Saturday, 30 August 2008


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Thursday, 28 August 2008

Brussels Celebrates Savonnerie Carpets With 700,000 Begonias

BRUSSELS, August 29, 2008 – Every summer, Brussels weaves a giant carpet of begonia blooms that covers the entire Grande Place.

The flower carpet does not last long: just three days and four nights. And the amount of work is immense, with hundreds of volunteers arranging some 700,000 begonias (knot count of 300 flowers per square meter) into a meticulously planned pattern.

Still, Brussels considers the effort worthwhile.

The annual event, which began in 1971, reminds the world that Belgium is the world’s biggest producer of begonias -- exporting about 48 million bulbs a year.

Plus, the flower carpet reminds everyone that Belgium also is one of the world’s largest makers and exporters of carpets -- machine-made.

This year, the floral design (shown above) honored France’s “Savonnerie” carpets. Doing so it recalled the days when European weavers first “Occidentalized” oriental rugs on a commercial scale, setting the stage for today’s immensely successful Western rug industry.

Savonnerie carpets were first produced in the early 1600s and combined Eastern pile-rug weaving with French Baroque designs. The success of the patterns – whose motifs include flower bouquets, fleur-de-lys, fruits, and acanthus leaves – was so great that it swung European taste away from oriental rugs for two centuries.

Here is a Baroque carpet in the kind of typical French interior design that defined Western standards of elegance at the time.

Just how that Europe developed its own handwoven carpet industry is a fascinating story with two chapters.

One is a deliberate effort by French kings to monopolize the luxury carpet market in Europe, which was previously supplied from the East.

The other is the coincidence of this effort with a sudden feeling of Western cultural superiority as Europe’s kingdoms first became world powers.

Here are some of the steps along the way:

* King Henry IV (1533 – 1610) decides to revive France’s luxury goods industry, which was decimated in France’s wars of religion. He provides leading artisans, including weavers, with workshops in the Louvre.

** Weaving master Pierre DuPont establishes the style that will become famous as “Savonnerie.” The name is taken from the Paris soap factory which became the location of a major carpet workshop in 1644.

*** European forces defeat the Ottoman army besieging Vienna in 1683. The victory convinced Europe of their cultural supremacy over their Eastern rivals.

**** King Louis XIV bans the import of oriental carpets into France, protecting French production and ending the huge outflow of revenues to buy luxury goods from the East.

Europe’s handwoven carpets had many variations, including Savonnerie and Aubusson in France and, later, Axminster and Wilton in Britain.

This is a 18th century British interior with an Axminister on the floor.

Such carpets were commissioned by courts and by the very wealthy. And their patterns proved adaptable enough to be a centerpiece of furnishing from the Baroque and Neoclassical periods into the Napoleanic era.

It was Napolean, in fact, who gave the Savonnerie factory its last great royal support. Beginning in 1805, he commissioned carpets in the Empire style that defined his age.

The Savonnerie’s story finally ends in 1825 when the manufactory was incorporated with another weaving workshop, the Gobelins, which was famous for tapestries. By this time, the passion for European handwoven carpets had faded under a new set of social circumstances.

One was colonialism. As Europeans expanded across the globe, they came again into direct contact with oriental artwork and renewed their interest in it. By the mid-1850’s imports of oriental rugs were booming, along with Orientalism in general.

But perhaps still more important for the European hand-knotted carpet industry was the invention of the steam-powered loom in 1785. Within 50 years, the great names in European handwoven rugs disappeared or became associated with machine-made carpets as the weaving sector industrialized.

Today, one can still buy Savonnerie carpets but they are reproductions hand-made in China. And one can still buy Axminister carpets, but they are machine-made in England (as pictured here).

Does all this make the Brussels Savonnerie flower carpet a bittersweet image of Europe’s rug-making industry?

Champions of hand-knotted carpets might say ‘yes’ if it reminds them too much of a glorious past now gone forever.

But one can also argue that history must take its course and that the way Savonnerie carpets evolved into today’s multi-billion dollar machine-made carpet industry is as amazing as any other aspect of the rug trade.

In that case, the Savonnerie which bloomed in Brussels Grand Place this year -- from August 15 to 17 -- was good symbol indeed for Europe’s love affair with carpets.

