In a past life, I worked as propaganda writer for the Tibetan government-in-exile. Interesting times! The Dalai Lama's government offices are in the Himalayan foothills of Northern India and surrounded by a Tibetan community of settled refugees. After work, I tried to teach some of them English and failed to learn Tibetan (it has three alphabets).
But I did learn to respect and appreciate rugs.
Many of the Tibetan refugees were skilled in the traditional art of carpet-making and this was one of the small industries that kept the community going. Watching the laborious and intricate process of hand-knotting a rug was an eye-opener. I asked my Tibetan friend if the refugee community got to keep any of their own rugs. "Oh yes," he said. "We bought a new one last week."
I looked around the family's one-room home, with its concrete floor and simple unframed picture of His Holiness on the wall. Where was the new rug? My friend laughed and peeled back the bedclothes to show me the rug, splendid in softness and colour, hidden under the sheets and blankets. "We would never put a new rug on the floor!" he said. "We'll sleep on it for 10 years and then it will go on the floor."
Traditional Tibetan rugs are bright in colour, bold in pattern, and relatively small. Those designs, on a rug of the scale most Westerners want in their homes, would be overwhelming. That's why many of the modern rugs woven in India or Nepal are designed by contemporary designers. One of the most influential of them is Jan Kath. Like the Tibetans, Kath has carpets in the blood. He comes from the third generation of a family of carpet dealers from in Germany.
"He's a bit of a genius, Jan Kath," says Conrad Lyons of Rug Art. I'm inclined to agree. I may never be able to afford one of his rugs - the prices start at €2,500 for a hand-knotted rug (170cm x 240cm) and go up to around €10,000 - but their beauty takes my breath away. One of his most famous collections is called Erased Heritage.
"Just as every Bavarian village has its own traditional dress, every community, region and cultural group in the East has developed a particular style of carpet," Kath explains. "With the Erased Heritage collection, we are helping these ideas survive into the modern age."
The designs are based on traditional oriental carpets, but unexpected in colour and finished with the scuffed patina of an ancient and well-worn rug. To compare them to stone-washed jeans doesn't do them justice, but it's the same idea.
Kath's rugs are made in small factories and workshops in India and Nepal (the company is strong on employment ethics and sustainability) and this particular collection is made in an interesting way. The loom master sits opposite the workers, with the instructions in front of him, and chants them aloud in a deep and sonorous voice. "Seven coral red, five garnet, two beige…" In his own language, obviously.
"It is not at all straightforward to apply these old production methods to my designs," says Kath. I believe him, but the idea of the singing carpet-masters is pure magic.
Then Lyons tells me something that isn't in the brochure. Once the rugs are woven, they are set on fire. "For the Erased Heritage series, the rug is made and finished as a conventional rug," Lyons explains. "Then it is torched! The wool burns to its base and the silk, which is flame resistant, maintains its height." The process gives the impression that the carpet is worn in places, but also makes it three-dimensional. In the finished piece, the silk element, which is raised, attracts the light. "Silk is robust," Lyons says. "There is a misconception that it's delicate. The rugs are phenomenally resilient. They should outlive even the best antique rugs."
If you like the way Kath's rugs look, but don't have the money to buy one, his imitators are many. The Antiquarian Rug in Janissary Multicolour (140cm x 200cm) from Harvey Norman costs €500. It's made of cotton and mass produced, so not the same thing by a long stretch, but in visual terms, it's playing with the same idea. The intended effect is of a worn Persian carpet, but interpreted in contemporary colours. Similarly, and cheaper still, Ikea's Vonsbäkrug (170cm x 230cm) has an oriental pattern that is made to look faded and worn. It costs €65 and is made of polypropylene. There's no cheap way of buying a hand-knotted rug and that's as it should be. It's a skilled, time-consuming craft and the workers have to be fairly paid. But the result is special in the same way that hand-knitted jumpers are special. This at least partly because even the best manual weaving includes irregularities and these, to a large extent, are what make the design come alive. Machines don't make mistakes, but making mistakes is what makes us human.
Kath's rugs are generally conventional in shape, but many other designers are abandoning the rectangle and coming up with rugs of all shapes and sizes. In the money-no-object bracket, Patricia Urquiola's Slinkie collection for the French brand CC Tapis, is stunning. Remember the infuriating toy that always gets tangled? That's the inspiration. What's innovative about Urquiola's design is that the pattern is echoed in the shape of the rug, which spirals over itself like a slinkie, and the wool is carved at different lengths to give the rug a three dimensional aspect.
In many respects, it's like a piece of sculpture for the floor. The prices are sculptural too. The Slinkie collection starts at €5,667 plus vat. "It's a completely new interpretation of the shape and use of a rug," says Philippa Grant, Interior Designer with Minima. "If you're putting it into your house, you need to consider that. A rug like that would need to be the main focus of the room and I don't think you would want to put anything on top of it."
The fun and funky items in the Rug Invaders collection by CC Tapis (from €1,975 plus vat) look like the unruly offspring of a Persian carpet and a 1970s video game. Their shape, as well as their pattern and colour, is inspired by eight-bit graphics. For now, this is more than most of us will pay for a conversation piece, but watch and wait. It's only a matter of time before oddly shaped and brightly coloured lookalikes start appearing in the shops.
See rugart.ie, minimahome.com and harveynorman.ie.