oturn home > Rugs: index page > A theory of rugs > Designing


Views on design development

Two opposing views of carpet design development: One more common view in which 16th century Persian court carpets are the pinnacle of the art, and one (proposed by Erdmann) which sees the influence of the book and miniature painting as an ultimately destructive development foreshadowing what is seen as a decline / degeneration of the art over the next centuries (Sylvester 1972, p16–17).

modern arabesque-derivative design

Modern arabesque-derivative design, sample of wall-to-wall carpeting offered in an English Carpet shop, 2007

Herati pattern variant in an old Ferahan rug

Small section of a so-called Persian 'Emperor carpet', 16th century, with flowing arabesque design (fragment from the McMullan collection, plate I in Arts Council 1972)

What is behind this opposition technically is the difference between a technically-driven and representation-driven (mimetic) view of design, which are not mutually exclusive; indeed, they complement each other.

The first view is best summarised by Marla Mallett who emphasises the role technical constraints and functional requirements have on the evolution of the design language, especially in flatwoven textiles. For example, the binary (two-colour) patterns in warp-faced weavings require an equal use of both warp colours vertically to maintain equal warp tension. Patterns thus derived technically then enter the more general design pool, which explains serrated edges or band-like patterns in pile weavings that have no technical requirement for them.

The second view focuses on design imports from the East (brought through invasions of Mongol tribes, trade with China along the silk route, and the dissipation of the Eastern design repertoire in Persia), and the view that design cascaded from the central Court manufacturies to the periphery, to villages and tribes, a view for which much woven and written evidence exists.

Interestingly, the uptake and adaptation and coarsening of court designs by tribal and village weavers is not simply part of that degeneration—it is instead often seen as re-invigourating these designs with the charm of a personal rendering, weaving errors and misunderstandings of the designs included. There has been a lot of argument about the validity of such appreciation—see the Turkotek salon The "Oops" thesis and the consequent discussion (Howe 1998—the term 'Oops rug' has been coined by Wendel Swan in a presentation at the Textile Museum).

The rise of collector interest in the 'authentic' nomadic / tribal rugs as opposed to workshop rugs seems to support the latter view; the production of rustic gabbehs and Tibetian rugs in plain generic designs however seems to have picked up that type of demand and slowly displaced interest in the colourful geometric tribal designs, except of course by some dedicated collectors. In addition, the dominant small, narrow or elongated sizes of the old tribal and village production have become more unpopular (but this is conjecture, I don't have any evidence).

At the same time, new design inventions such as the 'Chobi rugs' hark back to the European-influenced workshop production in the latter part of the 19th century (Ziegler rugs, late Ushaks), emphasising more monochrome palettes. As of 2007 there seems to exist a real craze for turn-of-the centrury Ushaks in ghastly oranges and greens, with auction closing prices exceeding estimates by several hundred percent.

An example: Herati

Ford 1981 has covered the development of the Herati pattern from the early Persian Vase and floral Herat carpets (summarise here?).

The Herati pattern seems to suggest itself as good case for tracing the development of a design because there is a clear genealogy from the designs of early floral manufactured carpets to what is now (or at least has been, until recently) one of the commonest endless repeat patterns in the rug trade, used, for example, in much if the commercial output of the Hamadan and Bidjar rug producing regions. (I will visit the rug department of a department store soon to establish whether it is still common, or in decline, and what producing areas still use it.)

When I thought about the Herati pattern as a point to start from I realised that there has been a trend in recent tastes of people buying utility rugs. People now seem to avoid busy small-scale patterns like the Herati that fill the scores of Bijars and Serabends in use by our parents and older relatives. Instead, they lean towards simpler and plainer designs (e.g. South Persian or Indian-made Gabbehs, often in one dominant colour with some pictorial accents, a geometricized camel or bush near the corners).

Or, if there is more money and an aspiration to class, people go for 'Chobi rugs', tea-coloured or burgundy-red mongrels sporting palmettes on steroids, lancet leave and cloudband remnants deplete of colour—or, more exactly, in a pale shade that must have been suggested by faded fuchsine or off-white after a tea wash. These forms are usually connected by a fragmented and tattered system of tendrils.

What is interesting in the Chobis is the recurrence of elements of the same early workshop carpets that were the precursors of the Herati pattern. Much more recent memories re-surface as well, mutedly: the floral designs that were associated with petit-bourgeois bad taste in the 50s-70s. Bad taste seems to equate cheapness here, because the cheapest carpets, including the machine made variety, often sported floral designs on burgundy or dark blue grounds, from which the next generation strived to set itself apart by choosing flokatis, animal furs, bast and sisal mats, or striped cotton rag rugs. Now, the chobi returns with a vengeance as an emblem of an ennobled petit-bourgoisie that does not want to recognise itself as such. With the colour gone, the design broken apart and laid out in pieces like a shattered vase before you would attempt to glue it back together, it seems purged of those memories of tasteless relatives, and triggers instead a fantasy of a grandiose now faded antique workshop carpet that has been passed on through generations (the wrong assumption being that dyes in very old carpets would have to be strongly faded).

Chobi rug

Chobi rug, modern; picture quotation from http://www.pakpersianrugs.com/

Herati pattern variant in an old Ferahan rug

Herati pattern in an Ferahan rug, end of 19th century; picture quotation from JBOC's Notes on Oriental Rugs

When comparing the Chobi pattern to the common Herati repeat pattern as employed in Ferahan rugs, for example, one can notice a strange dialectic between freedom and strength. Freedom, in the Chobi, is in the equidistant distribution of floral elements and the allocation of space between them; each element seems to arrange itself for itself only, as if repelled by some force emanating evenly from any other element in the design. The tendrils therefore appear merely to hint at connections, with little actual traffic to flow. Where in the early floral precursors, blossoms may assume an individual character and internally organised magnificence while at the same time gaining and imparting strength to the overall design framework and its varied elements, the Chobi's individual design element, by its paleness and abdication of internal differentiation, seems to rejoice in its own lack of strength and the space it hogs without making use of it. (The Chobi's tendrils cannot even decide in which direction to scroll— compare that to the springyness of arabesques or tendrils in 16th c. floral rugs.) In contrast, the Herati pattern forms a tightly packed and repetitive structure which all the more brings out differences where they exist, e.g. in an abrash of ground colour. There is no freedom, but structural strength through formal closure. Interlinkages are such that it is nearly pointless to define elements (the diamond that goes back to the crossing of tendrils, the palmettes, rosettes and lancet leaves)—it is their position in the overall constellation that carries the strength. The Herati pattern module that is actually repeated is much larger than the first visual impression would suggest: there is a similarity and at the same time difference to the neighbouring blossoms. This similarity integrates the design without leading to the mechanical look of isolated repeat patterns, like the small botehs lined up endlessly in Mir Serabends.

(The section below is a collection of material, draft state)


Atomic designed elements: tendril, bifurcation, leaf, flower (cut-section, and top view) directionality of growning, bent inwards or directional (vase, tree carpets)

Atomic elements derived from technique: linear: dot, line - cross - s-shape - hook - stripes - zigzag (serrated edges in tapestry) - meander; container: square, diamond, hexagon, octagon, star (octagon/square and appended triangles)

"Seven elements form the art of ornament. These are islimi, hatai, feranghi, fasali, abr, akre and salami". His contemporary Sadig-beg Afshar wrote in “Ganun os-sovar”: "Basic elements are seven: islimi, hatai, abr, vag, nilufa and feranghi. Remember each of them, don’t forget bend-e rumi". (Elmira Gyul, Ornament impersonates the World and Sky).


Last update: 22 May 2007 | Impressum—Imprint