Painterly rugs

Abstract rugs with painterly or photographic panache are bringing art into a new field of vision. Charlotte Abrahams reports

Stepevi wool/viscose Rose Cliff rug, £330 per sq m
Stepevi wool/viscose Rose Cliff rug, £330 per sq m | Image: Tom Mannion

“The function of a rug is to bring warmth and softness to a room; beyond that it becomes a canvas for ideas,” says Sofia Lagerkvist, one third of Swedish creative studio Front.

Its latest idea is to bring a feeling of the handmade into a machine‑made product, and the result, Moooi Carpets’ Scribble rug (£1,561, 2m x 3m), is precisely what its name implies: an exuberant, freeform scribble.

Moooi Carpets polyamide and felt Scribble rug, £1,561, 2m x 3m
Moooi Carpets polyamide and felt Scribble rug, £1,561, 2m x 3m | Image: Moooi Carpets

“Moooi has a Chromojet 800 printer, which is one of the most advanced types of printing machine on the market,” Lagerkvist explains. (The Chromojet 800 can produce thousands of colours and generate super-high definition, even photo-real, designs.) “Our challenge was to design a rug that made the most of this equipment, but we also wanted it to have some craft element too, a connection with the maker’s hand, so we simply got out all the coloured pencils in the studio and started to doodle a design.” That doodle was then printed in all its imprecise, hand‑drawn glory onto a 100 per cent polyamide cut‑pile rug, backed with felt.

Products that merge the handmade with the high-tech are very now, of course, but Scribble also taps into another, newer trend for rugs that resemble abstract watercolours. Where once high-end rugs were all about statement pattern and/or colour, the latest releases are more subtle and painterly. Colours blend, patterns blur.

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London-based rug designer Jennifer Manners launched her hand-knotted Abstract collection, which features soft tones arranged like brushstrokes, in 2014 and has since seen an upsurge in interest – including from actress Sheila Hancock, who commissioned one (from £975 per sq m) for her living room in bespoke colours that reflect the river outside and complement her art collection. “For me, part of the appeal of these watercolour-like rugs is that you can use lots of colours without the end result being too shouty,” Manners says. “I think the attraction is that these sophisticated but subtle designs have aesthetic longevity.”

Fellow Brit Tania Johnson uses photographs rather than paintings as the inspiration for her rugs, but the results are equally abstract. “A photograph contains millions of shades of colour,” she explains. “To translate it into a design for a hand-knotted rug means reducing the colours to as few as possible, and the challenge is to do that without losing the intricacy and feel of the original.”

Paul Smith for The Rug Company Tibetan-wool Paint Stripe rug, £985 per sq m
Paul Smith for The Rug Company Tibetan-wool Paint Stripe rug, £985 per sq m

One of her most recent designs, Tree Mist (from £1,355 per sq m), is based on a series of textural photographs of shadows and reflections that she shot from the windows of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Taken from her latest collection, Journeys in Colour, it uses 13 colours, each of which merges seamlessly into the next. Creating this smudged effect is a highly skilled process that requires the Nepalese craftspeople who weave Johnson’s designs to mix up to three shades per knot, and to vary the combination of yarns. “The different gradations in tone come from both the colours and the fibres,” Johnson explains. “Wool and silk catch the light differently, and the knots are two silk to one wool or vice versa.”

Bazaar Velvet’s latest wool and silk rug, Pacha Multi (from £680 per sq m), also owes its soft, painterly beauty to the Rajasthan-based weaver’s ability to blend varying shades of wool and silk threads in a single knot. Launched last autumn, it has already become one of the company’s bestsellers. “This collection really pushes the boundaries of hand-knotted rugs, and the result is a piece with movement and texture,” says Bazaar Velvet’s owner Chris Mould. “Mixing and blending colours like this means that the colour moves slowly, rather as it does in a painting, and I think our clients appreciate that sophistication and subtlety.”

Jennifer Manners Tibetan-wool/silk Venetian Swirl rug, from £975 per sq m
Jennifer Manners Tibetan-wool/silk Venetian Swirl rug, from £975 per sq m | Image: Gabor Hevesi

Aigars Zelmenis, owner and creative director of rug company Front, believes many clients have become tired of obvious patterns. In fact, he is so convinced that bold prints have had their day that he has just taken on Zoë Luyendijk, a designer little known outside her native Canada, whose Dance With Me collection of hand-knotted Tibetan-highland wool and silk rugs (prices on request) are an extraordinarily complex blend of colours and varying pile heights. “These nuanced rugs play with light and shadows rather like a Monet painting,” he says.

