Oriental Rugs Today: Chapter 4 Part 1
The undisputed first mover of the renaissance of Oriental rugs was a German chemist named Harald Bohmer. In 1960 he took a seven-year teaching job in Turkey and, like many Westerners before and since, fell in love with Turkish rugs. He was different, though, in being especially interested in the dyes in Turkish rugs. When his teaching contract expired, he took the first opportunity to return, and in 1974 was again teaching in Turkey. In the meantime he had learned the language and had fallen in love with the country. His interest in rugs and dyes became a passion. When he learned of a method of analyzing dyes in fabrics (thin layer chromatography), he began an exhaustive, methodical analysis of dyes in Turkish rugs. Not only did he succeed in identifying the dyes used in hundreds of carpets of all ages, but he was able to decipher the actual processes involved in formulating the dyes and applying them to wool yarn. More to the point, he learned what natural dyestuffs rugmakers had used 100 years earlier, before the dyer’s art had been lost, and in some cases he learned how these artisans had used them.
As Dr. Bohmer’s second tenure as a teacher in Turkey was nearing an end, he conceived the notion of teaching Turkish rug weavers the art of dyeing with natural substances. Faced with the problem of making a living, he petitioned various German and Turkish institutions, and eventually the School of Fine Arts in Istanbul enthusiastically agreed to sponsor a project with Dr. Bohmer as chief advisor, called DOBAG — an acronym from Turkish words meaning Natural Dye Research and Development Project. An enriched weaving industry was envisioned which might keep country people at home rather than flooding the cities. An area in western Turkey was chosen: Ayvacik, full of small villages with long weaving traditions. By 1981 Dr. Bohmer was launched on his new career, and the world of Oriental rugs was about to change. Villagers eagerly learned to use natural dyes, and within a very short time were weaving rugs dyed from madder root, indigo, oak galls, and other vegetal materials, prepared, with a few improvements, just as the villagers’ grandparents had prepared them.
Harald Bohmer, on far left, Bill McDonnell of Return to Tradition to his right, and DOBAG colleagues in Yuntdag region, Turkey, 1996.
As soon as the DOBAG project began to show some commercial success, weavers in the Ayvacik area who were not part of the DOBAG project began producing their own natural-dyed rugs, often copies of Caucasian rugs. Though Dr. Bohmer carefully controlled the quality of the DOBAG rugs and, in a broad sense, controlled the types of rugs made by DOBAG weavers, he had no control over the spin-offs. Thus these new natural-dyed rugs fared the way goods always do in a free market: under the control of no single person and free to blunder or thrive. Dr. Bohmer had created a benign monster over which, in the end, he had little control.
He and other principals did, though, control the DOBAG project, and the choices he made and the direction in which he pointed the project are interesting and controversial. The DOBAG rugs could have been anything: recreations of the earliest and best rugs in the history of rugmaking, of the earliest and best Turkish rugs, of the best rugs in the Ayvacik tradition — or they could have been rugs in designs entirely of the weavers’ own choosing.
A Turkish carpet from the DOBAG collective. Though only a small number of rugs are woven by DOBAG weavers larger than 6 by 9-ft, this 14 by 22-ft piece is certainly an exception.
Dr. Bohmer and his colleagues at DOBAG chose a conservative path: DOBAG rugs were to be in the Ayvacik tradition as it had evolved to that time and as the weavers found it in the early 1980s. The first designs were drafted for the weavers, but as soon as possible the drawings were done away with so that designs could evolve naturally. DOBAG was conscientious about not interfering with the villagers’ traditional weavings.
DOBAG can hardly be faulted for this sound and sensitive approach, but one has to realize that it left opportunities unexplored, in particular the opportunity to put the weavers back in touch with the masterpieces of their ancestors. After all, the Ayvacik tradition had suffered some of the same decline that nearly all other rugs had experienced during the preceding fifty years or so. The designs inherited by DOBAG weavers in 1982 simply were not as wonderful as their nineteenth-century antecedents — or so it seems to me.
I first heard word of DOBAG rugs from Ron O’Callahan, publisher of a new magazine at the time called Oriental Rug Review. The rugs turned out to be quite pleasing, with gorgeous, harmonious colors. They are tasteful and have likable, village designs. Their wool is first-rate, and the rugs have excellent body. They are certain to last for many decades and to age gracefully; they have the unmistakable stamp of quality.
But I have personal reservations about them. They seem a bit stiff to me, not literally but figuratively. There seems little in them to capture the imagination except the story behind them, which, to be sure, is the best rug story in the world. Perhaps it is their lack of irregularity that I react badly to — which, I admit, sounds perverse. They have little abrash. They do not seem idiosyncratic to me or fanciful. Obviously, this is a matter of personal taste, and I will be delighted if you disagree.
I may be prejudiced by DOBAG’s policy of selling rugs only through stores created especially for them, an approach unique in the business. Only in speaking with Bill McDonnell of Return to Tradition, one such store in San Francisco, have I come to appreciate the rationale for the decision. Still, I wonder whether DOBAG weavings may have lost a certain healthy pressure to evolve in not being offered shoulder to shoulder with rugs of other weavers and producers.