Rugs' role in decor moves up, and now they're cast as 'fifth wall'

January 10, 1993|By Elaine Markoutsas | Elaine Markoutsas,Contributing Writer

The room, with white walls and oak floors, has a loft-like feel enlivened by teal upholstery, a red throw and architectural torcheres. But without the rug, this interior would feel impersonal and unfinished.

With its simple field of stars bordered with moons, in brilliant shades of red, cobalt, black, white and teal, Christine Van Der Hurd's playful "Moon and Stars" area rug more than punches up the still minimal space. It gives the room its personality.

Most decorators ideally would design a room around a rug, pulling from it the interior's palette for walls and fabrics. But adding the right area rug to existing surroundings can unify and finish off a space in dramatic fashion. For hundreds of years, traditional Oriental or Aubusson rugs have done just that. With contemporary designs, the often-quoted analogy of an area rug as a "fifth wall" is even more true.

Although architects such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Eero Saarinen, Josef Hoffmann and Eileen Gray designed floor coverings to complement their modern interiors and to reflect prairie, Viennese secessionist and Bauhaus styles early in the 20th century, the term "area rug" wasn't even coined until 1951.

That was the year Edward Fields created a group of custom contemporary rugs with industrial designer Raymond Loewy, who was especially known for his aerodynamic forms. Mr. Field's idea was to create an island that would pull furniture from the walls and unify the pieces.

This was a refreshing alternative to traditional rugs, and to wall-to-wall carpeting, which had become ubiquitous after World War II and still enjoyed widespread use through the '60s.

A tremendous upsurge of people with new money and a proliferation of new buildings appointed with clean-lined furnishings precipitated a need for more compatible floor coverings.

"People were looking for something other than their grandmother's Oriental rugs to go with their Danish modern, directional, Mies van der Rohe or Bauhaus furniture," said Jon "Jack" Fields, whose father, Edward, founded Edward Fields in 1935. "It was a neo-design age, when everyone was thinking about rockets, space and the New World."

The idea of something lasting that would hold its value also appealed. "Area rugs were not disposable products," said Mr. Fields. "They were possessions to be cherished for a lifetime."

Not until the last few years, however, have contemporary rugs become more available. In the last decade, area rugs have enjoyed a surge in popularity. Until then, sophisticated contemporary design was limited to custom weavings or architect-and-artist-commissioned pieces from the Edward Fields and V'Soske companies.

Stanislav V'Soske, who founded his company in 1924, invented a way to create various pile heights and densities, an innovation that especially attracted artists.

Today, a good number of artists, designers and manufacturers are reinterpreting the area rug, playing with conventional elements such as borders, fields and central medallions. Many of the hand-woven, hand-tufted, needlepointed or machine-loomed rugs are produced with high-quality wools and natural dyes. The expressive pieces, which offer a formidable range in patterns, styles and colors, are available in galleries, department and specialty stores. You can expect to pay from about $1,000 for a machine-loomed piece to as much as $30,000 for a custom design.

Bold patterns

Whether you make an area rug the focus of a room depends on the strength of its pattern. It's easier to envision the floor as fifth wall with a bold example such as "Collage," a Matisse-inspired rug woven by Edward Fields. With an all-white backdrop, the spirited piece, whose field consists of islands of unbashful hues -- hot pink, red, yellow-gold, cobalt -- commands center stage. The organic and curvy overlay, reminiscent of giant leafy fronds, offers a contrast to the straight-lined furnishings. Such art on the floor commands the kind of dominance that a strong poster or canvas would on a wall. A simpler design in a more traditional format, even in a dynamic palette, can be used as a magnet for no-patterned furnishings in colors drawn from the rug.

Christine Van Der Hurd, a former textile designer from London who has been fashioning contemporary area rugs for 11 years, works on paper by painting gouaches before translating the patterns to hand-tufted rugs in 100-percent wool. Her 6-by-9-foot "Moon and Stars," part of a collection called ". . . And So On," sells for $4,550; custom colors and sizes are available.

Although "Moon and Stars" was photographed in a modern setting, Ms. Van Der Hurd says it might work just as well with 19th-century Biedermeier furniture.

Some interior designers have manipulated traditional rug design introduce something comfortable in its familiarity yet whimsical and fresh in interpretation.

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