Oriental Rugs 101
Weavers in the Middle and Far East and North Africa have been producing some of the greatest rugs in the the world for centuries, carpets with a rich history and a kaleidoscopic arrangement of patterns and symbols. Unravel the difference between a Turkish rug and a Moroccan floor covering with this primer on Oriental rugs.
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Oriental Rugs: Timeless Style Underfoot
Some of the world's finest rugs come from the Middle and Far East and Northern Africa: places like Nepal, China, Iran, Morocco, Tibet, Turkey, Russia, Pakistan and India. Even though many Oriental rugs have traditional designs that've been unchanged for centuries, they're a perfect match to 21st century decor — like this Moroccan Beni Ourain rug paired with a neon sign wall and eclectic furniture. The key to making an antique rug work in a contemporary space? Don't pick a rug to match your furniture; instead, pick furniture that works with your rug. Elisabeth Parker, a rug expert with Christie’s Auction House in New York, says you should choose a rug first, then build the room around it. She notes, "A carpet adds so much personality to a room. It really is the foundation for the entire design."
Moroccan rugs come in a range of regional styles, ranging from the simple patterning of the classic Beni Ourain to the distinctive blood red background and bold patterns of the Rehamna, like this stunning example. There are 45 Berber tribes in Morocco and each creates its own distinctive rug style — that's a whole lot of rugs but they have a few traits in common. All Moroccan rugs are traditionally woven from wool and their tribal patterns tell stories of the weaver who made them. They're soft to the touch, and some have a high, fuzzy pile. And they're a powerful piece of art for your floor that you can build a room around.
Oriental rugs take their names from the places and people who weave them. Peshawar rugs were traditionally made by Afghan weavers in and around the city of Peshawar in northern Pakistan, but now they’re made in India and Afghanistan as well as Pakistan. The rugs’ colors echo the arid, mountainous terrain of their namesake region. Most feature subtle hues of ivory and gold and earth tones and have a limited color palette of fewer than eight distinct colors. Their designs are inspired by classic Persian rugs, so they use lots of medallions and floral motifs.
Kilim rugs originally hail from Turkey, but they’ve also been made by different tribal groups in Iran, Azerbaijan, the Balkans and the Turkic countries of Asia, too. They have a flatweave, so they’re not as thick as a knotted pile rug. Slitweaving, the technique used to weave kilims, makes it easy for the rug’s creator to create the bold geometric designs kilims are known for. The weaving technique also means kilims are reversible, with the same pattern on both sides of the rug. Kilims aren't just used as rugs. They're also used as wall hangings, bed coverlets, and pillow covers.
Oushak rugs originated in the 15th century in the town of Oushak, near modern-day Istanbul. Unlike many Turkish rugs, Oushaks have a lot of Persian influences, with designs featuring large-scale scrolls, arabesques, medallions and sprays of palms. They’re usually coarsely woven, with a low knots-per-square-inch count or KPSI, which is a measure of weaving density that is to rugs what thread count is to sheets. They feature ivory or gold backgrounds with muted shades of cinnamon, saffron, gray, and terracotta in the design. Of all the Turkish rugs, the Oushak is the most well-suited for a contemporary, minimalist design style.
Kazak rugs were traditionally made by different tribal groups near the Caucasus Mountains in modern day Russia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. They feature rich, complex palettes of red, blue, yellow, navy, black and beige that are often all combined in one rug. Kazak patterns are bold and geometric: stripes, crosses, diamonds, hexagons and stylized animal and human figures all figure prominently.
Ikat rugs are woven to look like traditional Asian textiles made with yarn dyed before it’s woven into fabric. Ikat textiles came to Europe in the 16th century via Dutch traders following the Silk Road, and rug makers started imitating the pattern soon afterwards. Ikat rugs have an almost psychedelic look, with their repeating patterns and bright colors deliberately made to look blurry. Appearing both indigenous and international, this style is a boho favorite that’s perfect for a global age. Ikats are made in Central Asia and South America. This contemporary Ikat is fresh off the loom and was made in Kabul, Afghanistan.
Persian rugs are the most famous type of Asian or Oriental rugs, so much so that people often use "Persian" and "Oriental" interchangeably. This isn't correct. Persian rugs are a subset of Oriental rugs. So while all Persian rugs are Oriental rugs, all Oriental rugs are not Persian. Persian rugs come from Iran, formerly known as Persia, and the term covers a broad range of design styles. Iran has been a center of weaving for a millenia and is home to many famous rug styles. This rug is a Tabriz, one of the best loved types of Persians. It was made in 1900 and features a center medallion surrounded by an intricate floral motif.
