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05242013 Editorial: Is the Term Oriental Rug Accurate, Useful or Productive

By Lissa Wyman
5/24/2013 Editorial:

By Lissa Wyman

Why do some folks in our business persist in calling themselves "Oriental Rug" specialists?

It's a fusty, dusty, old-fashioned term that does not accurately describe the modern rug business at any level --design, price, construction or country of origin.

First, so-called "Oriental" designs and colors are no longer the dominant style in the market. Certainly classical motifs are still very much a part of the market, but they have evolved to the point that the terms "neo-traditional" or "transitional" describe them more accurately. Modern dyes and computer-assisted graphics programs have allowed stylists to stray far away from the  rules of scale and symmetry that used to be the intransigent code of  conduct for the rug designer. (Of course, a true rug classic does not require any modern input. Those designs are etched in stone.)

I don't have any hard numbers (remember, the rug industry does not gather statistics), but I believe that traditional "Oriental" designs now account for far less than half of rugs sold in the U.S.

Fine hand knotted antique and antique reproduction rugs are still important in the luxury market. But even at that level (over $100 sq. ft.), contemporary designs are becoming the norm rather than the exception. Rugs for the designer and architect market are often made in Nepal using Tibetan weave. These rugs are elegant examples of modern design, about as far removed from standard "Oriental" rugs as you can get.

In terms of construction, classic Oriental rugs are hand knotted using either the  asymmetrical senneh or Persian knot or the symmetrical Ghiordes, or Turkish knot.

Unfortunately the hand knot tradition is an endangered species in those countries. Modern industrialization,  broader educational and occupation opportunities, war and international political conflict have decimated the population of rug weavers artisans.

For hundreds of years, there was only two ways to make rugs: laborious hand knotting or the hand-loomed process usually associated with tribal cultures.

The Industrial Revolution, which began in the late 18th Century transformed the world and with it, the world rug industry. Chemical Dyes,  jacquard looms, hand tufting, printing, computers. Every new development that comes down the pike takes us further away from the traditions of "Oriental Rugs."

So why do some people STILL insist on calling themselves Oriental Rug Stores? Automobile manufacturers don't call themselves "buggy makers" or even "horseless buggy makers."

The anachronistic nature of the business was recently addressed by Hali, the London-based international publication for fine rugs.

In the article, titled "Facing in the Wrong Direction," author Colin Wilde cites how major politcal  upheavals and continuing  industrialization have decimated the hand-knotted rug business. "It is a miracle that the craft has survived at all," he writes.

Many people in the rarefied world of luxury rugs may take great satisfaction in the fact that fine hand knotted rugs are indeed becoming rarer than ever.

However, Wilde takes a broader business view.

"A far subtler problem poses a threat to the continued existence of handmade rugs. The rug makers and their masters refuse to recognize what people want. The dominant styles and patterns being mindlessly reproduced are more suited to 18th Century mosques or nomad tents than a modern living room in the West," he wrote.

"In reality, people don't give a fig about the 'Oriental' in carpet. They're fools if they do, because these products are designed in Denver and woven in China, India or Nepal," he added.

"The ailments of the rug trade are exacerbated by attempting to carry on as before. The message is clear: If the rug business doesn't wise up an readjust, it will die."

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