It’s too early to know how popular Luyendijk’s work will prove, but Zelmenis’ confidence is based on the runaway success of the Artwork hand-knotted rug collection (£1,850 per sq m). Designed by German rug supremo Jan Kath in 2014, it now consists of 20 designs and is a bestseller in Riga, Moscow and London.

Tania Johnson Design wool/silk Tree Mist rug, from £1,355 per sq m
Tania Johnson Design wool/silk Tree Mist rug, from £1,355 per sq m | Image: Tania Johnson Design

Kath is currently working on several Artwork rugs for a bank in Hong Kong and has just completed a 40 sq m version for a private client in London. “I think this trend is part of the wider one for blurring the boundaries between art and design,” he says. “An abstract rug that resembles a painting is a way of bringing art off the wall and into another dimension. However, because design, unlike art, must have a purpose, we are happy to adapt our designs to suit the client’s interior.”

Ptolemy Mann is a British weaver working at the interface between art, design and craft. Specialising in flatweave and knotted-pile rugs, one of her newer designs, Scarpa (£2,475, 3m x 3m), belongs to a collection of rugs that were inspired by a series of traditional, midcentury gelims, made in a remote border region of northern Iran, that she came across in a book, Undiscovered Minimalism. “What’s important about gelims is that they are technique-led,” she says, “and the technique is essentially about the dyeing of the weft threads and then how that dyed thread is woven.” Mann used weavers based near Varanasi, India, who sit at a pit pedal loom and throw the shuttle back and forth, skilfully placing the coloured weft threads in exactly the right place each time. Traditionally, gelims were woven in strips and then sewn together, but Mann’s weavers can make a 4m x 7m rug as a single piece (a fact that amazed the American visitors to Mann’s stand at last autumn’s London Design Festival), so the colours seem to seep seamlessly into each other.

Ptolemy Mann wool Scarpa rug, £2,475, 3m by 3m
Ptolemy Mann wool Scarpa rug, £2,475, 3m by 3m | Image: Ruth Mann

In Paul Smith’s latest creation for The Rug Company, Paint Stripe (£985 per sq m), the colours run rather than seep in apparently viscose lines down the length of the rug. The effect is remarkably realistic – the lines wobble and break off – which gives Smith’s signature stripes a subtle, abstract feel that chimes perfectly with the painterly trend.

“The appeal of most painterly rugs is that they make a modest statement,” says The Rug Company’s founder Christopher Sharp. “This one is different. Although the design is of dripping paint, the colours are well defined, strong and separated. It is a statement piece, perfectly capable of defining a space and being a real showstopper.”

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It’s not only the colours that create the painterly effect; texture plays an important role too. In Pacha Multi and Dance With Me, the pile height varies, while Artwork is made from a combination of wool, silk and Tibetan nettle fibre. The silk reflects the light, while the nettle fibres, which don’t absorb colour, introduce natural tones of brown and beige and a slightly rougher texture, creating the impression of a rug that has been handed down through the generations, rather than recently knotted in India.

Stepevi’s design approach is also based on surface texture, but this Turkish company uses sophisticated modern yarns and produces its rugs using cutting-edge, auto-tufting technology. Its Pixel collection, which launched in the autumn of 2015 and has already become a star item in both London and New York, was inspired by the rose fields that surround the company’s factory in Isparta, but the designs have been abstracted until they are no more than a faint echo of those flowery fields, as in Rose Cliff (£330 per sq m). “Abstract designs don’t impose any limitations on the customer,” says Aysegul Yurekli-Sengor, managing director.

And that’s what lies at the heart of this trend. However painterly a rug is, it is still a decorative item and must work with the interior decor. A rug that reflects the artwork on the wall, sets off the furniture, tolerates a certain amount of wear and tear and still manages to make a statement is a rug worth having. If it also speaks of the incredible craft skills of its maker, then it is worth holding on to, even when fashions move on.

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