The Decorative Carpet Movement

Tibetan Rug 1987
This is one of a new generation of Tibetan rugs from about 1987. I believe that American and European rugmakers in Nepal were among the first to sense the need for what we now call decorative carpets?carpets, that is, with light, soft, low-contrast colors, and an inviting texture.

Oriental Rugs Today: Chapter 1 Part 4

In the meantime, another important change in fashion was beginning to take shape in the Oriental rug industry, a trend toward what became known as decorative carpets. For whatever reason, the public was beginning to favor carpets that were formal looking and light in color — almost the opposite of village and tribal rugs. Perversely, the trend began just when the rug industry was finally able to meet the need for relatively inexpensive tribal rugs and carpets: that is, around 1985. If Phase One of the renaissance was fueled by public demand for rugs with a genuine tribal or village look, Phase Two would be propelled by the market’s demand for decorative carpets.

While some Western youths were exploring Turkey in the ’70s and ’80s, others were setting off for adventures with Tibetan Buddhism and the rug industry in Nepal. In Katmandu they met thousands of Tibetans who had fled Chinese-occupied Tibet beginning in the 1950s. The Tibetans brought a knowledge of rugmaking with them, along with their traditional designs, and they forged a Nepalese carpet industry where none had been before. That industry, whose principal customers were the Germans, kept many refugees alive, and the rugs they made charmed many a Western youth living in Nepal.

Some of the Americans who came to Nepal in the late ’70s and early ’80s were interested in natural dyes, but the rugs they encountered were made with synthetics. The secrets of natural dyeing had survived among only a handful of Tibetan refugees. Among them were brothers Tsetan and Dorje, and an associate named Namgyl who ran a store in Katmandu called Vegetable Dyed Carpets. One young American, called Tombo (Thomas Guta, discussed at greater length in Chapter Five), was making rugs with natural dyes and selling them to tourists. Apparently he had been in Nepal since the mid ’70s or earlier, and had learned natural dyeing from one of the Tibetan refugees, most likely either Tsetan or Namgyl. Tombo may have been the first American to make Oriental rugs with natural dyes. Other Americans who were in Nepal during that period began to have rugs made for export, and, influenced by Tombo and his Tibetan mentors, the first rugs they produced were in vegetal dyes. So, on a modest scale, a natural dye rug industry was established in Katmandu by about 1980, at almost exactly the same time that Harald Bohmer established what was known as the DOBAG project in Turkey. But by 1987, natural dyeing was nearly dead in Nepal. Germans began buying Tibetan rugs very heavily at around that time. They wanted large quantities at low prices, and the Tibetan industry geared up to provide it. Natural dyes, being expensive, fell into disuse, and for the next several years were again forgotten.

Nevertheless, Western rugmakers in Nepal, in partnership with their Tibetan producers, made important contributions to what became the rug renaissance. It seems that a number of European and American rugmakers realized at about the same time (around 1985) that rugs could be made in Nepal in all kinds of designs and colors, and not just in traditional Tibetan designs. James Tufenkian, Stephanie Odegard, Teddy Sumner, Steve Laska — these pioneers took aim at the new demand for decorative carpets, designing rugs with soft, light, low-contrast colors and simple, though formal, patterns. Together they created a wonderful diversity different from anything that had been in the market before, and launched the first major decorative rug productions.

The rugs that were made by Westerners in Turkey and Nepal — often in partnership with native rug producers — were commercially successful, and stimulated legions of others to launch their own productions and to experiment with natural dyes and new designs. The state of decline in which rugs had been locked for the previous sixty years was halted. From about 1985 on, new rugs simply got better and better and are improving still.

2 Comments

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    Timilsina Carpet Industries February 7, 2008

    We are the manufacturer of Tibetan line rugs since 1989 and based in Nepal. We love this article and we thank the blog owner for providing information of our cultural craftsmanship.

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    Bob Perry March 1, 2008

    In 1980 I carried two beautiful carpets out of Katmandu to the US on my back pack, purchased at Jawalakhel. They were modest in size – 1m X 2m and a runner. Both were prepared from wool dyed in three shades of blue in what appears to be a traditional pattern, three large busy circles in the field with a rectangular meander boder. I would love to know the source of the natural dye if indeed it’s natural. These are amoung my favorite things in the world and I look forward to another opportunity to return to Nepal.