Years ago I started flipping rugs as a part time job in Akron, Ohio: Just one of the many cities of former industrial might located throughout the midwestern United States, but unlike many of its peers and due in no small part to the mildly corrupt but oddly efficient mayor-for-veritable-life and its proximity to Cleveland, Akron had managed to weather the bad years and emerge moderately strong as a distant suburb of the City on the Lake. It was 1996 and we were on the cusp of unprecedented economic growth under the philandering but loveable Bill Clinton. Optimism was high, gas was relatively cheap, internet service providers had not yet figured out how to oppressively charge, and the government had the decency to keep its domestic spying discreet. These were the halcyon days of my youth and as a recently indoctrinated “ruggie” (I was not yet The Ruggist…) the energy, the optimism, the revolution taking place in the world of rugs was intoxicating. Everything was new to me. Some of it was even genuinely new to the entire world of rugs. It was, due to the confluence of my inexperience, the economic period, and the bell curve rise/peak of some genuine rug luminaries, a superbly exciting time to be in rugs. My early realizations about design were formed in this time, including the obvious to everyone, cyclical nature of the design industry. A cycle I personally estimate to be on a twenty (20) year cycle – more or less. As I was young(er) it had not yet occurred to me that I would live long enough to experience these cycles first hand, yet now, as We (the pluralis maiestatis) are yet again on a cusp (of age Forty (40), or Twenty (20) Years schlepping rugs – take your pick) I am starting to relive the design cycle, and to be frank: I despise it. Not because of the repeat itself, as railing against humans repeating the good and the bad of our collective past seems almost futile, but because we (nearly everyone this time…) seem to lap up the supposed latest and the greatest thing ever this week, as though they are some panacea to all that ails our rug industry and the broader design industry as a whole (and of course metaphorically about whatever you would like). Orange is the New Black after all.
There was a time in recent memory when I loved rugs. No, when I loved a particular rug. You know the feeling. The amazement. The willingness to forgo everything else in the world just to be with that rug. Okay perhaps I’m being a smidgen hyperbolic in my melodramatic lament on rugs, but you know what I mean, right? It is no secret I love Odegard Carpets. Aside from a custom designed (by myself) Tartan that Lapchi produced, and of course a few hooked rugs from Red Spruce (ah, see that!) they are the only carpets I own at home. Are my Odegard Carpets at the vanguard of design? Not today, but in years past they were. With all due respect to Stephanie Odegard and everything she has done so that so much of the industry can be where they are today – she helped create the contemporary rug industry, I cannot help but long for the days when Odegard’s designs were the vanguard, when the rugs I saw from them made my eyes wide with excitement, made me want to own one, and made me believe in quality and integrity, and of superior design. But sadly I do not feel that way anymore. I still love my Odegard Carpets – the ones I own spoke to me and buying them was the right decision at the time – but I’m not in love with them, if you will permit me to use that tired paraphrase from a letter to a former lover. This is not to say that Stephanie Odegard doesn’t still make great carpets, no that is quite the contrary. Her rugs and carpets are still great, they still give that feeling, that excitement, the screw-it-all I’m packing my bags and starting a new life with this rug emotion, but for reasons varied and complicated, it’s hard to see the beauty in the face of what could have been, and they are no longer perceived to be at the vanguard. Praise is heaped elsewhere perhaps due to advertising dollars spent, or friendships, or for reasons unknown. But I want, no I need that feeling again, I want to feel as though the rugs we as a whole talk about are at the vanguard, and I want nothing more than it to be from Odegard, but I’ve matured, and the designs at Odegard have matured, times have changed, and as I’ve written about before, churn has taken its ugly toll. But this is not a singular story about my love of Odegard, it is a story about my love of carpets in general, though the Odegard analogy surmises it nicely, and as much as I would rather not have used this example, it is the best one in my own personal experience. It’s the one that nearly overcame my composure as I spoke of it to a dear rug friend back in October when I was in New York. It is what makes me loath what passes as ‘great’ design in what is this era in which we live and it’s what makes me long for the latest and greatest, even though the inner aged (age – ed) hipster in me knows now it’s just the same old shit, but now somehow new again. Even I, in a rabbinically self aware way, cannot escape the cyclical trap.
Ladies and Gentleman, denizens of the world of rugs, let us here and now make a solemn promise to never again allow this following catastrophe of design to repeat itself. For you see, this is not great rug design; this is crap/^#% rug design, and we (myself included) do a disservice to our industry for even mentioning it in the same sentence as great rug design. We can be thankful at least that it serves as the preeminent example of what not to do.
