The Oriental Rug Renaissance

Turkish Village Weaver
A Yuruk woman working on a kilim. She is using a heavy comb-like beater to compact the wefts. Turkish village, 1985. (Chris Walter.)

Oriental Rugs Today: Chapter 1 Part 2

These days I survey new rugs and carpets as they come available, and I find myself unable to suppress that old competitive, acquisitive feeling familiar from earlier years when I was on the trail of good antique rugs. Natasha and I come across new carpets with designs we have seen only in museums. We find rugs that are full of character, rugs with vegetal dyes and handspun wool, gorgeous rugs — and a lot of them, more than we can afford to buy. At some time, unnoticed at first, the world of Oriental rugs entered a renaissance. How did it happen? When did it happen?

I have gone over our inventory records for the past thirty years to learn when the first exceptional rugs began to appear. I have thought back on the young adventurers I knew who went off to Turkey and Nepal and Iran in the 70s and the trips I made there myself in those years. I came back home to run a rug store without it occurring to me to make rugs or have them made. But others stayed, learned the languages, and helped create a renaissance in rugs ten years later.

Antique Caucasian Tribal Rug

The powerful appeal of old tribal and village rugs like this antique Caucasian piece drove the market from about 1970 to roughly 1985. New rugs of that era were simply not as attractive. The ‘renaissance’ began, I believe, about 1985, when a few rugmakers managed to capture the character of old tribal and village rugs from Turkey, the Caucasus, and northern Iran.

I believe the story of the renaissance begins during the 1960s when deep social changes took place in America that affected even the Oriental rug industry. One of the trends in the ’60s was a preference for lifestyles and objects that seemed natural and pure, simple and primitive. That spirit was healthy for the Oriental rug industry, for, under its influence, Americans finally began to lose their taste for wall-to-wall carpeting, which had been the industry’s scourge during the ’40s and ’50s. By the end of the ’60s, many Americans found that they preferred Oriental to machine-made rugs, and they especially liked the ones weavers made out beside their tents. If previous generations of rug lovers had been enthralled by the exquisite detail and perfection of rugs from Persian cities, in the ’60s and into the ’70s and ’80s many were drawn by the whimsical irregularities of tribal and village textiles. After appealing to relatively few people for about thirty years, Oriental rugs were back, spearheaded by a fascination with tribal and village rugs, whose popularity grew even stronger in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s.

The current that engendered this change in fashion was powerful enough to influence lives. Some young college-educated Americans, most of whose parents had hardly been aware of Oriental carpets, chose to make careers of them. As the ’70s progressed, a few adventurous young rug dealers struck out for exotic countries on a quest for Oriental rugs and a life of adventure.

1980s DOBAG Turkish Village Rug
A Turkish village rug from the DOBAG collective. With their traditional village designs, natural dyes, and handspun wool, rugs like this one were nothing short of revolutionary in the early ’80s.

During those years as a dealer, I was asked to speak on the subject by a great many civic and art-oriented groups in town. A doctor’s wife volunteered to repair rugs in my shop simply for the sake of spending time with them. Many bright young women pursued careers in my shop restoring rugs — and there was enough interest among the townspeople to keep all these repairers employed. Interest in Oriental rugs went far beyond decorating with them.

There was one problem, though. Only antique rugs were attractive enough to satisfy the appetite of collectors, home decorators, and dealers in tribal and village rugs — and antiques were scarce and expensive. New pieces — and there were a few coming into the market — had the sour colors associated with synthetic dyes: edgy orange, for instance, and a very bright pink. If Americans were nearly united in their love for tribal and village rugs, they were equally decided about disliking edgy orange and very bright pink. It was widely believed that the art of natural dyeing had been lost forever, and I don’t believe it crossed many minds that new rugs had the potential to offer a satisfying and relatively inexpensive alternative to antique tribal pieces.

1 Comment

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    Elizabeth October 1, 2011

    The last couple weeks some odd appearing rugs have been popping up on eBay. This seller seems to get clusters of small rugs in from a particular region and will list a whole group that has similar characteristics. The ones I’m curious about are labeled Tajik Caucasus and have wide kelim fringed borders on either end. The field portion of the rugs looks to be knotted pile geometric shapes in red gold and blue on a white backgroud. In the closeups the background looks almost knitted. Anyone seen these before or know how they’re constructed? The beautiful large rugs are forever out of my price range, but the variety of these small tribal ones boggles. I’m having fun learning about the different kinds.