Are rugs now the new screenprints? The digitisation of design has led to an equal and opposite surge in interest in handcrafted media as graphic artists seek tangible and saleable outlets for their work. The latest medium to attract attention is the carpet – not your average shagpile but the hand-knotted, beautiful creations of master craftsmen in Egypt and India. Recently created companies Foundation Rugs and Made By Node are both working with artists to reinterpret their work as carpets, Damien Hirst has started selling rug editions of his paintings, and Libby Sellers Gallery commissioned four one-off carpets designed by M/M (Paris) to mark the publication of the design studio’s first monograph and 20th anniversary. Further back, the Elms Lesters Painting Rooms displayed rugs by several artists in its Icygrape No. 1924 show in 2005 while Dutch design studio Thonik used rugs in its Graphic Tapestries show at the Venice Architecture Biennale in 2008. Rugs, it turns out, can be more than serviceable soft furnishings.
One of the earliest to recognise the potential of matching traditional craftspeople with contemporary designers was The Rug Company, which was founded by Chris and Suzanne Sharp in 1997. The Rug Company has commissioned designs from the likes of Rob Ryan, Alexander McQueen and Vivienne Westwood as well as from interior designers. Their model was an inspiration to Nick Hartwright and Mark Hanlon, who set up Foundation Rugs a year ago with the intention of partnering with artists who had not previously worked in the medium. For its first project, Foundation commissioned 11 different designers and illustrators to create designs for one-off hand-knotted rugs, including Paul Insect, Anthony Burrill and Jack Teagle. The results were displayed in the Rug Addicts exhibition which ran at London’s Dray Walk Gallery in November.
The actual process of weaving the rugs is a painstaking one, with each artist first creating a design that will translate well – designs need to be bold, as things like fine lines tend to get lost – which will then be transferred onto graph or point paper, so the weavers can turn each point into a single knot on the carpet. The weavers complete about five centimetres a week and, because of this, the process of turning an artist’s work into a finished piece is lengthy, with the rugs taking up to six months to complete on the looms, depending on size. By working with people that aren’t usually associated with the rug industry, Hartwright and Hanlon say they hope to reinterpret the final product, explaining that, “As well as being rugs, they’re like pieces of art. The idea is for them to be displayed on the walls, rather than on the floor.”
This idea of rugs being displayed as art is one that’s shared by London gallery owner Libby Sellers, who worked with Abhishek Poddar in India to produce four one-off carpets designed by M/M (Paris). The 3m × 2m rugs were the centrepiece of Carpetalogue, a show which marked the launch of M/M’s recent monograph (see CR Nov) and commemorated the studio’s 20th anniversary. In the show, the carpets rest on four large wooden A-frames arranged in pairs – Sellers explains that the way the work is exhibited is intended to be read like a book. “It’s meant to have two front covers, and two interior pages, and the installation is suggestive of that. The tent-like structures are like a book resting on its spine, and you’re flipping through its pages,” she says. However, Sellers says she expects the M/M carpets to be put to practical use: “I’d be horrified if someone used [one] as an artistic piece. There’s nothing that’s stopping you from walking on those carpets.” Apart, perhaps from the fact that they cost £15,000.
As well as being a product with a final use, Sellers refers to the M/M collaboration as “a bilateral communication between Indian craftsmanship and expertise, and European creativity”. This is true of many of the carpets being created by graphic artists; as well as offering a chance for them to engage with a more handmade tradition, the rugs offer an opportunity to directly benefit the weavers themselves.
Founded by designer and illustrator Chris Haughton, Made By Node was set up as a non-profit to help connect illustrators and designers with hand-weavers in Nepal. Haughton spent time in the country working closely with the Kumbeshwar Technical School to help develop a grid system whereby single pixels of illustrations would correspond to individual knots in carpets, and so facilitate the process between the initial design and the final rug. All profit from Made By Node helps support the school, as well as an orphanage, and ensures that younger generations are trained as weavers, thereby keeping the craft alive. There’s a similarly altruistic aspect to Foundation Rugs, who work with a local charity in Cairo that helps children from the slums attend school, and learn a trade.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly where this surge of interest in rugs has originated, or why so many people are interested in working with carpets, but the answer might lie in the physical nature of the rug itself. Foundation suggest that the appeal lies in the craftsmanship behind them, “At the moment there’s quite a lot of interest in craftsmanship and how things are made, where designs are coming from and how people can work together,” says Hartwright. “I think maybe it’s fuelled by nostalgia. People are wanting to see something that is handmade, something that has been made rather than produced”.
