Casting about for a new medium, artist became hooked on fish rugs

November 24, 1991|By Lynn Williams

n most people's houses, if you want to see fish you look in the refrigerator or the aquarium. For scales, check the bathroom. A wallet might reveal a fin or two.

At David Page and Lauren Schott's place, just look underfoot.

Craft show habitues might already know the work of Ms. Schott, a jeweler whose work often features a lighthearted fish motif. But her husband is the one responsible for the piscine decor around the couple's Waverly row house. Through his company, the Plaice Mat (named for a flounderlike flatfish), Mr. Page makes and sells rugs in the shape of all sorts of tropical and sport fish, realistically detailed and just as colorful as their models. Or more so.

Mr. Page, a painter and sculptor by training, is from South Africa, and has the British accent to show for it. But he has American roots, and several years ago, after finishing art school, he moved to the United States.

"My father was actually born in Arkansas, so I started off in Arkansas and worked my way down to Florida," he says. The peripatetic artist also lived in Montana and Dallas for a while, before settling in Baltimore, a city he had visited several times and liked. Here he discovered a new medium for his artistic talents.

"I was working in a restaurant, and this friend of mine said, 'Hey, I know these guys who make rugs, who need someone to help them,' " he recalls. "At that stage I was doing a lot of leather work, and I realized how easy it would be to add another means of expression. It was a nice tactile medium. It was like being in play school for a living."

He was responsible for making decorative borders, usually florals, for custom rugs ordered by interior designers. Eventually he went into business for himself. And while similarly conservative designs still account for much of his trade, a more ++ expressive sideline has developed within the past year.

A friend, he explained, walked in one day with a book about fish. One fish, the plaice, was particularly arresting; with its flatness, its rounded lines, and its stylized stripe-and-spot patterns, it looked just like a rug! So why shouldn't it be a rug?

Using carpeting from his workshop, Mr. Page made a plaice-shaped rug.

"I took quite a lot of liberties with the colors, the spot design and even the face," he admits. "I wanted it to have something of a human element, with the furrowing of the brow, although that does follow the lines of the fish itself."

After creating one fish rug, Mr. Page was hooked, so to speak.

"I saw the potential, so I got a bunch of books on fish, and carried on making them," he says. "I liked the idea of rugs that looked at people."

In contrast to what Mr. Page calls the plaice's "classic pre-cubist distortion" is the naturalistic intricacy of several other fish rugs, including the discus, a round tropical fish with vivid red and aqua markings, and the Randal's basslet, whose striped body is textured with carved scales. And then there are the rainbow trout and the sailfish, whose familiar, iconographic lines give them a touch of humor.

"It seems to have an element of naive folk charm to it, which is dictated by the medium," he says of the trout. "I don't normally work in a naive folk way, so I was pleased to achieve that without really striving to achieve it, which can become real phony."

As for the sailfish, which he has mounted on plywood and displayed above the fireplace, "That's my idea of a kinder, gentler trophy," he jokes. "It approaches a cartoon, and actually, when I made it, I almost didn't finish it because it looked too much like a cartoon. But now it's actually one of my favorite pieces."

The sailfish appeals to both sport fishing aficionados and to those who are amused by the kitschy appeal of the faux trophy look.

Mr. Page uses photographs as a reference when he designs his rugs. Some of the fancier fish need to be simplified in order to work well as rugs; the artist uses typing correction fluid to white out extraneous pattern on the photo. Other designs are kept very close to nature, including the most recent addition to his line, which features three koi (ornamental goldfish) face to face within a circle.

"All the patterns have been taken from photographs of koi," he explains. "I found out that koi people actually relate emotionally to their fish. You can handle them, and hand-feed them. These people like to see a high degree of realism in their fish."

The rug design was inspired by Japanese prints, and has a formal, symmetrical structure, but the fishes' tails, extending beyond the circle, give it a feeling of motion and energy.

After the design process is finished, the rugs are put together in Mr. Page's basement workshop, where rainbow-hued rolls of the TTC plushy carpet material, an expensive hard-wearing nylon, are also stored.

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