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Unlike the intricately patterned rugs of Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia, Tibetan rugs usually have a monochromatic background with simple designs woven into them. Traditional designs tend to be based on images from the natural world or religious symbols, but there are a slew of rugs being made in Nepal and Tibet with contemporary designs like this one. Tibetan rugs are made with a different knot style than Persian rugs, so even traditional designs tend to be simpler and more contemporary-looking. Tibetan rugs tend to be thinner than Persians, too.
American rug designer Walter Nichols came up with a line of rugs in the 1920s that would go with the Art Deco interiors in vogue in U.S. homes. He had them made by hand in China, and a rug craze was born. Chinese Art Deco rugs are having a moment again, with both antique and reproduction examples turning up in trendy interiors. They feature bright colors like indigo, orange, ruby, magenta and turquoise, along with Nichols’ interpretation of Chinese and east Asian artistic traditions — whimsical designs of flowers, domestic life and animals. These rugs were chinoiserie for the Jazz Age, and they're a welcome burst of color in this age of neutral decor. “A Chinese Nichols is an antidote to a beige room,” says Elisabeth Parker, a rug expert with Christie’s in New York.
Pakistani weavers began making rugs in the mid-20th century when India and Pakistan separated into two nations. Most rugs are made in Lahore or Karachi of wool imported from Australia. Patterns tend to be interpretations of various Persian, Turkmenistan and Indian patterns. This vintage rug has an oversized floral pattern drawn from classic Indian designs.
India’s weaving tradition dates to the 16th century when the rug-loving mogul Akbar set up a carpet workshop of Persian weavers and artists in his palace. Designs ranged from interpretations of classic Persian motifs to the all-over botanical patterns common in Indian textiles, like this riff on the Tree of Life pattern on a new rug that’s made to look like an antique.
Afghanistan has centuries of rug-weaving tradition, but the country’s weavers make contemporary design rugs as well as traditional and tribal styles. This contemporary rug was made in Kabul and has a bold, all-over floral pattern on a grand scale, with each stylized flower measuring nearly a foot across. Wondering how to pick a rug when there are so many options? "Buy what you love," says Elisabeth Parker, a rug expert with Christie's. "If it speaks to you, and you love it, you can make it work."
Overdyed rugs are antique or vintage Oriental and Persian rugs that have gotten a second life with a new, brilliant coat of color. The trend began in the ‘00s as a way to reuse old rugs. A Turkish company bought up antique and vintage rugs and dipped them into vats of dye, drenching them to the point of oversaturation. The resulting color-washed rugs were a smashing success. They're not only pretty but also good for the environment. “There are enough vintage and antique rugs out there to cover the ocean," says Elizabeth Parker, a rug expert with Christie’s in New York. "There's so much textile waste. If we reuse them, we can stop using the natural resources to make new ones.” Overdyed rugs are so popular that some companies are overdying brand new, low-quality rugs. Be sure you buy a used rug that's been overdyed or you’ll miss the whole eco-friendly point. New overdyed rugs aren’t as cool as old ones, either. “Old rugs have history,” Parker says. "They tell a story."
Here’s another example of creative rug recycling. Patchwork rugs are made by cutting up old handmade rugs from places like Pakistan, Turkey, India and Iran and sewing the pieces into a new rug. Patchwork rugs combine cultures, traditions and histories of different vintage and antique rugs into a new piece of art for your floor. They're a perfect symbol of our global era. And like overdyed rugs, patchwork rugs are great for the planet and a sustainable way to decorate. “There’s a lot of textile waste out there,” says Elisabeth Parker, a rug expert with Christie’s in New York. “Be thoughtful about what you buy. Look for beauty in old carpets."
Design Tip: Mix It Up
A good Oriental rug never goes out of style, but there are secrets for making it work in your home. We're going to show you a few of them. Here, a 21st-century painting hangs over a 19th-century Persian rug in a room full of 20th-century furniture. The trick to mixing three centuries of decor in one room? Keep the major elements in the room monochromatic and let the rug be the star. The walls, furniture and painting are shades of off-white, creating a neutral backdrop for the brilliant colors of the rug.
Match Elements to the Rug
Essentially, repeat rug colors in the furnishings. In this bedroom, the artwork and bedspread match the colors in the Persian rug. Even though other patterns and colors are thrown into the mix, the room looks unified and designed. If you're shopping for a vintage or antique rug that will hold its value, Christie's rug exerpt Elisabeth Parker suggests buying a Heriz, which is a type of Persian rug. "Antique Heriz are stable on the market," she says. "I like them because they have a lot of colors and geometrics and can go in a living room or your kid's room."
Keep Patterns in the Same Color Family
Yes, you can use patterns in a room anchored by an ornately patterened Oriental rug. The secret to making it work? Keep patterns within the same color families. In this living room, the midnight blue Ikat curtains go with with paintings on the gallery wall, while the beige, brown and salmon tones in the Persian rug go with the sofa, coffee table and chairs.