Designers cut rugs some slack

Oriental designs taking a back seat to snappy, contemporary styles


Adding an area rug to a room basically used to mean one thing: buying an Oriental.

Not anymore.

The traditional, Persian-carpet look that long dominated the rug industry is being edged aside by bright, snappy, contemporary designs.

From the high end to the low, area rugs are sprouting fields of giant flowers and clouds of bubbles and swirls. They're boasting kinetic grids and stripes, and a palette of candy colors guaranteed to wake up a room.

"More than half of our business is contemporary now," says Austin Craley, vice president of sales for Momeni Inc., whose rugs supply thousands of retailers across the country. "Historically, they used to be about 5 percent, but in the past five years, contemporary rug sales have expanded dramatically."

Philadelphia interior designer RJ Thornburg, known for his inventive approach to eclectic decors, says Oriental rugs don't offer the look he wants. His solution sometimes has been to design custom rugs for his clients.

"I did a couple of rugs that I call my modern take on the rag rug," Thornburg says. "They seem to work very nicely when you want to put other patterns with it."

But as recent design-industry trade shows in New York have demonstrated, there are plenty of retail sources for contemporary area-rug designs. To name but a few designers in the market now: Bev Hisey, a former fashion designer, who die-cuts botanical patterns into leather and creates pieced-together wool felt rugs with an op-art look; and Emma Gardner, who offers zingy hand-knotted floral patterns.

Patty Huang, a rug buyer for Macy's East Coast stores, sees customers combining the more formal look of an Oriental rug in a dining room with eye-catching contemporary pieces in dens, family rooms and foyers.

"People are getting bolder and more eclectic," she says. "But I think the trend in general in the home is toward a more casual and relaxed lifestyle. You're seeing it in all areas of home, and it's trickling down to area rugs."

San Francisco designer Linda Belden offers her elegant wool rug patterns in a crisp, flat-woven style made near Oaxaca, Mexico, and a hand-knotted version made in Tibet. She says she has seen her rugs used frequently in beach houses.

"And a lot of people put the flat-weave rugs, which are completely reversible, in kitchens," she says. (Prices start at $1,500 for a 5-by-7-foot rug.)

Belden's patterns reflect a variety of influences, including mid-century modern European designs and Japanese architecture. Just as varied is the look of the many lines that make up the burgeoning contemporary-rug category, from the abstract-art-inspired patterns of Momeni's popular New Wave collection, to the groovy 1960s retro-style designs created by Angela Adams, one of the first to jump on the trend when she launched her rug line in 1997.

Then there are rugs that bring a contemporary edge to traditional patterns through the use of bold color.

"We call it tradition with a twist," says designer Annie Selke of her Dash & Albert Rug Co., which offers hand-hooked wool rugs with patterns inspired by antique rugs and quilts -- but in unexpected hues of hot pink, aqua, tangerine and lime.

But color can be tricky to deal with. Especially in today's open-plan homes, where one room is visible from the next or a big expanse of hard-surface flooring can require multiple area rugs.

"Most people don't want every room in a house to look different. They want a flow," says Jane Wright, sales and marketing manager for Company C, a firm that offers modern designs and more traditional florals, stripes and paisleys updated with saturated color.

Last month, Company C introduced a "Room to Room" collection featuring patterns in similar colors that are meant to work together throughout a home.

Contemporary rugs, and rooms that include mixed rug patterns, have been a popular look in European homes for a long time.

"We're finally moving into that here," Wright says. "We're stepping out and not feeling so locked into conventional decorating schemes."

Design tips

Designing a room around the patterns and colors of an area rug is the ideal way to go, most interior decorators say. But for many of us, the typical challenge is finding a rug that will work with what we already have.

Here are a few suggestions from the experts:

Try a rug that plays with a traditional design. It can update an uninspired room with a more modern look, says interior designer Eric Rymshaw of Fury Design in Philadelphia.

Puzzled about rug size? Austin Craley, vice president of sales for Momeni Inc., says it's purely a matter of personal preference. You might like your sofa overlapping the edge of a large area rug; others might like their furniture clustered around a small one.

If you have one of those cavernous great rooms, area rugs are an easy way to define different spaces within the room and add a more intimate feeling, Craley says.

Go with wool. While there are plenty of attractive and affordable rugs out there made from synthetic fibers, nothing beats pure wool for a rug that wears and cleans well, Craley says. And always use an underlay to help keep your rug in place and in tip-top shape.

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