Interiors: The carpet revolution

For years they were regarded as fusty, dusty and only fit for the attic. But, Amicia de Moubray writes, rugs are back, and this time they're more art than antique
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THERE IS a revolution underfoot. In the past five years there has been a surge of interest in unfitted carpets, which for a long time had been regarded as fusty remnants, unclean and unaesthetic. In fact, in many fashionable houses, carpets fell out of favour altogether, what with minimalism and the obsession with dust mites. So it was all concrete, bare boards, tiles or lino, and the closest you'd get to a carpet was the odd bit of seagrass on the stairs. But no longer.

A result of the increased lushness in interior design, the carpet renaissance has, in turn, led to a welcome revival of the traditional methods of spinning, weaving and dyeing. It was a renaissance that came just in time to prevent these skills from being lost for ever, skills that are now being used to make relatively inexpensive copies of antique carpets, as well as carpets of contemporary design. (In the trade, a carpet must be at least 6ft by 9ft, while anything smaller is labelled a rug.)

In Europe, until the middle of the 18th century, only royalty and the aristocracy would possess carpets. Owning a Persian rug was a status symbol, and grandees would stand proudly on them while having their portraits painted. It was only in the wake of the industrial revolution that carpets became relatively inexpensive and widely available. In the Thirties, carpets designed by artists were extremely popular: at that time, textiles were in any case a particularly important part of interior design. But after the Second World War the designer carpet disappeared.

Now it's back. "It's very exciting," says Christopher Farr, who has helped to bring about this rebirth. An artist by training, he dealt in oriental rugs before turning to designing and commissioning contemporary carpets. Then he had the idea of inviting fashion luminaries such as Rifat Ozbek, Romeo Gigli and Georgina von Etzdorf, and artists such as Gillian Ayres and Bill Jacklin, to design a carpet. "We set the trend," Farr says. "For a time we seemed to be on our own, but now there is a great deal more interest. For example, at this year's 100% Design [a yearly showcase of the best in contemporary design] there were carpets everywhere, for the first time. All those people who opt for a groovy minimalist-style interior with polished concrete floors quickly discover that they are living in a complete cacophony, and they buy carpets to soften the acoustics."

He continues, convincingly: "Carpets can help define a space by echoing the architectural proportions of a room, and unifying the furniture and the space into a whole." Naturally, for one whose life's work revolves around carpets, Farr believes that a carpet should be the starting point for a room's decorative scheme - to be built around rather than thrown in as an afterthought. But, as he points out, "A carpet should be subtle. One becomes aware of the colours and design in the time that it takes the brain to receive the whole impression of a room. It has its place in the general scheme of things - it shouldn't scream 'Look at me.'"

"People like the idea of commissioning a new carpet," says Adam Munthe, founder of the Asad Company. "It is no longer a case of, 'Oh, we must find a carpet as background for this sofa.' The exciting decorative qualities that a carpet offers in its own right are again being recognised." (He observes that several of Asad's commissions have ended up hanging on the wall.) "And commissioning a carpet is relatively inexpensive compared with buying an antique carpet. Furthermore, it will last for 100 years. The longevity of an antique carpet is always questionable."

About a third of the carpets created by Asad are made-to-measure large carpets. A third are oriental designs in smaller sizes, and the rest are contemporary designs, many of which are "flatweaves" (carpets without a tuft) designed by Adam's wife and co-director of the company, Nelly. Her designs appear simple, but on close examination they reveal beautiful gradations of colour. "The appeal of flatweaves is their versatility," she says. "They are eminently suitable for any type of interior - traditional or contemporary."

Veedon Fleece, a company which specialises in modern rugs, brings out its own collection each year. The designs are diverse, ranging from a reproduction of an Arts and Crafts rug by C F A Voysey to a modern chessboard pattern. "There is a new generation of people buying contemporary carpets," says the founder, Adam Gilchrist, who attributes this partly to people's tendency to move house more frequently these days (unfitted carpets are easier to transport than fitted). About half of Gilchrist's clients are aged between 30 and 45. The rest are slightly older, and are often seeking to replace worn-out antique carpets with replicas. All of Veedon Fleece's carpets are hand-knotted in Nepal, using wool from Tibetan mountain sheep. They can be woven up to very large sizes (24m by 8m).

