesale market that has pushed prices to upwards of £900 per metre. The flat texture and slight sheen sit well with pared-down furniture and it is a joy to touch. The same is true of Mongolian cashmere, currently doing a brisk trade for custom-made, hand-knotted rug and carpet designer Luke Irwin. These carpets retail at £1,440 per metre and are best reserved for low-traffic areas such as the bedroom. But as sensory experiences go, walking barefoot on Mongolian cashmere is hard to beat.

However, while comfort is the main reason for the great carpet revival, it is not the only one. When carpets go wall-to-wall they make rooms feel bigger because they lead the eye to the very edges of a space. They also solve the dilemma of whether to have the furniture on or off an occasional rug. And when they are bespoke, carpets offer homemakers a wonderful opportunity to express their individuality. “There is so much choice,” says Crosland. “Carpet companies are producing exciting colours and patterns – I’ve just commissioned a bright red sisal for a client [sisal from £32sq m from Sinclair Till].”

This greater choice hasn’t come about through technological developments, since most handmade carpets are still produced almost exactly as they were 40 years ago, but because today’s consumers are more willing to experiment. (Tufting is now generally done with a hand-operated gun and designs are often produced on a computer then projected on to the canvas, rather than being drawn on, but that’s about the extent of the changes.) Having re-embraced colour and print for our walls and furnishings, more of us are now doing the same for our floors.

While it’s true that neutral shades still seem to be the most popular in northern Europe, Crosland’s clients are not the only ones asking for jewel-bright tones. At international bespoke carpet company Tai Ping, pinks, purples and blues are enjoying a moment in the spotlight. One customer has asked them to cover six flights of stairs in a deep purple, semi-worsted runner with a neutral silk border (£113sq m).

“People are tired of mass-produced, ubiquitous products,” says Nathan Beckwith, Tai Ping’s UK director, “and they are now looking for things that are beautiful, extraordinary and unique instead.”

And it’s this search for something unique that is helping to drive the boom in bespoke. If you have the budget (£400 per metre is not uncommon), anything is possible – from the elliptical design with silk highlights, which bespoke carpet specialist Craigie Stockwell created recently to reflect the curves of a hallway (price on request), to stair carpets bearing family crests and pure silk re-creations of decorative ceilings.

One commission, for a carpet that is entirely hand-tufted and which incorporates approximately 25 specially dyed colours (£1,563sq m) – destined for a drawing room with a Robert Adam ceiling – will take Tai Ping’s craftsmen around 15 weeks to complete. When finished, it will be a one-off and the client will know not only where it was dyed and knotted but also by whom.

The Japanese fashion designer Kenzo Takada, creator of the Kenzo brand, designed a collection of hand-tufted rugs for Tai Ping called Rêves d’Orient. One of the rugs, “Kasuri”, made of silk, wall to wall, was designed for his own Paris residence secondaire (£760.50sq m).

But not everyone is able to invest the time and money. Customised carpets – for which companies let their clients adapt ready-to-lay collections to suit their own size or colour requirements – offer a faster, less expensive, alternative. For example, natural flooring specialist Alternative Flooring, in response to customer demand for something more personal, launched the “Quirky” collection (£96 per linear metre), which lets clients mix and match from a bank of colours and patterns – with often exuberant results.

JAB Anstoetz also provides a custom-made service and has recently produced a unique piece of flooring made from stripes of different carpets from the standard collection (£590sq m). The customised service is, naturally, less expensive than bespoke. Mike Constable, JAB’s UK managing director, says, “Lots of our clients have both – bespoke for the living room and bedroom and customised for the rest of the house.”

And if you feel like being creative, you can design your own carpet and choose how you lay it, too. The Esprit Home Islands collection, produced with German company Vorwerk, has turned the much-maligned carpet tile into an innovative jigsaw (from £80 per 1.5sq m). Cut into interlocking, geometric shapes, the tiles can be configured in a myriad of ways and, since the collection includes 16 colours and two textures (shaggy and velvet) you can seriously experiment.

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