Tuft love: tactile, textured rugs that are practically 3D

To fully experience Alexandra Kehayoglou’s new artwork at the Kunsthal KAdE museum in Amersfoort, the Netherlands, you’ll need to take your shoes off. Then the Argentine artist’s textile piece, “Paraná de Las Palmas”, can be walked on, laid upon and even rolled around on.

Part of the exhibition Abrasive Paradise (until July 3) and stretching over 12m in length from the wall and over the floor, it’s a woven documentation of the Paraná de Las Palmas wetlands, 50km from Kehayoglou’s hometown of Buenos Aires. The tactile 3D surface translates muddy river beds, verdant grasslands and encroaching farm land into shaggy tufts in multiple heights and tighter shorter weaves: a woolen landscape that is visually enticing and also demands to be touched. Made with traditional handworked processes, it’s an arresting testament to the artistic possibilities of rug-making.

“Trying to reproduce the landscapes of Argentina’s Pampas grasslands first inspired me to work in this way. In 2009 I made a carpet that resembled the high grasses and pastures that are still disappearing with the advance of intense agriculture, ”says Kehayoglou of her“ Pastizales ”(grasslands) project, which has included private commissions, museum shows and a vast hand- tufted tapestry for the catwalk of a Dries Van Noten fashion show.

During the pandemic she moved to an island in the Paraná wetlands. “This new tapestry was a reaction to the fires and development that are transforming the area, causing a severe loss in biodiversity,” she says. “It is a reverence to this river and to this land. It tells the story of how humans have been relating to this fragile ecosystem. ”

Choosing textiles to raise ecological awareness was an obvious choice for Kehayoglou. “I was born into a carpet-making family,” she says of the business that was started by her grandmother in the 1950s. “I tried to go in another direction and studied art, but the carpets came back to me. I fell in love with their way of telling stories. Carpets can be territories, shelters, portals, ships. ”

Alexandra Kehayoglou’s 12-meter artwork ‘Paraná de Las Palmas’ © Mike Bink

Kehayoglou’s thought-provoking practice takes floor-coverings into the realm of fine art. So too do the Technicolor woven and latch-hooked canvases and sculptures by Peruvian-American artist Sarah Zapata, whose work is on show at the John Michael Köhler Arts Center in Wisconsin.

But designers are also exploring the 3D potential of rugs for the home.

Some do it subtly. India Mahdavi’s rugs for La Manufacture Cogolin, for instance, present graphic patterns in two shades as well as two different heights. Christopher Farr’s Red Meander does the same with the mazelike design by Bauhaus artist Anni Albers (produced in an edition of 10), while Nordic Knots brings Scandinavian minimalism to the pile, creating monochrome rugs with linear relief patterns as well as the more organic but still supremely simple new River design.

“With the cutting and the different pile heights, it gives the rug a very luxurious feel; you want to lie on it naked, ”says Nordic Knots co-founder Liza Laserow. “I think of the texture a bit like a Lucio Fontana painting. It’s all white but then there’s the cut in the middle. It creates such interesting depth. ”

3 Foxes, wool and silk, by Christoph Hefti

3 Foxes, wool and silk, by Christoph Hefti © Jeroen Verrecht

Other designers are pushing the 3D potential of rugs while also making a bold statement with their palette. In Amsterdam, graphic designer David Kulen refers to himself as a minimalist but his Green Grid rug uses 32 colors and four different pile heights in a grasslike composition that was first conceived for his own home.

“It almost acts like a plant,” he says. “Plants don’t create clashes with furniture. They’re just uplifting. I really thought about it as a texture, as a mood enhancer, bringing the outside in. It’s very 3D, and this also creates a more complex story with the colors, adding shadow and highlight tones to the overall effect. ”

Setting up Kulenturato carpets and tapestries, Kulen began working with a small manufacturing company in Croatia. Each piece is made to order and can be customized in terms of both shape and color. “For one client in New York we made a giant Green Grid in more blue shades, as well as smaller ‘island’ carpets scattered around the room,” he says.

“I think people enjoy the playfulness, the joyfulness of them. Kids really love them. And dogs. I mean, they’re weird. They’re not normal carpets. ”

Kulen’s latest design is The Pond. Inspired by Monet paintings as well as Japanese woodblock prints, a background of watery blues and greens is offset with raised-up, carp-like flashes of coral and white. Two versions of this rug now reside in the London home of interior designer Rebecca Körner, where, Kulen says, “the volume is turned up to 11. Her take on design is very eclectic. I made one carpet in the original colors and another in what I call Kim Kardashian tones. ”

Living room featuring rug by India Mahdavi

Rug by India Mahdavi for La Manufacture Cogolin © Francis Amiand

Körner laughs at this description. “The second one was about six months in the making,” she says. “We shifted the colors to be more unconventional: various shades of blond but also two crazy purples and a green, which sounds vile but it’s the most beautiful thing. It pulls the whole room together. ”

Other elements of the space include fabric by Nathalie Farman-Farma “that looks like a firework exploding” and her own whimsical coffee table – the curvy, three-tiered Lagoon in stacks of mauve, pink and blue selenite (available via The Invisible Collection) . “I just love color.”

In Berlin, Mareike Lienau uses only plant-based dyes for her Lyk Carpet designs, but the color combinations are still striking. Inspired by the women weavers of the Bauhaus, she overlaps geometric shapes in different heights, adding further detail with cut-in linear patterns, tufted sections and long fringes.

She refers to her Medley rug as “the absolute 3D hit”, but she also uses the same textural techniques on three new sculptural poufs, as well as a series of wall hangings and seat cushions that have recently been installed (in collaboration with interior architects Raumkontor) at the Berlin office of IT service provider Adesso. It’s a meeting of high tech and high touch.

“If people can touch the pieces and sit on them, it makes them think about the craftsmanship and the story behind them,” suggests Lienau, who works with rug-makers in Nepal and uses only Tibetan, hand-combed and hand-spun highland wool. “They use traditional methods of knotting, but we’ve worked out new combinations.”

David Kulen Green Grid rug with green sofa in the background

David Kulen Green Grid rug

Nordic Knots River rug

Nordic Knots River rug

Using traditional crafts in a contemporary context is a key focus for Christoph Hefti, a print textile designer who has worked for Jean Paul Gaultier and Dries Van Noten, and is currently creating fabrics for Paris fashion label Mugler. For the past 10 years, however, he’s also been producing limited-edition rugs in Nepal, a number of which were on view in April at Brussels design gallery Maniera.

“I went to Nepal because I was interested in the Tibetan knotting technique, and straight away a manufacturer said, ‘Bring us the design and we can start’,” he recalls. “So I went back to the hotel and started sketching.” The results are vibrant mash-ups of patterns and texture, like woven collages that come together to reveal abstracted faces, animal elements or landscapes.

Mareike Lienau's Lyk Carpet Medley

Mareike Lienau’s Lyk Carpet Medley

Figurative elements also feature in the hand-tufted and embroidered textiles by Swedish fashion designer Alfhild Sarah Külper – the head of design at fashion company Viktor & Rolf – who took up rug-making as a hobby in 2018 “to counter a screen-heavy life ”. She creates her Fuzzy Friends to commission, and like Kulen, Lienau and Hefti, her creations blur the lines between art, craft and design. Kulen says his rugs are often hung on walls.

“They almost function as an artwork, but I would never call them an artwork.” Hefti’s pieces are meant first and foremost for the floor as a functional object, “but then some people see them and say, ‘But it’s art.’ ”

It would certainly be a shame not to touch them with either feet or hands, though. Because, as Hefti adds, “Oh my God, they feel good.”

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