Facing in the wrong direction The rug world’s fixation with the vague, outmoded notion of ‘Oriental’ is a symptom of its need to address reality, argues Colin Wilde.
It is high time we disabused rugs of the term ‘Oriental’. Used pejoratively since the Middle Ages for everything exotic east of Istanbul, it fell from use in the post-colonial clean-up of western thinking. Such simplistic labels are wholly inadequate to describe a hugely complex continent the size of Asia.
Unfortunately, nobody told the rug world. We seem quite happy putting the same sticker on all rugs. But this should come as no surprise to anyone aware of the industry’s resistance to cultural or political shifts.
Rugs are unique among art forms in being little changed in style or form since the Bronze Age. And this is largely the problem. Stuck in a historical rut for the past 3,500 years, nobody is even sure whether they are an art form or a decorator’s appendage. Trapped between form and function, are rugs meant to be art, or simply floor coverings?
Weaving meisters throughout history have largely gone unnamed, unnoticed and poorly rewarded. As the poor relative of the creative arts, carpets have failed to attract any Leonardos, or even a Monet or Matisse. There have been no great breakthroughs to compare to Impressionism or Abstraction.
A scattering of woven masterpieces in museums and collections around the world are wonders to behold and bring joy to many, but the great rug relics are sadly few. It is a miracle that the craft has survived at all. Virtually unchanged until recent times, this ancient craft skill is rapidly disappearing. Weavers have left their looms and villages behind, and migrated to the cities in search of more lucrative work.
Weaving, like the rest of modern manufacturing, moves to wherever the cheapest labour is. In the quest to drive down costs, quality is being sacrificed. Once gone, it takes a long time for these skills to be resurrected, if they ever can be.
Turkey is a classic casualty of modern market economics. As the country develops, labour costs rise and rugs become too expensive to produce there, pricing weavers out.
But a far subtler problem poses a threat to the continued existence of handmade rugs. The rug makers and their masters refuse to recognise what people want. The dominant styles and patterns being mindlessly reproduced are more suited to 18th-century mosques or nomad tents than a modern living room in the West.
In reality, people don’t give a fig about the ‘Oriental’ in carpet. They’re fools if they do, because these products are designed in Denver and woven in China, India or Nepal sometimes with New Zealand wool dyed in Leverkeusen. There may be nothing wrong with the final product, but just because it is sold, for instance, in Turkey that does not make it Turkish.
Western department stores no longer source carpets in Turkey because of cost; nor in Iran, because of outmoded design and the trade embargoes. Neither do Western-based Turkish or Iranian dealers. They go to the workshops of India and Pakistan and. increasingly, Afghanistan.
The ailments of the rug trade are exacerbated by attempting to carry on as before. The message is clear: if the rug business doesn’t wise up and readjust, it will die. However there are shoots of change emerging in some sectors, with some members of the next generation of the 'trade' breaking free from the shackles of tradition or even usurping it. In the meantime, we’re still waiting for Picasso.
A new Picasso of the rug world? Jan Kath's Erased Heritage rug (detail) takes a traditional design and gives it a contemporary twist