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Notes About Art Deco Rugs by Allan Arthur
Oriental rugs are a fashion statement for the home. Designs and color ways respond to pressures in different markets, depending on what the fashion demanded. What's hot on the runways of Paris and New York, often eventually progresses into fabrics for the home for use in draperies, wall paper, and furniture coverings. Once in use in fabrics for the home, the next logical step is to create floor coverings that will coordinate with these fabrics. The bold colors and stream line designs of the art deco period, soon gave rise to what we now know of today as the Art Deco rug.
Famous designers in Europe began to create floor coverings in the bold designs needed to coordinate with the trends of the day. But labor costs in the west for hand made rugs, produced an end product that was very expensive to the consumer. In the late 19th Century, the Oriental rug industry in Northern China grew tremendously. Hundreds of hand knotting carpet "factories" cranked out traditional Chinese rugs for export throughout the world. The production was high, and the labor was inexpensive. Western entrepreneurs and designers turned to Northern China to take advantage of the inexpensive labor. Experimentation with color certainly began sometime early in the 19th Century. By the 1920's, manufacturers were combining traditional Chinese motifs with new and untraditional color combinations. This created a truly unique type of rug. The traditional blues, yellows, reds, and ivory of the Chinese rugs, were replaced by wild and bold colors of greens, purples, fuchsias, and gold. You will find exotic colors on my site such as mango red, sea foam green, turquoise, periwinkle blue, and tangerine gold. Favorite Chinese figures were kept, such as hanging lanterns, pagodas, curved bridges, and elaborate vases. But these designs were enlarged and given more prominence in the rug, often replacing the quiet symmetry of the Chinese designs with abstract and asymmetrical patterns. Bamboo, vines, trees, lotus flowers, and Chinese flowering plants became stylized splashes of color that meandered across the field of the rug, and crossed from field to border, and back again. Probably offending the Chinese sense of order, and replacing the neatly designed borders that framed older Chinese rugs. Sometimes large unidirectional outdoor garden designs were created. Dragons, phoenix birds, and butterflies still graced the landscapes, but splayed across the rug and the corners of a rug in what I like to call an Egyptian Revival style. Occasionally, the Chinese motifs were discarded all together, and strictly geometric designs were used. These rugs with no Chinese influence in design are probably the most rare.
The earliest famous manufacturer of these rugs in China was actually a woman, the American Helen Fette. While working for the Methodist Mission school, she first began by selling a few rugs to raise money for Chinese famine relief during the famine of 1920. Around 1921, she partnered with a Chinese rug manufacturer named Li Meng Shu to form the Fette-Li Company. The Fette-Li Company eventually became the largest producer of Chinese rugs in the 1920's-30's in the Peking area. In Peking area rugs, the foundation threads, called the warp, lie side by side. This gives the rug a more floppy handle. Early Fette rugs have this same construction. However, if the knot is turned slightly, they can be packed tighter, resulting in what we call a stiffer "handle". Most Fette rugs have this type of weave.
The most famous maker of Chinese Deco rugs by far though, was the American Walter Nichols. He is so well known, that many people generically refer to all Chinese Deco rugs as Nichols Rugs. He was born in New York City around 1885. Walter Nichols began his career in China as a wool grader about 1920. In 1924, he started his production of Nichols Chinese Rugs in the port city of Tientsin (Tianjin) in Northern China. Tientsin area rugs have a different construction than that of Peking. While weaving the rug, the knots are turned completely sideways. This way twice as many knots can be tightly packed into the same space. This creates a densely made carpet with a smooth finished back with a very stiff handle. Combining this weaving technique with his knowledge of high grade wools, the "Nichols Chinese Super Rug" was born. Thick plush wool rugs like nothing before. You can read an original pamphlet produced by the Nichols' company telling his story on my site. There are photos of his weavers, show rooms, and factories.
The success of Nichols rugs drove others to copy his production. Remember that there were hundreds of hand made carpet "factories" in Northern China. But even Fette and Nichols "borrowed" designs from each other, and we sometimes see the same design made with the two different constructions. Both Fette and Nichols marked their rugs with their name. Normally with a small 3 inch square piece of fabric sewn into one of the corners on the back. The tags are almost always gone because of abrasion and washing, but also because inside the tag, that worked like a pouch, the companies placed colored wool tufts of all the colors used in the rug. People would rip off the tags to get to the color samples, so they could use them to shop for fabrics. Nichols also stamped his rugs along the white cotton fringe " MADE IN CHINA BY NICHOLS". The cotton fringe wears faster than the wool pile and is often worn away. I have only seen this stamp on rugs I thought to be from the 1930's and later. It is not clear yet if Nichols stamped his rugs in the 1920's. The only way we know that a rug was made by a specific company is if it still has it's tag or stamp. I am always interested in photos of any rugs that still have their stamps or tags, and copies of the tag, so that I can document rugs that can be attributed to specific companies. You can see examples of these tags and stamps on my decotags page. This summer I plan to start a project on my site collecting this information, and documenting the designs.
As far as dating a Deco rug, there are no hard and fast rules. But here are some generalities. Earlier experimental pieces before 1920, were probably woven closer to the traditional Chinese format in the floppy Peking weave. However, there was some production in Tientsin. I suspect they would have had colors that responded to the the richly colored silks and velvets of the Victorian period. Since Nichols did not start his business until 1924, it is certainly not correct to refer to any of these rugs as "Nichols Rugs". I suspect that #9-4974 on my site is such a rug. In general, by the 1930's, the American market wanted simpler floral designs in more pastel or lighter colors. The borders were also dropped, and the "corner floral" design became popular. In the 1940's, deeper richer colors became popular again, but for the most part, the simple corner Floral designs remained. Also in the 1940's, more French Floral designs became popular. The finished edge of a rug along the sides is called the selvage. It is done by the weaver while the rug is on the loom. Early Chinese rugs have a white cotton selvage. By the 1930's and 1940's, many rugs were finished with a colored wool selvage that matched the wool pile along the edge of the rug. Early Chinese rugs are not carved. They might be "incised" along the edge of designs though. By the 1940's, deep thick carving became popular, and these rugs more closely resemble Chinese rugs from the 1980's. Production was somewhat slowed by Japan's Occupation of Northern China in the early 1940's. So most of the production happened in the economic boom of the 1920's, slowed some for the Great Depression, and then picked up again in the 30's until WWII. By 1949, the revolution in China was complete, and China was for the most part closed to the West. So not as much production happened in the 1940's. I can think of no reason that Chinese rugs would have been made again in Western designs until President Nixon reestablished diplomatic relations with the Chinese. I must admit though that I am not sure what European countries may have traded with China in the 1950's and 60's, but none that I know of. Certainly, some rugs must have been available in Hong Kong, but for the most part, 1948 was the end of Chinese Art Deco rug production.
So Chinese Art Deco rugs were made from about 1910 to the late 1940's. They were made in response to specific demands in the home fashion market and filled a specific niche. Anyone that has period fabrics on their Art Deco furniture, or wall paper on there walls from the 1920's and 30's, will know why these rugs were so popular.
"In Search of Walter Nichols" by Elizabeth Bogen, 1996, Museum Books, inc.
"Chinese Rugs: The Fette-Li Company" by Margaret Setton, 1991, Oriental Rug Review
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