The contemporary rug is on the rise. Once dismissed as cheap, cheerful and mass-produced, it has long been seen as a poor relation of the antique Persian carpet. But although such rugs exist (and have their own advantages), a handful of companies are creating a rather different type of contemporary rug: one that is handmade and upmarket, produced slowly by skilled craftsmen; one that marries traditional techniques with new designs.
Christopher Sharp, co-founder of the Rug Company, is a connoisseur of the handmade rug. His company’s rugs are designed by top designers such as Vivienne Westwood and Paul Smith, and handmade by craftsmen in Nepal. They use Tibetan wool, prized for its high lanolin content, which protects the rug and prolongs its lifespan.
The wool is dyed in batches by a “master dyer” – a role that combines “chemist and artist and is given a huge amount of status,” according to Sharp. “Our whole principle is we’re going to make these rugs exactly in the way that they’ve always been made,” he says. “We’re not going to cut any corners and we’re going to apply contemporary design to a traditional craft.”
Luke Irwin is another champion of the contemporary rug and has been designing and making hand-knotted and custom-made rugs since 2003. His rugs are made in Nepal and Rajasthan in the traditional manner; hand-tied on upright looms, by several people working side-by-side.
The designs in Irwin’s new Pimlico showroom include traditional-looking Persian rugs in both bold and more muted colours, as well as contemporary designs such as his American flag rug presented by the Irish foreign minister to President Obama, in which a flock of doves, rather than stars, spill over into the stripes.
“Rugs are weird,” says Irwin, “because they are not like paintings that you see vertically in front of you. You always see them from an oblique angle.” Irwin plays with the properties of the silk and wool threads and the idea of a rug being seen from above. His rugs often seem to move or rise as one walks past, and his earliest designs were based on crop circles, with the different fibres and lengths of wool mimicking the relief of a cornfield.
Each of the Rug Company’s rugs involves up to 20 different people and takes around five months to make, during which time, Sharp says, “there is someone working on the rug for the whole time”. Irwin’s rugs can take 12 to 14 weeks depending on the season (many of them are dried naturally in the sun) although he says that not everybody is prepared to wait that long. “We have western customers with western expectations but the manufacture and the process is eastern with eastern attitudes. The one luxury I ask for from every client is patience.”
What patience – and money – will hopefully buy, is longevity. “You’ve got handmade rugs that were woven in the 16th century, and there are quite a few of those still around,” says Sharp. “The way we make our rugs is exactly the same way as those rugs were made, so there is no reason to think that they shouldn’t be around in 400 to 500 years’ time.”