Friday, April 12, 2013

Reading on the rug

The Emperor's New Clothes, illustration for Hans Christian Anderson's Fairy Tales, 1935

Being intellectually lazy, I've never been able, with any patience, to take part in the discussion that has marched on since at least the nineteenth-century, about the distinction between fine arts and the decorative arts – with fine artists claiming for themselves not only the Olympian heights, but also the right to be considered philosophers, sociologists, psychiatrists and priests. I do not agree with assessments that give fine artists a special place in society, other than recognizing their status as producers of commercial artifacts that might or might not either do well as investments or, at the other end of the continuum, look good above a sofa or on the coffee table. As to the product itself, abstract art bores me silly and conceptual art leaves me wondering which of us – the artist or myself – is demented.

In other words, to me it's all "Emperor's New Clothes" and prejudiced as I am, I'm fully prepared to condemn that which I don't understand. (I may of course, like a modern pundit or politician, apologize for it later.)

Two days ago, I opened a new Amazon box and found the most thrilling book of my year so far, In Search of Rex Whistler: His Life and Work. Hitherto easily dismissed as a decorative painter, Whistler's status in twentieth-century art can, thanks to this excellent book, be reassessed and, finally, understood. I'm not going to write about the hi-jacking of twentieth-century art by the likes of Clement Greenberg and the nationalistic assumptions therein – I could, but I'll leave it for another day. Rex Whistler sits firmly in my personal pantheon of those who draw and can explain an idea in clear visual language with imagination, wit, and without gobbledygook. I cannot recommend this biography of one of my favorite artists more highly, but with a publication date of 2012, I suspect I'm preaching to the quire and y'all probably have your copies already. I keep being pulled from the excellent text by the superb illustrations, one of which is a double-page fold-out of the Plas Newydd mural – an absolute delight.

The Triumph of Neptune, a carpet design by Rex Whistler for Edward James, 1934

A friend who is remodeling his place asked me if I would have wooden floors again and I immediately said I would not – at least, I qualified, not in the form of planks that just go from here to there. My preference for floors, be they of wood or stone, is that they should have more than a length of shoe-mold or baseboard to relate them to the architecture that surrounds them and I feel also that nowadays most floors, carpets and rugs do not relate, other than superficially. That said, there are times when it is a blessing not to draw attention to the shape of rooms and camouflage is called for – despite Rose Cumming's put-down of "'ere to 'ere," it is sometimes the best option and occasionally that choice is not solely aesthetic. Sometimes it's about acoustics or perhaps, more usually, what you can afford. 

An expanse of floor, be it wood, stone, or both, is very satisfying when, for my taste, it is not broken up with too many rugs. In fact, space, illusory or real, is a modern luxury and one too easily ignored given the pressures to be good consumers. That said, two few soft surfaces and there will be problems with noise. I tried to keep away from what one should do and make sure our friend understood that I was talking about my preferences not rules. So, there are no rules, he said, making me realize I'd rattled on a bit too much. I had to say that there are rules and most of them are not to be broken but, to get into that discussion was going to require another Bloody Mary (it was brunch) and likely he'd end up even more confused. I really should have just said yes in the first place or had a Virgin Mary (I know, I know... ). 

I like floors, carpets and rugs to have borders – I like borders, both personal and aesthetical. Our hall rug (not shown to advantage in the photograph below, I confess) – a faded palimpsest when lit from above, with the faintest of arabesques ghosting through each part – is a total treasure both in its beauty and its associations of bright sunlight on the Silk Road to Samarkand. It should, I feel sometimes, be on a wall, but rugs are made for the floor and it goes so well with the Turgeot map and the 1950s bench.

The living room carpet, on the other hand, could be a length of broadloom cut to a standard size. I bought it as a wool-and-silk-hand-knotted-in-Tibet carpet and though without a border, it is equally subtle, though simpler in design. And while it might at first glance be a length of broadloom, the pattern ends at each edge equally, with is no slicing through a motif. (I know in the photograph it looks like a ploughed field, and I've tried to explain to "the help" what I want, but neither of us, it seems, feels we can spend our days smoothing the pile with a silk scarf.)

Seeing again the image of Whistler's The Triumph of Neptune carpet set me thinking about the occasion a week or so ago when I attended a showroom presentation about new rug and carpet lines. Sitting there, I got to wondering why viscose – not the best fibre for high-traffic areas – is so prevalent in decorative textiles. Further, I wondered why one would specify a fibre the production of which is allegedly very polluting, and also who is designing carpets nowadays?

What I should wonder about is not who, but how carpets are designed – a subject I'd like to return to in the near future given that most carpet and rugs (beyond the time-honored orientals) designs look remarkably alike to me, even those from the branded collections of celebrity interior designers.

As I looked, apropos something else, through Pierre-Emmanuel Martin-Vivier's excellent book about Jean-Michel Frank, I came across four rug designs that seem to me to be the antithesis of modern carpet and rug design – original artworks for the floor, they show how – in the hands of an artist (in this case trained in theatre) – how delightful, original, frivolous even, rugs or carpets can be.

