“The soul of the apartment is the carpet”, Edgar Allen Poe famously declared in his 1840 essay on interior design, The Philosophy of Furniture. He goes on to say that not only do the colors in the room take their cues from the carpet, but “the forms and scale” as well. He extols the virtues of patterns “with no meaning” (especially, “the Arabesque”), and writes many an unkind word about overcrowded designs and gaudiness of color. (One can’t help wondering what Poe would make of the current Age of Beige we have been in since the 1990s.)
So here we are, 175 years later, still asking that fundamental question: how should we furnish our interiors? Poe is right, of course–––the carpet is crucial, if only because it is, per se, the largest furnishing object in “the apartment”. But he is only partially right. The character of a room is determined not only by the individual objects in it, the character of a room also involves the interactions between those objects. In other words, a room in which everything is beige, or gray, in which the carpet is essentially wallpaper for the floor, is less interesting, less personal, and less artistic than a room in which the furniture and the carpet have actual color, and have something to say to each other.
In this setting to the upper left, a starkly modern Harry Bertoia “Bird” chair and ottoman (Knoll International) and a sleek Koch & Lowry chrome swing lamp reside on a light blue 1880 Karaja carpet (Lot 163, Estimate $8,000-$10,000).The light blue field both complements the dark blue chair and contrasts with it. The chrome of the chair and the lamp are warmed by all the colors in the rug, especially the mellow red in the strap-work design and in the border. Also, because the rug has a relatively fine weave, various painterly effects are possible–––for example, the way elements of the strap work pattern cross over and under each other–––giving a 3 dimensional depth to the design, and to the room.
In the setting to the right, the color and angularity come more from the carpet than from the midcentury bentwood lounge chairs or the tubular steel and glass coffee table. Each object is “modern” in its own way — the chairs with their streamlined simplicity, the table with its gleaming clarity, and the carpet with its sharp-edged palmettes and massive scale. One of the main things this large 1880 Serapi (Lot 161, Estimate $18,000 – $20,000) brings to the room is color, and color harmony. These kinds of colors are unique to antique rugs–––they are the result of 130 years of light and oxidation on naturally dyed wool. The rug also has a wonderfully matte surface, a patina that comes from many years of gentle use, that cannot be achieved by any chemical or mechanical means: the magic of time (and, it must be said, of not wearing shoes in the house). It should also be noted that because this Serapi has such a mellow palate, it allows the design to be large-scale and dramatic without taking over the room.
Here, one of the bentwood chairs from the previous setting and a three-part stainless steel floor lamp sit on a large, late 19th century Caucasian kelim (Lot 69, Estimate $800-$1,000). On the wall, a mid-19th-century Uzbek silk ikat panel (Lot 40, Estimate $800-$1,000), adds color and movement and a less aggressive kind of geometry to the room. Because the kelim is flat woven (and in this case, very finely woven), it has clarity and precision that pile rugs can never achieve. But because they have no pile, kelims lack the density of pile rugs, and consequently can be difficult to get to lay flat. The key to using flat weaves of any kind––– kelims, or soumaks, or jejims, for example–––is proper padding. What works best is a 2-pad system: the bottom pad, made of dense synthetic rubber, which goes directly on the floor, and a thin 2nd pad, lightly adhesive on both sides, which secures the flat weave to the underlying rubber pad.
Lastly, a striking Vittorio Introini for Saporiti dining table and an accompanying Loredana Rosin art glass sculpture rest on a late 19th century antique Ferehan Sarouk carpet (Lot 160, Estimate $10,000-$12,000). An early 18th century Ottoman silk-on-linen embroidered panel hangs on the wall. Here, the antique carpet is not only the primary source of color and warmth in the room, but it’s the main source of movement and fluidity as well: the large-scale, beautifully drawn palmettes, calyxes, and tendrils move in and out, expand and contract, like a visual analog to breathing. Of course, this quality of drawing is only possible with a fine weave, and most finely woven 19th century Persian carpets come from urban workshops, where the patterns tend to be formal, professionally designed, and the wool and dyes of the best quality available. This is certainly the case with this carpet, where the rug’s elegance underscores and supports the formal elegance of the table.
There are two things of which I am fairly certain: 1) the primary function of any interior is to give us pleasure, and 2) that antique Oriental carpets do not need to feel like a trip to Grandma’s house. Antique carpets not only integrate well with mid-century and contemporary furniture, they can enhance them, as well, in ways that no other kind of rug can. At their best, antique carpets have colors that have the depth, clarity, harmony, and mellowness that come only with age. They have an intrinsic tastefulness that allows each element of the design “to breathe”. And they have individual idiosyncrasies of drawing and color that make them endlessly interesting to live with. But perhaps one of the principal charms of antique Oriental carpets is that they have something to say, they are not simply visual background music. As Poe noted 175 years ago, the soul of a room, its character, its statement of what you find beautiful and inspiring, is there at your feet.
Note: All carpets featured will be offered in the Fine Oriental Rugs & Carpets auction on March 28th. The furniture will be offered in Skinner’s 20th Century Design Sale (# 2830B) on June 20th, 2015.