Artists’ rugs are the top of the pile
One of the highlights of this year’s Clerkenwell Design Week, held in central London, was a triptych of rugs hanging from the ceiling of a car loading bay. A collaboration between carpet company Brintons and artist and film-maker Shezad Dawood, who based his abstract designs on past paintings and reels of partly unexposed film, the rugs were made using a patented 32-colour high-definition weave.
“I had looked into doing designs for tapestries and rugs before but I was always put off by the lack of colour range,” says Dawood, a self-confessed colour obsessive. “Standard looms only allow for 12 different yarns to be woven so when I discovered that this loom does 32, I was like a kid in a candy shop.” For Dawood, who often uses cut-up vintage textiles on canvas as part of his work, turning to rugs was both a natural progression and a learning curve. “The way a loom assembles colours is very different to a painter. For one of the rugs, ‘Joe Versus the Volcano’, I wanted to up the mauve in one corner but it meant that it automatically appeared in other areas too.”
Colour was of the utmost importance to the late painter Howard Hodgkin who, shortly before his death in March, created his first ever rug to accompany Howard Hodgkin: Painting India, a current exhibition at the Hepworth Wakefield in West Yorkshire. The design for the limited-edition piece, which is made from Persian yarn and was hand-knotted in India, was painted by Hodgkin in France last year and produced in partnership with rug company Christopher Farr (there are only 60, which are for sale in the gallery’s shop).
“We were in Mumbai when we were sent two samples, one much more closely knotted than the other: Howard preferred the more pixelated effect of the widely dispersed knots,” recalls Hodgkin’s partner Antony Peattie. “We were then sent an enormous box of threads, around 1,400 colours, and we worked on matching the exact thread to the exact colour of the design.” Hodgkin, he says, used to display his collection of rugs on the wall — which is how he envisioned this design being seen too.
Of course, artists turning their hand to textiles is nothing new: the likes of Picasso and Calder included tapestries as part of their oeuvre. Yet, according to Matthew Bourne, co-founder of Christopher Farr, which has long paired up with artists and designers (Gary Hume, Gavin Turk and John Pawson, to name a few), the way we perceive rugs has changed. “Historically, rugs were highly prized items but recently they’ve been relegated to the role of accessory. What we’re trying to do is turn the clock back and make them valued again.”
Bourne’s rule of thumb for converting a painting into a rug is that “any given image will either gain or lose something by being translated into a textile: we try and identify those that gain something.” He cites working with Louise Bourgeois as an example. “Louise did a piece which was writing on a white background. If we had turned that into an inexpensive, tufted rug it would have just looked like text in flat wool but the fact that we made it into a Berber rug turned it into something else. The thick pile meant that the letters shifted around and it became a different object entirely.”
Another company elevating rugs to art is Italy-based Amini Carpets, which has teamed up with New York gallery R & Company for Woven Forms, a selling exhibition. Featuring hand-loomed carpets by 10 artists and designers, the show was held in Venice to coincide with the 57th Biennale (the series will have its New York premiere in Tribeca on October 12). Those involved included furniture maker Wendell Castle, whose design mimics large brushstrokes, and the Haas Brothers, who were inspired by animal-hide rugs to create brightly coloured extinct and fantasy beasts. In this instance, each designer was advised to avoid using pre-existing paintings or drawings and instead approach carpet as a new medium. “Most of the designers had never worked in textiles before so it allowed them to express their creativity in a different way,” says Ferid Amini, chief executive of Amini, which has also released a range of hand-spun Tibetan wool rugs dedicated to the graphics of 20th-century Italian rationalist Manlio Rho.
Fellow Italian company CC-Tapis also has rugs which feature geometric shapes by Patricia Urquiola and Memphis-inspired pieces by textile designer Mae Engelgeer. Elsewhere, designer Jaime Hayon has created the “Hayon x Nani” rug with Barcelona-based Nanimarquina to celebrate the textile company’s 30th anniversary. The design is a surreal-looking illustration. “I wanted to create something where the hand-drawn element could really be felt in the rug so it gives an environment an identity without overcrowding it,” he says. More abstract creations can be found at Tufenkian Artisan Carpets, where the “Helen Wild Berry” single-pile Himalayan wool and silk rug pays homage to the American expressionist Helen Frankenthaler. Overlapping hues mimic her technique of allowing colours to soak into untreated canvases to give a liquefied effect.
At German furniture maker Walter Knoll, the “Legends of Carpets” collection was inspired by chief executive Markus Benz’s safari holiday in Namibia. His photographs were translated, first into abstract paintings by textile artist Helmut Scheufele, and then into hand-knotted rugs that combine wool from Tibet, Chinese silk and nettle yarn. “These woven works of art are like little bits of landscape for your living room,” says Benz.
Rug designer Jan Kath, whose recent collection “Cloud” was inspired by the works of Baroque artists and the seascapes of the Dutch masters, agrees. “To be able to alter the common viewpoint that a carpet is ‘just a floor covering’ but rather artwork is a personal life achievement. A carpet design can change the feeling of a room in the same way a painting on the wall or sculpture in a garden transforms its surroundings.”
‘Howard Hodgkin: Painting India’ is at the Hepworth Wakefield until October 8, hepworthwakefield.org