The Emperor's New Clothes, illustration for Hans Christian Anderson's Fairy Tales, and The Triumph of Neptune, a carpet design by Rex Whistler for Edward James from In Search of Rex Whistler: His Life and Work, Hugh and Mirabel Cecil, Frances Lincoln, 2012.

Rug designs by Christian Bérard from Jean-Michel Frank: The Strange and Subtle Luxury of the Parisian Haute-Monde in the Art Deco Period, Pierre-Emmanuel Martin-Vivier, Rizzoli, 2008.


  1. The Tibetan is rather nice, and could also be a variation on the tiger rugs about which I wrote recently. Personally I believe great expanses of floor need a carpet to anchor the area. In our sitting room/dining room, (I hate "living room", but it is one area), I have divided the space by a day bed, but the dining area has a seagrass carpet, (with a black border), and the sitting area a faded vermillion "Oriental" rug - I think it is from Afghanistan or thereabouts - which has fringes at the top and bottom. It too has a bordered pattern.

    1. columnist, thank you. I agree with you about carpets defining areas but not absolutely – it depends on the floor and the location of the house.

      I know your space well from photographs and find it both elegant, spacious, personal, and suitable for the climate in which you live. It is beautiful indeed.

      We have a large Afghani rug stored and I occasionally wonder if we used it again, say in winter, if it would tip the room the wrong way. I guess I shan't find out anytime soon because once something so big is stored it stays that way.

  2. I am delighted to have another view of the rug that I admired in in a previous photo. (Both are very nice). You have not said - and I’d love to know -is it wool and silk or wool and flax – all three? Much respect – and amusement - for your personal and aesthetical borders. They are almost an intrinsic part of rug design, like repeats in fabrics. I did say Almost.

    I think it’s the vogue for the irregular shimmering effect produced more economically than silk and the lack of static shock problems that make manufacturers choose viscose these days. Speaking of current rug designs, Tai Ping is a big machine, but of impressive quality. Did you see my rug post about NeedKnot a while back? Looking forward to your thoughts on carpets and rugs.

    (My Tino Zervudachi book arrived damaged!)

    1. gésbi, thank you.

      The large carpet is wool and silk – the pattern being the silk. The hall rug, the Samarkand, is wool.

      I agree with you about the shimmer of silk that rayon imitates and in combination with wool (instead of silk, as in my carpet) I cannot tell the difference. In upholstery textiles the sheen of rayon can be slightly sleazy which I find off-putting. It is hard to find an upholstery fabric that is not a blend of rayon.

      A combination of fibres can be both visually and texturally exciting and beautiful but I'm not sure how far commercial manufacturers explore those possibilities. I looked at Tai Ping and found some beautiful, desirable rugs and carpets. Wonderful stuff!

  3. Your paean to the expanse of floor in defense of space carried me back to your discussion of the gallery wall. To the pressure you mention here, to be a good consumer, we add "with equal worry" the pressure to be a good exhibitor, because often it boils down to being a dutiful heir with, nevertheless, authentic independent interests. Exhibition of space is not only a handsome gesture, it's a handsome virtue. We strive to sustain it, one way or another, but walls and floors are not of equal prestige, alas, either in their expression of space or in their resistance to being overwritten.

    1. Laurent, thank you.

      "the pressure to be a good exhibiter" – perfectly expressed! And in combination with "resistance to being overwritten" that phrase has summed up what I was groping towards and I want to warn you I might quote you in a post.

      Thank you.

  4. I have just discovered your lovely and informative blog and I feel as if Christmas morning has arrived months early. Your writing is charming and refreshingly original-no parroting of the "blogosphere" here, than you very much!
    Without even diving very far back into your posts, my Amazon shopping cart is filling up with alarming speed owing to your fascinating suggestions.
    Rex Whistler is a great favorite of mine and not only because I think my husband is dead ringer for Whistler's self portrait.
    There is a wonderful archive of Rex Whistler books and materials for sale by a rare book dealer in Boston. If only...
    Thank you!

    1. P.S. Thank you for the link - I shall be checking it out today when I'm back home.

  5. Anonymous, thank you very much for your kind words.

    Have you ever seen the Tate Gallery restaurant murals? We ate lunch there a few years ago and it was very irritating to be told that I could not photograph the murals (mind you, the instruction was given with a wink) and the Tate did not have a brochure or book about them, They appear in this latest book.

    Handsome husband if he's a dead ringer for Whistler's self-portrait!

  6. We have seen Whistler's murals in the Tate restaurant, just in time too, because it was closed soon after for its renovation. To construct such a fantasy from a narrative of humans driven to transcend dull biscuits in search of rare meats reveals such a playfully creative mind behind all of that talent.
    Our first introduction to his work was at Plas Newydd, where we first noticed my husband's resemblance to Rex Whistler when we saw RW's self portrait in the guise of a street sweeper.
    He IS handsome and I am very lucky indeed.