Hand-knotted, ‘forever’ Oriental rugs are selling fast, adding energy and color to many design styles
By: Jennifer Rude Klett, Special to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Oct. 7, 2021 – After years of neutral home décor underscored by stiff sisal and beige jute rugs, vibrant hand-knotted Oriental rugs are back with more options than ever.
Oriental rugs act as a key design element that can bring energy, richness, color, texture, warmth and softness to a home, plus they complement nearly every design style, according to one local interior designer.
“Every interior should have at least one Oriental rug, in my opinion,” said designer Karen Kempf, owner of Karen Kempf Interiors in Brookfield, via email. “Rugs really define and unify a space.”
Kempf said her design firm is known for using a broad range of styles, and Oriental rugs work in many motifs while supplying personality to a room. Finding a rug that her client loves is often her first step. Then paint, fabric and other color decisions flow from the rug.
“It sets the overall tone. Rugs are generally the jumping off point for the interior design,” she said. “Oriental rugs lend a rich, storied look that adds instant warmth.”
Farmhouse to Industrial
Oriental rugs help ground a multitude of looks including farmhouse, Boho, European country, traditional, eclectic, Victorian, rustic, glam, mid-century modern, contemporary, industrial and yes, even neutral-toned.
“I think of rugs as pieces of artwork. You can take a very traditional rug pattern and update the colors and it will take on a completely different feel,” Kempf said. “Or playing with the pattern scale. A very traditional rug pattern will take on a contemporary feel if the scale is oversized.”
Layering rugs is also hot right now. Layering them, either squarely aligned or overlaid on an angle, unifies the design elements plus adds interest and dimension.
“You can even keep your jute rug and layer a beautiful, smaller Oriental over it for interest and adding color back into your room. Add some colorful throw pillows to your neutral sofa and the once-neutral room will have a completely different feel,” Kempf said.
She also suggested placing a rug over wall-to-wall carpeting to better define areas.
“In a large carpeted room, rugs help to cozy up a seating area or add more interest under a bed,” she explained.
When asked in which rooms she prefers to use Oriental rugs, Kempf replied, “There’s not one room I wouldn’t use one. The obvious spaces are living rooms, family rooms, bedrooms, but I’ll put them in a kitchen, a pantry, hallways, bathrooms, anywhere I want to elevate the look.”
Kempf’s tips for buying an Oriental rug? To start, work with a reputable, knowledgeable rug dealer.
“I think people have the perception that the types of rugs dealers sell are going to be out of budget. You might be surprised, we can typically find rugs that fit into our clients’ budgets.”
Local rug dealers allow you to see the rug in person, not just online.
“Colors just do not translate from the computer screen to real life, so seeing the rugs in person is always our preference,” Kempf explained.
Finally, rug dealers will sometimes bring rugs to your home to help you decide if one is right.
Making a buying decision in the store can be daunting when there are so many visual stimuli, and it may be difficult to visualize a rug in your home. Sometimes, the selection gets narrowed to two choices. The decision often becomes clear once the perspective rugs are unrolled in your own home.
One rug dealer, Shabahang Rug Gallery at 160 Kossow Road in Waukesha, will bring rugs to your home to help make the decision. Owner Bruce Shabahang agreed with Kempf that it’s best if rugs come first in the design timeline, however rugs can be added at any time, especially when updating a room.
“You’re going to have it forever,” said Shabahang. “These are generational rugs.”
“The rug is the foundation of the room. It brings everything together,” he said, reminiscent of a line from the movie The Big Lebowski. “The most important thing is get something you love.”
The term Oriental rug is a general catchall for heavy, hand-knotted rugs made in the East usually of wool, but sometimes cotton and silk.
Shabahang Rug Gallery specifies its rugs as either Oriental, Persian or Turkish. Shabahang considers Oriental rugs to be those from the Asian countries of Pakistan, India and China. Persian rugs are from Iran, (known as Persia up until 1935) in the Middle East. The Turkish rugs come from Turkey, a country that bridges Europe and Asia.
As for design styles, Shabahang’s rugs fall into three categories: tribal, traditional or contemporary. Tribal rugs tend to be geometric in design. Traditional rugs will feature more flowers, trees, plants and other curved lines. Contemporary rugs are comparable to abstract paintings and can be funky and fun, he said.
The knots in hand-knotted rugs are similar to those of a necktie and strengthen over time. “The more you walk on it, the tighter the knot gets,” Shabahang said. “It should last for 100 years. You can pretty much have them forever.”
