There's something afoot in the design world: The use of a simple accessory that can light up a room, make a design statement, or bring a decorating scheme together.
What's this versatile item? It's an area rug -- not the limp and lusterless "scatter" rugs of old, but vibrant, varied and beguiling bits of pure color and texture that are nothing less than art for the floor.
"People sometimes think of rugs as secondary," says Leslie Meilman, owner of Rugs to Riches, a rugs and accessory store in Ellicott City, "but your floors are a good percentage of what decorates a room, and they can have a powerful impact on style and design."
Rugs today come in a wide variety of natural materials -- cotton, wool, jute and sisal -- as well as synthetic fibers (mostly in the pile types). They come from everywhere in the world -- China, Afghanistan, Persia, India, Turkey and Tibet -- as well as the United States.
"There's been a resurgence" of interest in area rugs in recent years Ms. Meilman says. "Some of it comes from the restoration of old homes, some of it comes from our feelings about nature and nesting. . . . People want their homes to look and be comfortable."
Fine Oriental rugs and artist rugs can be expensive, but most area rugs are affordable -- ranging from less than $100 to just a few hundred dollars. Ms. Meilman has 4-foot-by-6-foot brushed denim "rag" rugs with leather trim for $95; and she has a 4-foot-by-6-foot sculptured pile rug in navy blue with a pattern of stylized pale pink and white stars for $375. This fall she will be carrying rugs from the Garden Collection by Feizy, with vibrant designs of chili peppers, eggplants, grapes and grapevines, and other produce motifs; a 4-foot-by-6-foot design will cost about $650. Tribal rugs from the Middle East can cost $2,000 or more.
"You can begin to decorate a room and make a statement, or redecorate, for a small amount of money by changing the rug and a few accessories," Ms. Meilman says.
The array of rugs today can be bewildering. Ms. Meilman encourages people to bring fabric swatches and room plans and measurements when they shop for a rug, "and to bring their spouse, if possible." She'll visit people's homes and make recommendations for rug choices, and she does allow rugs to be taken home on approval if a decision can't be made in the store.
Seeing rugs in room settings can demonstrate what different types can do. At Garon's Ethan Allen Home Interiors on Baltimore National Pike, designers have used a wide variety of rugs to illustrate the possibilities.
One of the most dramatic examples teams black and natural-wood neoclassical pieces with upholstered pieces in black and gold. The wall-to-wall carpet is a pale tan; over that, underneath the coffee table, is a 4-foot-by-6-foot rug that is nearly the same color as the carpet, but it has a narrow interior border of black all around that serves both to highlight and to unify all the other black touches in the setting.
This rug is a simple version of a popular look, carved broadloom, in which designs are set into a background and the edges are carved, or beveled, to give a sculptural quality. "It's almost like a piece of art," says designer Kim Thaler. "It can be very, very dramatic." One common use is in a foyer; modern houses often have large entryways, she notes, that can be "furnished" with a striking area rug.
Designer Mary Siemek, pointing out some more elaborate examples of carved designs, says "Stenciling is very popular right now -- you can copy that design [from the rug] on the wall and really make a dramatic statement."
Or, for a different look, says Brian Dermitt, another Ethan Allen designer, you could take a motif from a wall covering or fabric in the room and commission an artist to stencil it as a border on a sisal rug. Sisal rugs, woven from a natural fiber that looks like rope, are a popular look for contemporary or casual rooms.
Rugs are practical for a number of reasons, Ms. Siemek and the other designers point out: They're fairly inexpensive, they can protect wall-to-wall carpet in areas of heavy wear, they're easy to change if you get tired of them, and modern treatments and cleaning methods make them last beautifully.
And they're portable. Designer Barbara Clark says a client who moved frequently told her she used a lot of rugs so she could simply roll them up and take them along. "It's nice to take a piece of home with you wherever you go," Ms. Clark says.
But it's the drama a rug can create that most interests the designers. Ms. Thaler points out a country French bedroom setting where a large swan decoy rests on a needlepoint rug of rosy florals on a black background. The floral motif is echoed in pastel bedcoverings, but the black background gives the rug sharp definition on the wood floor. If the design is striking enough, "a tiny rug makes a big statement," she says.