Helen Yardley - another pioneer in the world of contemporary carpets, and best known for her abstract creations - has noticed a change in the public's response to her designs in recent years. "People are much more appreciative, and there is no longer that response of 'Oh my God, it costs that much.'" The majority of her carpets, which start at pounds 400 a metre, are one-off commissions, although she also brings out a new collection of designs every year. The advantage to commissioning a carpet, she says, is that you can be assured of its uniqueness. "I particularly enjoy working with architects and being pushed in new directions. It is important for developing my work." Yardley cites such diverse influences as Henri Matisse, Robert Motherwell and Roger Hilton. One recent commission was a large carpet for the new Four Seasons Hotel in London. But Yardley says, "My clients are of all ages, and from all sorts of social backgrounds."

The carpet designer Sandy Jones says: "Modern carpets drag people who are stuck in the country-house aesthetic into the 20th century by enabling them to be eclectic." A modern carpet, in fact, can sit perfectly with the country-pile look. Imagine the drawing room of a stately home, its Rembrandts complemented by a contemporary rug spread over a huge expanse of floor.

In 1990, after a long career working with textiles, first in the fashion industry and then as a costume designer, Jones set up her own studio designing carpets and textiles. Although many of her carpets are in only two colours, her love of "abrash" (the subtle change in shade caused by variations in the dye) gives them a gorgeous intensity.

Contemporary oriental carpets made in the traditional way, and using natural dyes, but using modernist designs, are also popular. Some of the most effective of these will be on display at the forthcoming "Natural Born Colours" exhibition of carpets and kilims (see end for details).

David Black is the expert on the use of natural dyes in carpets, and has clients all over the world. In the Seventies, he was influential in promoting the merits of antique tribal and village rugs (highly sought- after once more), bringing several exhibitions to London. He now produces his own line of naturally-dyed carpets and kilims of traditional designs; he commissions the pieces from village-weavers in countries ranging from Romania to Turkey to India. The simplicity of the designs means that the carpets are suitable in many different styles of interior, urban or rustic. They are woven from naturally-dyed hand-spun wool, and are mainly in open- field (unpatterned) designs, with borders of a different colour.

The colours he uses are glorious: delicious shades of aubergine, indigo, madder red, golden yellow, burnt orange, three shades of white and off- white, and many, many more. "There's a much broader spectrum of colour in natural dyes," he says. Most people are either used to faded antiques or to synthetically-dyed, chemically-bleached carpets, so the colours of Black's rugs can seem surprisingly bright. He points out that they quickly acquire a wonderful patina, and so improve with use and age.

Many of the carpets Black supplies are created under the scheme of the Natural Dye Research and Development Project, which was set up in 1981 to revive the traditions of carpet- and kilim-weaving, and which instructs villagers on the Aegean coast in western Turkey in the use of natural dyes. The carpets woven under this project are based on antique designs.

So: a revival of ages-old techniques and designs, a nurturing of village- weaving and, over and above this, the best designers in the world taking an interest in the once- humble rug. All in all, it looks as though the carpet is enjoying another golden age.

'Carpets for the Home', by Amicia de Moubray and David Black, is published on 22 November by Calman & King, price pounds 30. The 'Natural Born Colours' exhibition is at David Black, 96 Portland Road, London W11 (0171 727 2566) until 17 December. The Asad Company: 5 Earls Walk, London W8 (0171 937 0415). Helen Yardley: A-Z Studios, 3-5 Hardwidge Street, London SE1 (0171 403 7114). Sandy Jones: Chester Jones, 240 Battersea Park Road, London SW11 (0171 498 2717). Christopher Farr: 212 Westbourne Grove, London W11 (0171 792 5761). Veedon Fleece: 42 Nightingale Road, Guildford Surrey (01483 575 758)