By comparison, machine-made rugs wear out much quicker as friction from people walking on them will cause disintegration, shedding and collapse. Fringe is also a tell-tale sign. With hand-knotted rugs, the fringe is interwoven with the rug’s fibers. With machine-made rugs, the fringe is often stitched on or glued to the back of the rug, something that can be prone to break off.
Kempf agreed that hand-knotted Oriental rugs can last for generations.
“A good Oriental rug is a wonderful investment piece, and they are much more durable than people think,” she said. “It’s truly a classic piece that can be passed down and reimagined for different interiors.”
Shabahang said the trend of improving home interiors has extended to Oriental rugs as well.
“We are lucky,” he said. “People are staying home. There is not a whole lot of people traveling anymore, and they are saving money.
“People are investing and redoing their homes,” he added.
Shabahang said he consistently works with several designers, including Kempf. He said all of them are very busy, some so booked they are not accepting new clients at this time. Still, Shabahang said he’s well stocked for the fall interior season.
“We just got a huge shipment. We have lots to choose from,” he said.
During colder months, he said, Oriental rugs add a needed vibrancy and coziness to interiors.
“It really warms up the environment,” he said.
Sizes at Shabahang Rug Gallery range from small 2- by 3-foot rugs to large 12- by 18-foot sizes. The most popular rug sizes are 8- by 10-foot and 9- by 12-foot, Shabahang said.
In strong demand now are contemporary rugs and tribal rugs, especially Gabeh style tribal rugs for a casual feel, according to Shabahang.
Gabeh (also spelled Gabbeh or Gabba) refers to the rug’s traditional Persian style, which originated among the Kurdish, Luri and Qashqai people in Persia/Iran. Gabeh rugs are traditionally crafted by women. They are often plush, textured rugs with vibrant colors marbled with soft, muted shades sometimes depicting rural landscapes.
They lend a soft, transitional or abstract design effect. Gabehs start in price from around $200 for a 2- by 3-foot rug, and end at $7,500 for an 8- by 12-foot rug on Shabahang’s website at rugsbyshabahang.com. Most of the Gabeh rugs range from $2,000 to $4,000.
While Shabahang Rug Gallery sells new rugs, it also sells antique rugs that are 75 years and older, plus semi-antique rugs that are 50 to 75 years old. Older rugs can be valuable, but it depends on the condition of the rug, among other things.
Shabahang said younger generations living in rug-making countries are less apt to continue the local traditions involving hand-knotted rugs. He called it a dying art.
“They are just not making as many fine rugs anymore,” said Shabahang, a fourth-generation rug dealer who came to the United States as a child in 1988 after being born in Esfahan, Iran. Shabahang said Esfahan is an artistic area known for its rugs, architecture, poetry and painting.
Another rug dealer in southeastern Wisconsin deals strictly with antique and vintage Persian rugs. The Loom House, at 2612 S. Greeley St. in Bay View just east of the Kinnickinnic River, deals strictly in older rugs — predominantly ones made prior to the Second World War.
Owned by couple and business partners Hemad Fadaifar and Barbie Marquette, The Loom House buys, sells, trades, consults and sources antique Persian rugs.
Fadaifar said he’s intrigued with how authentic Persian rugs can connect people, cultures and times in history. Rugs that were hand-knotted by tribal women in remote mountain areas using natural dyes and sheep wool sometimes end up in someone’s bedroom halfway around the world 100 years later. It’s a concept that fascinates him.
“The old ones pull me in,” he said of antique Persian rugs. “It’s all about story.”
Fadaifar is no stranger to Persian rugs. He is a thirty-something, U.S. born, third-generation rug dealer who grew up among the stacks of rugs at his family’s rug store at Persian Rug Gallery, 159 E. Silver Spring Drive in Whitefish Bay. He started out washing rugs and flipping them for customers to view.
The family also owns the Oriental Rug Gallery at 11005 W. Blue Mound Road in Wauwatosa.
Using mostly modern methods, Fadaifar and Marquette sell many of their rugs online through their website, theloomhouse.com. While The Loom House is open to the public by appointment for rug viewing, it has sold and shipped many rugs to places as far away as Japan and Hong Kong.
He credits Marquette, a product stylist and photographer, for their alluring online presence, which often depicts rugs in dreamy, artistic room settings.
Even old rug remnants can bear new life at The Loom House, as the couple are also branching out into upcycled items made from rug fragments such as dog beds, pillows and weekend bags.
Fadaifar said the intricate art of making hand-knotted rugs dates back 2,500 years. “It’s one of the most difficult art forms of all time,” he explained. Even the scraps are too valuable to waste.