Author: Robert Nicholson

One of the great opportunities that still exists in the twenty-first century is the ability to acquire rugs that are made entirely by hand. The most common examples are hand-knotted rugs, (those with pile), or flat-weave rugs, (such as kilim, soumak or dhurrie rugs). From classical Persian rugs to modernist creations from India and Nepal, all represent an unbroken tradition of human skill and artistry.   Navigating the various choices available can be confusing, so let’s have a look at some of the questions you might want to ask yourself before you start to shop for “the one.” 

Understanding visual hierarchy

We typically walk with our eyes forward focused on the floor about six feet in front of us.  This means that as we enter a room or any space our vision is focused on the floor, or the rug upon the floor if that’s the case.  The visual information that the rug gives us informs our perceptions and influences us on a subtle level.  The colors used in the rug will create the basis of the palette for the room.  The size and proportions of the rug will tend to define the feelings of inclusivity of the room.  So the rug is really the visual foundation around which the room is built. 

Start with the rug – color is the key to harmony

Understanding the role of the rug in the visual hierarchy, we can begin to approach the issue of color.  While color is probably the most subjective aspect of rug buying, it is important to remember that you’ll want your furnishings to work harmoniously with your choice of rug.  If you have the luxury of planning to buy new furniture for the room as well it really is important to start with the rug.  There are usually numerous color selections possible for both fabrics and wall coverings in whatever style, design or texture you could desire.  The same is not always true for a hand-woven rug. 

Of course, there is often an option to produce a rug with custom colors, but that will not work for those of us who delight in antique or vintage rugs.  Similarly, there are many beautiful hand-knotted rugs that you may just fall in love with that can’t be reproduced.  So why limit your options unnecessarily?

If your intent is to find a rug to work with existing furniture, it’s always helpful to go rug-shopping with a fabric swatch or cushion in hand, as well as any paint samples, floor samples (if possible) and photos of art on the wall.  Photos of existing rugs in adjoining areas are extremely helpful as well.  It’s important to keep in mind that there is a natural visual flow when colors work together, whether it’s the way the colors of the rug play with the furniture or the way that the colors of one rug work with existing rugs that are in adjacent areas.  The response to color tends to be more visceral .  We don’t stop and think about it.  That means we don’t have to be as concerned with how the design of one rug might relate to another rug.  In fact, if the colors flow well it can be wonderful to mix contemporary with transitional or traditional rugs.  A rug with minimal design and color might be the perfect compliment to that cherished heirloom Persian rug.

Types of rugs – Traditional, contemporary, tribal, transitional and antique

Hand-made rug buyers today have far more choices than they did in the past.  Rugs are made in many shapes, sizes and styles.  Traditional Persian rugs and related rug designs from India, Pakistan and Turkey (often referred to as Oriental rugs) no longer dominate the market.   Modern rug design has exploded in recent years, resulting in a greater range of design styles, color choices and textures. 

Some rugs are even produced to order with with a distressed look, which is generally achieved by using abrasive or caustic agents to reduce the pile after the rug is completed.  This gives the rug a vintage look and feel.  The durability of the rug will have also been reduced somewhat, so it is important to recognize that.  Generally speaking a finer, more densely woven rug can be reduced in pile height through the distressing process with relatively less impact on its floor life than a more coarsely knotted rug.

Transitional rugs are those with designs that bridge the traditional aesthetic with the modern.  Classical rug design elements may be incorporated, but the pattern will have been deconstructed or altered stylistically.  The borders are often missing, and the rug just doesn’t feel like it belongs to the style of any one period. 

Tribal rugs is a term that we typically give to those rugs produced by nomadic or village weavers.  The designs, structure, materials and colors used are often easily identified as the work of particular groups, as designs and techniques were often passed down from one generation to the next.  Many tribal rugs in the past were smaller, scatter sizes, reflecting the loom sizes of nomadic and village weaving groups.

Today we find tribal rug designs being used in modern productions as well.  The bold angularity and vibrancy of tribal rug design works well modern interiors.  Larger looms of today can produce carpets of larger sizes, so we’re no longer limited to scatter sizes.

Antique rugs, those generally made in the first quarter of the twentieth century or earlier, offer a rich array of designs and colors to choose from.  Serapi and Heriz carpets, in particular, have an appeal due to their more geometric design sense.  Urban weaving centers, like Kerman, Tabriz and Kashan, became known for their intricate floral designs. The longevity of these rugs is simply amazing, and it’s quite possible to find many of these types of rugs in serviceable condition today.  It’s best to work with a reputable dealer who will inform you regarding the condition of the rug and will likely have made any necessary repairs.

Contemporary rugs – wool, silk, color and texture all come together

Contemporary rug design really developed in Nepal and has since spread to become a large part of the rug business in India as well.  High mountain sheep produce lanolin-rich wool with a special luster and greater soil resistance. The use of silk gives luminosity as well as a greater range of color   As the whole field of contemporary rug design has evolved over the past few decades, the sophistication of weaving techniques has kept pace.  Using higher knot counts and subtle color shading, artisans weave rugs that are reminiscent of watercolors. 

Having quality controls is essential, especially when it comes to the weaving of rugs in custom sizes or with color changes.  The custom process may be a bit more involved, but there are times when the sizes offered just won’t work or the colors may need some tweaking to make it just right.  Working with a reputable dealer who has years of experience in this field is essential.  Of course, the increased time when doing custom is just one more reason why it’s important to start with the rug.