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The Magic of Carpets
ArtsMedia · November 15 – December 15, 2002
Arguably the first decoratively designed item of home decor wasn’t made out of wood or stone, but of fiber. For thousands of years in Persia, the measure of comfort, harmony and status in the home was in the quality and design of its carpets. At first, according to Solomon Mojtabai, of Solomon’s Collection & Fine Rugs, people needed something to sit on, something portable, and that was a carpet. The designs themselves tell the story of culture, beliefs, and aesthetic harmony, in silk, cotton, or wool.
“Most of the early designs come close to the designs like paintings on the walls of caves,” said Mojtabai. Persian designs go back at least 2500 years. The oldest known knotted-pile carpet, called the Pazyryk, was found in a burial mound in Siberia, and has a complex design including Persian warriors on horseback, elks, and geometricized floral motifs in the center, with various border patterns. And like most of the earliest known designs, this one is still being made, with regional modifications, to this day.
Early carpet designers took imagery from nature, using tress, flowers, birds, animals, and sometimes human figures. Some of the symbols – say, the tree of life – or fruits like the pomegranate and pear to imply fertility and bounty – were woven into the design of the carpets. Many of the original symbols and meanings have gotten obscured, as the designs became more stylized and designs copied from region to region.
The range of designs is enormous – from tribal designs that resemble Peruvian and Aztec motifs, with flat figures and creatures unexpectedly sprinkled around the design; to the intricate floral panel rugs flush with elaborate peacocks, deer, cypress trees, flowers and paisley shapes.
French-inspired classical patterns like Savonnerie and Aubusson were first made popular by Louis XIV, and are still being used and made now. In the carpet world, designs evolve slowly and continue to be used and reinterepreted for centuries. In the seemingly infinite array of patterns and complex designs coming out of the Orient, they fall into two categories: geometric or floral. Regional and tribal customs often dictate this; and skill, fineness of the wave and the number of knots per inch also play a role in whether a design can be curvilinear, or floral.
And while the possibilies for modern, unusual designs and color combinations have blown wide open in recent decades, these hand-made carpets are still made on looms, one strand of yarn knotted ata time in essentially the same way they were made two thousand years ago. The carpet starts as a series of threads (cotton, silk, or wool) ties to the bottom of the loom, and strung to the top, like strings on a harp. Those strings are called the warp. Then, the crossstrings – called the weft – make up the skeletal grid to which the design is affixed. Colored yarns hang above the weaver’s head, and each piece of yarn is then looped between warp and wefts to create a knot. Then the peice of yarn is cut off. The knotted pieces of yarn make up the pile of the carpet. Thousands of little pieces of colored yarn are used in each carpet, usually following a design which is drawn up on paper and referred to as a pattern guide.
A carpet may have between 10 knots per inch to two hundered or more. The more knots per inch, and the tighter the weave, the more detailed and curvilinear the design can be. It can take anywhere between two months and several years to complete one carpet by hand.
Over the past few decades, entirely modern designs has reflected the changing tastes of Western clients. Solomon Mojtabai with his wife Nayier and one or two designers create new designs in response to clients who want something new that will reflect a modern design sensibility. At times, the mordern designs are in bright colors, like one called “the wave”, which has a fushia ground with a few bright yellow wavy lines on it – like ripples in the water after a pebble was thrown in. Otheres use a quilt-like grid as the starting point for the design, with shapes and colors in each square. Some are like abstract landscapes, using the colors of the desert, in vast expanses of a warm climate, but a few figures on it. In a way, carpet design is catching up to contemporary art – where meaning is no longer literal or symbolic, but reduced to form, line, color.
“I love color, design; I like to talk to people, said Solomon Mojtabai. “I always loved architecture and design – its more like a folk art,” said Mojtabai. He travels to countless small villages in Istanbul, Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Europe and Japan to seek out carpets to import for his business, which is a labor of love. The carpets he imports come from hundereds of small producers in those countries and India, Nepal, and China. “Like any other folk art, it connects you with the people who make it,” said Solomon. “You are communicating with their history, their culture.”
” For me carpet is central to design,” said Nayier Mojtabai. “You should choose a carpet that makes you feel good – its more important than people realize. As long as you have that one right piece there, that is an extension of you, basically,” said Nayier. The oriental carpet is still very central to the culture in Persia [present-day Iran][/present-day]. “You cannot find a family that does not have a carpet. You don’t need chairs, or furniture, if you have a rug to sit on,” said Nayier.
But in recent years, Solomon explained, the government in Iran is no longer encouraging people to enter the craft, mainly because it is not cost-effective. In the past, carpet makers were largely illiterate and uneducated; now, a high percentage of the poplulation in Iran is well educated, and can remain productive for many years. But, Solomon said,”people who weave rugs lose their eyesight and get arthritis. They have to work long hours in very humble places.” Which means that, in generations to come, fewer and fewer places will be making these time-consuming, cultural treasures which for centuries have laid culture, history, and design at our feet.
Solomon’s Collection & Fine Rugs has just moved from its Stuart Street location to 809 Hancock Street in Quincy.·