Art underfoot

Get rid of that fitted carpet and transform your floor into a picture paradise with a rug to suit every taste, writes Felicity Cannell
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IN SPITE OF the push by some off-the-wall contemporary artists to reassess the concept, most of us still prefer our art flat, with or without a frame, and usually hanging on the wall.

But one of the greatest showplaces in the home is, surprisingly, the floor. Take a neglected Raoul Dufy off the wall and place it on the floor and it will instantly attract attention - probably because your guests trip over it. But turn it into a carpet and you have both something to cover up the floorboards and an interactive work of art. And at surprisingly affordable prices. You won't be screaming "Don't touch that!" at your guests' children. Indeed, your guests may need to be encouraged just to step on it.

Serious collectors like to dismiss this contemporary approach to carpet design, but art on the floor is nothing new. The most priceless carpets are elaborate works of art. Trends have broadened from the traditional, tightly woven Persian designs to the more chunky ethnic look and flat woven kelims. From Asia, India and the nomadic tribes of Iran come beautiful pictorial rugs telling imaginative stories. However, in this country at least, the evolution from traditional to contemporary art has been somewhat stalled by the invention of the fitted carpet. But now, with the growing popularity of wooden floors, there are rugs to suit every artistic taste.

The Page family runs the Fairman Gallery in west London, an Aladdin's cave of exquisite carpets ranging from antique Chinese rugs to startling modern masterpieces. For 40 years the gallery has acted primarily as an antique rug dealer; antique in the real sense of more than 100 years old. But there are few genuine antique rugs changing hands and there is always new space to fill.

So to keep up with demand from her clients - John Cleese, designer Oswald Boateng and George Melly among them - Serena Page has moved into designer carpets and rugs. "Art is to be taken off the walls on to the floors," she says. "Walls are going to be kept plain and simple, in contrast to vibrant colours or traditional rustic shades in the rugs on the floors."

Fairman's rugs are of 100 per cent hand-spun wool with every loop knotted by hand. Most are from Turkey or Kathmandu, with one-offs made by Iranian nomads famed for their carpet making. "Nomads turn out pure magic which is totally uncontrived," says Mrs Page, who is critical of the Western world's methods of carpet making, dictated by the price of labour - machine made or gun tufted with the back disguised by canvas. "Virtually carpets by numbers," she says. "Where's the art in that?"

"The best craftsmanship available in the carpets cannot be taught," says John Page. "It only comes with years of experience, the right contacts and an intuitive feel for beauty."

Another firm that prides itself on craftsmanship is the Vigo Gallery in central London, which meets demand for "the real thing" by reproducing classic carpets - ancient Persian to William Morris, or a piece by Marion Dorn of the Bloomsbury Group. Like the originals, they are made of hand- spun, vegetable-dyed yarns. They are woven by the Uzbek and tribal people of Afghanistan who have fled to Pakistan. "Consequently, we have a large pot of the most skilled carpet weavers," says Norman Snow, of Vigo. "And the nice thing for customers is that in our gallery they can see the original and the reproduction side by side." A reproduction costs about pounds 800 compared with up to pounds 6,000 for the original.

As with any work of art, "Don't ever buy purely for investment," Mrs Page advises. "No-one can say what next year's trends will be." Fairman will also help customers design their own piece. At around pounds 450 per square metre for a bespoke rug, the price compares favourably with a quality fitted carpet.

With many graduate artists turning to rug and carpet design, and making individual pieces themselves rather than designing for factory production, art on the floor is now a real option. If you like it so much that you can't bear anyone to place their grubby feet on it, you can also hang it on the wall. But it's not really necessary for the sake of the rug; a handmade 100 per cent-wool rug will bear considerable abuse, will clean up like new, and will quite likely outlive you and your children.

The UK Crafts Council has artists all over the country designing individual pieces. Looking abroad, an unusual and practical concept in carpet design comes from the Belgian artists Patricia and Marie France Martin. Of all their various forms of art, their carpets now draw the most attention. "Being twins, we cannot escape our destiny," they say, and they have celebrated their link with their "Yin and Yang" carpets: "Each part depends on its opposite, and forms with the other the whole." For variety, and to fill a smaller space if necessary, the two parts of the carpet work equally well separately.

The sisters supply only commissioned pieces, very rarely in the standard rectangular form. Designs include the cross-section of a cabbage or a rose, an oval artist's palate and a thumb print.

For those who like their taste in modern art to be confirmed by popular opinion, a good talking point would be a rug from the Ege company's collection of famous 20th-century paintings. Ege of Denmark has secured the rights from international galleries to reproduce the great works of 20th-century masters for the floor. While a French Impressionist piece would look unbearably twee - and be near-impossible to weave in wool - the abstract works of Picasso, Magritte, Paul Klee and Salvador Dali reproduce well. These rugs are machine made and are almost indistinguishable from the originals apart from the texture. For around pounds 500 you get a famous work of art you can trample on. Guests who like to compare their four-year- old's nursery school daubs to Picasso can trample on it too.

Contacts: Fairman Gallery, 0171-229 2262; Vigo, 0171-439 6971; Martin Carpets from Danielle Arnaud Contemporary Arts, 0171-735 8292.