Do We Need More Design?

Do We Need More Design?

Lately, I have been asking myself this question over and over again. Perhaps because I live in a design-obsessed city, as revealed by everything from the foam patterns on one’s morning cappuccino to the style of pyjamas one wears at night. Perhaps because we just experienced ‘Milan Design Week’, a stellar event which exhibits – on a grand, theatrical scale – the myriad of possible configurations of this word ‘design’. Perhaps because furniture design has become more responsive to commercial tastes, therefore influencing designers to come up with more of the same, without much venturing into unchartered territories.

This question becomes more poignant when applied to the realm of rugs. The ‘Design Revolution’ is now a well-established phenomenon and is about to come full circle. Traditional oriental carpets have been (literally) stripped of their authenticity in a quest to create the neutral fabric needed to complement our interiors. Overtly ‘ethnic’ weavings are instantly overdyed in unpredictable colours. Patterns are erased entirely for a Minimalist effect to allow for improbable juxtapositions or with classicism meeting innovation in tribute to the eclectic nature of many of today’s interior decorations. Modern design masters have been interpolated into rug design in endless ways, sometimes with truly outstanding results. Contemporary artists, from the Hyper-Realists to the Post-Avant-Gardists, have also embraced the woven medium. From my perspective, virtually all of the iconic elements of carpet design have undergone investigation and are now appearing in an endless spectrum of permutations.

All this variety has, quite ironically, generated a theoretically consistent inventory of carpets, some of which are marked by a textile form of ‘shelf life’ – meaning that, while it might satisfy the demand of a trend-hungry clientele, it runs the risk of looking obsolete once the heat is off. I wish that Milanese fashionistas would buy carpets at the same frequency they shop for clothing. Still, it must be acknowledged that what used to be a purchase intended for a lifetime is now bought with the idea of having it last for but only a decade, perhaps [though not necessarily] more. A carpet must now be timeless yet avant-garde, unpredictable yet easily adaptable to the philosophy of the room.

In formulating the recipe for the perfect rug, we need to concentrate our attention on something other than the subject of the pattern. In my experience, the buying public does not routinely clamour for innovations in that regard, as they generally find the available options more than sufficient – to the point where anything in excess might even be detrimental and lead to confusion. Although the general trend has been to move away from traditional patterns, I am finding that the most avant-garde tastemakers are starting to re-embrace the notion of a careful selection of classical designs, with a chosen few even favouring the well-worn motifs we ruggies have been snubbing since time immemorial. Instead, I am witnessing a quasi-obsession with specific palette iterations (think Farrow & Ball’s wide range of greiges) and, even more so, a sensibility towards the intricacies of texture.

Indeed, we develop the trajectory for the rug industry’s future through the creative use of materials and the way these materials are blended together. I have noticed increased attention in the market towards the deceptively simple, mixed-technique textures of Scandinavian weavings, where colour is distributed in subtle gradations and design, often a simple geometric repeat, becomes a pure function of the weaving process. The same applies to Moroccan weavings, ranging from thick-piled Berber rugs to intricately brocaded flatweaves, which offer a panoply of woven fabrics where colours are used either as brushstrokes on an empty canvas or are daringly interspersed within the complex network of wool. We can learn a lot from these weaving traditions and expand upon them to create new categories of carpets. Their evocative textures help us emphasise the unique character of a hand-woven product, where each strand is individually hand-plied and inserted in the text with a specific intent in mind.

Natural materials such as bamboo and banana silk, nettle, hemp and linen are excellent allies in this respect in that they can be mixed with wool (and silk) in varying proportions according to the effect one has in mind. Recycled fibres such as sari silk offer a unique colour iridescence that achieves enchanting chromatic results under a supervised oxidation process. Even simple cotton can be employed to great advantage when used in conjunction with wool, following the leads of Swedish as well as Indian and Persian weavers (I refer to antique cotton Agras and Dhurries, as well as wool and cotton Tabrizes).

There is still much to explore in the domain of synthetic raw materials as well. Old tribal weavings are sometimes the most eloquent examples of how one can make the most of what is immediately available, with the Boucherouite rag rugs of Morocco being a recently discovered [by the West] case in point. Encompassing what I feel might be the widest (and wildest) range of patterns one could think of at such low knot densities, the best of these Berber abstractions further distinguish themselves with outlandish juxtapositions of shredded clothing against plastic fibres and Lurex, where different design elements are highlighted by virtue of the diametrically different textures of the materials at hand.

Carpet weaving in the 21st century has taken unprecedented leaps forward. The advent of software dedicated to creating precise, easily reproducible patterns has revolutionised the market in multiple ways. While we all benefit from these rapidly advancing technologies, we also witness a compromised sensibility towards the actual handcrafted nature of rugs. The demand for weavings available quickly has led to tufted and semi (if not entirely) mechanically woven carpets representing the bulk of the market. If we genuinely care for the future of the hand-knotted rug, then we must take all the necessary steps to restore its true identity. The decorative carpet of the future should bring to light its ancestral component of human craft. Today’s carpet designers would do well to dedicate their efforts towards an intelligent array of new patterns that reference the thread in the needle rather than the pixel on the computer screen.

So, to answer my original question, we do need more design, but it’s not for design’s sake. Ironically, more design can (and would) play an essential role in conserving the past. The very fact that the textile medium has finally broken into the domain of ‘high art’ can serve as an incentive for developing a plethora of woven structures. The aim, in my view, is to veer towards true works of design rather than continue to design works.