Photorealistic designs in rug production is not a new concept, but it is one that is enjoying popularity mostly due to, in my opinion, advancements in technology and not great artistic or creative merit. An iconic photograph, of an iconic building, in an iconic city. That’s great. Let’s “design” a rug. I’ll just desaturate the image, drop it into the rug graphing software of your choosing, maybe pick the colours, but likely let the computer, and viola! I’m a designer. Now I’ve heard Mr. Irwin did not design this rug, but that is neither here nor there. He is passing this bunkum off as design and frankly it is not. Don’t believe me? That’s fine, I believe you to be wrong. That notwithstanding, it is a fantastic technical achievement in rug construction, but it might as well be a screenprinted design on a cotton chenille machine woven rug. It’s that stupid of a concept and it is insulting to think that people with real taste and style would appreciate, let along purchase such a rug. It’s pretending to be iconic by borrowing provenance and anything else it can from both its origins and the exceptional skill of those who wove it. It’s an affront to taste (good or bad) and we need not ever speak of this again, but of course we will, because on the other hand… .
Current world of rugs wünderkind, the Teutonic Jan Kath, has also jumped on the photorealism bandwagon, but unlike the aforementioned rug aesthetic best suited for K-Mart consumers, and as has come to be expected of his work (caution: expectation can be the kiss of death), it excels in every way. It takes an abstract visual concept, one we as a culture have yet barely begun to understand, and it interprets it as decorative object. In attempting to replicate the visual splendour of creation, Mr Kath and, as he would rightly acknowledge, the weavers of this carpet have utilized some sixty (60) colours of yarn in an attempt to bring a glimpse of the infinite into your designed space. To stare into this carpet is to invite the mind to ponder what else can we accomplish, to say ‘look at what we can do!’ as opposed to lamenting ‘look what we have done.’ Mr. Kath has told me my design work and carpets are too intellectual, but this carpet of his is far from bourgeois, it’s a carpet for the cognoscenti, and it is in every way possible an iconic masterwork of glorious and beautifully coloured space executed in what can only be described as ‘mind boggling technical wonderment’. ‘Spacecrafted‘ indeed.
Photorealistic design in rugs and carpets seems to be the result of us reaching the latest penultimate state of rug production. Yes we can make this, but should we? Yes, but no. Unequivocally, yes but no. Can you imagine what would happen if we didn’t? Hello tacky [carpet from the past]! But we should use our best judgement and we should strive to pay homage to those who have allowed us to be where we are. I want more if only to study what we can and should do. To push the envelope, to go to more and more colours, I want the industry to create carpets worthy of the time and effort put into them. I want to see what would happen if Joe Carini and Jan Kath teamed up to make a carpet. Can you imagine that? I can, and I think I my need a cold shower. Whoo!
Another design concept in rugs that benefits from the great technical state in which we live is the abstraction and layering of elements from various sources. Imagine if you will for but one moment, that I am going to take a design element, then layer another on top of it, then another, then another, then another, then another. So on and so forth, each layer leading to more abstraction and increasingly smaller design elements. Imagine that I do this, as merely as semantical device, an infinite number of times, or in the case of my previous statement, we do it enough times that we reach the limits of our ‘mind boggling technical wonderment’; design elements are now now more than a few knots in size, though of course we could push this even finer if we were feeling sadistic toward the weavers who produce our wares. What would this look like? Well compatriots, it looks like this:
Life imitating art imitating life, or something like that. In our quest to elevate rugs to art, have we jumped the proverbial shark? I don’t yet fully have an opinion on this other than to simply ask the question as we move ever forward.
I am of course not personally immune to the trap of cyclical design trends. I have previously critiqued ‘Brand X’ only to later praise them, with the converse holding obviously true. At one point I had what could be best described as an ‘unwavering affection’ for ‘Brand Y’ only to now hold an almost contemptuous opinion of said same brand due to factors we need not discuss today. I’ve critiqued supposed trendsetters for selecting highly derivative and dated design concepts, over concepts more unique in our recent collective memory. I love some rugs while not loving some of equal perceived beauty. Perhaps that is the point, if there is one (as always), if you’ll allow a lovely Sci-fi reverence, ‘All of this has happened before and all of this will happen again.’ So with that let’s just acknowledge that our industry feeds on the past (or is that steals from the future?) but, ironically, just like Edna Mode in ‘The Incredibles’ – ‘I never look back darling.’