For illustrator Serge Seidlitz, who held an exhibition at the end of last year that featured a series of one-off carpets, rugs are the antidote to the impermanence that often accompanies digitally created work. “It’s such a nice final place for your artwork to be,” he says. “You’ve got something that’s going to be there forever. It’s not like working on an ad campaign or editorial job, where it’s gone within two weeks. You fall in love with the piece of work you’re doing, but then you never see it again, and it goes into your archives. But a rug, it creates the fabric of your living space.”
Haughton shares Seidlitz’s point of view. “Forget about screenprints, everyone’s doing screenprints now. You can’t really touch your screenprint, it’s got to be behind a frame, but a rug is furniture, it’s physical,” he says. Haughton also shares Seidlitz’s frustrations with working as a digital artist, “People would ask if I did original drawings, but my original drawings looked nothing like the finished thing because I’d changed them so much in Photoshop. There’s nothing you can touch that’s the actual artwork, and it seems making it into a screenprint is going backward, but making it into a rug means you’re designing something digitally that then becomes a hand-crafted artwork.”
There is an aspect to all of this that arguably makes rugs less accessible, and that’s the expense. With rugs being created in such limited runs it’s not surprising there’s a high cost associated with them, especially when the level of craftsmanship is considered, but such a high price can be prohibitive. Whilst M/M may be able to command £15,000 per rug, both Serge Seidlitz and Made By Node are trying to combat this by finding a price point that will ensure their rugs are still available to the general public.
Seidlitz made a conscious decision that he wanted his rugs to be as affordable as possible for the kind of people that would be at the exhibition. “People that are prepared to spend a lot are wealthy people who aren’t necessarily in the graphic design scene, or the art scene. Lots of graphic designers pitch themselves as artists, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s all about making things affordable, and trying to cleverly position it.” Made By Node’s rugs are also on the more affordable end of the spectrum, costing £350 per square metre. Foundation have plans to help offset high prices – their rugs start from £1,500 – by creating limited runs of machine-loomed versions of the original handwoven rugs, much like a print version of an original artwork.
Cost aside, illustrators and graphic artists working in this medium have produced some beautiful results. Whether rugs will come to be as prevalent as screenprints is debatable, but they hold a level of longevity and endurance that lends them something above and beyond a simple print. As Haughton says, “These rugs will last for generations. It’s the sort of thing that will be in some living room in 200 years time, long after everyone else has gone. None of your screenprints will.” In this respect, by turning their artwork into a rug, illustrators and graphic artists get a chance to enjoy some brief immortality.
Making a Foundation rug
❑ The artist creates an initial design for the rug, which is assessed to see if it’s suitable. After consulting with the weavers, amendments are made to the drawing to ensure it will work when it’s woven into a rug.
❑ Colour swatches are created to ensure that colours match the original design as closely as possible. Because the rugs are natural, different areas of the wool take colour more or less than others, so colours can be slightly varied rather than solid.
❑ The design is transferred onto point paper, which is like graph paper, with each dot measuring about 10mm square. Each individual dot is translated into a single knot in the carpet.
❑ The design is transferred to the loom, where weavers will complete about five centimetres a week. There are 35 weavers working in the factory that Foundation Rugs use, and rugs are worked on by a pair of weavers at a time. Each piece of wool is tied around the warp to create a knot. The process can take up to six months to complete on the loom, depending on the size of the rug.
❑ After the rug has been completed and removed from the loom, a flame thrower is used to burn off excess threads of cotton and wool.
❑ The carpet will then be washed, and then cut to a uniform length. This is often done by hand, using a pair of shears.