INTERIORS / Art goes underfoot: Western designers are working with Turkish artisans to create striking kilims and hand- tufted rugs. Dinah Hall on the weaving together of fresh ideas and ethnic know-how

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DESIGNER rugs affect people in a funny way. 'Ooh, I couldn't buy that,' cooed an enthusiast in Christopher Farr's rug shop in London's wall-to-wall designer district, Primrose Hill. 'I'd never get anything done; I'd just spend all day looking at it.'

As an excuseit certainly beats 'I'll have to think about it,' but it is true that too great a reverence for the 'art' content of Farr's rugs might have a depressing affect on his sales. You have to take a deep breath and a mental reconnaisance of the sole of your shoe before walking across some of the rugs laid across his floor. Nevertheless you do this in the knowledge that if you had carefully circumnavigated them you would have looked a real hick. And even that is surely better than hanging them on the wall, which is painfully precious.

Christopher Farr is something of a renegade in the rug world, having moved from a background in antique rugs and kilims to Western designs which are hand-tufted by traditional weavers in Turkey using hand-spun wool. Purists may mutter darkly about cross-cultural contamination, but that attitude is based on a romantic vision of Turkish rug-makers weaving folk memories into their work. The reality is rather more hard-nosed than that. The Turkish craftsmen are prepared to indulge Farr's

tiresome insistence on hand-spun wool - 'for a price'. He is well aware that they would 'far rather be bashing out 500 of one design for some department store'.

This year Christopher Farr has worked with Royal College of Art textile students to produce an exhibition of their designs made into hand-tufted rugs by the weavers in and around Konya in central Turkey. It follows close on the heels of a project with the fashion designer Romeo Gigli whom he asked to create a series of kilims - one of which will be on show with the college designs.

Among the kissy-kissy fashion set who would kill for a Gigli scarf, the Giglikilims - at up to pounds 4,200 each - are a real test of their commitment. (I mean, gosh, you could buy a couple of pairs of his trousers and a scarf for that). True aficionados will talk about Gigli's incredible sense of colour, not the price - though in fact the two are closely related.

When Farr and his partner Matthew Bourne showed Gigli the available colour range, the designer responded by showing them his colour range, leaving them in no doubt as to what he thought of theirs. He then sent out his own fabric designer, Claire Joseph, out to Turkey to supervise the dyeing.

Out there the women do the weaving and the men the dyeing (the rustic macho equivalent of the barbecue syndrome). So to have a mouthy American woman telling these strict, dyed-in-the-wool, Muslim men how to mix their colours produced what might be called a 'tense' situation. Matthew Bourne says he felt a bit like Perez de Cuellar - the dyers would only accept her demands when channelled through him. Joseph was equally unswerving in her devotion to the Master - when the weavers finished one of the kilims, she declared that the stars were too white - and Gigli hates white. 'We were talking about half a tone,' winces Bourne, 'but we had to get an expert repairer in to change it.' In fact, he says, they all gained a lot from the experience - the Turks were not used to the tiny amounts of dye she demanded for subtle variations in colour - 'they usually use kitchen scales, so they had to go out and buy a chemists' scale.' Consequently they have a whole new palette to play with for future designs.

Working with the RCA students was an altogether easier task, though it produced its own cultural difficulties. They became too caught up with the presentation of their designs, producing exquisite collage creations. 'It was a real struggle getting them to do boring old gouaches,' says Farr. 'They wanted you to get off on their bits of torn and layered paper. They were lovely, but you have to think how they will be interpreted in Turkey by the men who plot the designs on to graph-paper, showing the weaver where each knot will go.'

Fortunately, the final results were worth the gouache torture. Some of them are so good that you could be horribly tempted to put them on the wall.

'Floorshow' is at the Royal College of Art, Kensington Gore, London SW7 (071-584 5020) from 26 October to 12November 10am-6pm. Prices from pounds 950 to pounds 1,750. The exhibition continues at Christopher Farr, 115 Regent's Park Rd, London NW1 (071-916 7690) from 16 November to 11 December. The Gigli kilims are available at Christopher Farr, prices from pounds 3,600 to pounds 4,200.

(Photographs omitted)

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