Related Links:

YouTube: Brussels Flower Carpet 2008 - Savonnerie

Brussels Flower Carpet: official website

Wikipedia: Savonnerie

Early Axminster Carpets, by Brenda Rose

Thursday, 21 August 2008

In Harry Potter's World, The Carpet Is A Harshang Bidjar

LONDON, September 5, 2008 -- Is a Bidjar Harshang-patterned carpet quietly becoming the most popular rug of the next generation?

It’s possible – if you think that being visibly featured in Harry Potter films is likely to impact future rug buyers’ tastes. That is, ‘future’ in the sense of today’s children growing up to be tomorrow’s rug lovers.

But before going further, it may be necessary to explain a little about Harry Potter’s world.

Harry, the boy magician, goes to Hogwarts, a school of magic. The school is modeled very much on the great British universities such as Oxford, so Harry lives in a 'House,' or dormitory, with a common room where the resident students can gather informally anytime of day.

Harry’s ‘House’ is 'Gryffindor' and the floor of the Gryffindor common room is covered with a giant Bidjar in a Harshang pattern on a brilliant blue background.

Here, Harry (right) and his two close-friends Ron (center) and Hermione (left) meet in the common room in a scene from one of the seven Harry Potter films.

The carpet shows up in most film scenes of the Gryffindor common room and, along with tapestries on the walls, gives the room a very magical, wizard-like – feel. The non-figurative Harshang design, which conjures up zodiac-like images of crabs and bursting suns, is perfect for the role.

Is it entirely an accident that a Bidjar Harshang almost identical to the one shown here was chosen by the set designers?

Maybe not. More than a few Europeans and Americans who are now deep into adulthood have memories of oriental carpets in university rooms. And a generation earlier, rugs were more common still.

Bidjars are the natural choice for such high-wear settings. Produced in and around the northwestern Iran town of the same name), they are the most strongly made and indestructible carpets of all.

Their nickname, after all, is the 'Iron Rugs' of Persia. They are so densely woven and stiff that they cannot even be folded for transportation. Instead, they have to be rolled up.

Below is a photo of the library room in Eliot House at Harvard University. On the floor – again -- a Bidjar Harshang. Only this time the carpet has a red background.

Seeing an oriental carpet in a university common room may not just be nostalgic for lots of adults who watch Harry Potter with their children.

It also is a reminder of the huge export industry which once thrived in northwestern Iran producing room-sized rugs of all types for wealthy Western institutions and houses.

The peak was at the turn-of-the-last-century, when an oriental rug on the floor was the symbol both of a wide view of the world and a certain standing in the world.

The story of this export industry is well illustrated by the success of Ziegler & Company. The Anglo-British firm based in Manchester, England, was among the first to realize that the West’s ‘Gilded Age’ needed giant rugs that complimented Western room decors of the time.

Arto Keshishian, writing in the magazine Antiques and Fine Arts, gives the background in his article ‘Ziegler and Their Carpets.’ He notes that by the 1850’s Europe’s cyclical interest in the orient was on the upswing again and department stores began stocking up on the existing village and workshop carpets available in Iran.

But, he writes, "unfortunately, the carpets were generally either too long or too narrow for the rooms of the new English homes, because the imported carpets were designed in a traditional format to fit urban, Persian rooms."

The Ziegler Company saw an opportunity. At the time, it was selling printed cottons produced by the Manchester mills to customers in Iran and Turkey. But it changed direction, set up its own looms in northwestern Iran around the town of Sultanabad (now Arak) and began supplying hand-woven carpets to the British market instead.

Ziegler and Company revolutionized oriental carpet production by enlarging the sizes and simplifying the patterns. The company’s artists introduced more space between traditional Persian design elements to achieve, in Keshishian’s words, “an airy visual effect.”

At the same time, “fewer color combinations were used, resulting in a simpler balance and harmony; the color green was liberally incorporated, perhaps to echo the English fondness for the countryside.”

Ziegler did not produce Bidjars and its designs, as shown here, look nothing like the carpet spread across Harry Potter’s floor.

But the principles Ziegler exemplified offer some time-tested guidelines as to how carpet producers can respond to changes in the market and supply what each new generation wants.

Will the next generation surprise its parents by switching from abstract, tribal carpet designs to the lush feel of turn-of-the-last century Bidjars and Zieglers? Only the next generation can answer and, at the moment, its members are still window-shopping – or should we say movie-shopping – the options.




Related Links:

'Ziegler and Their Carpets' by Arto Keshishian