Woven drawings

Among the many things I draw for, the one that always sparks the most questions is rug design. People get so curious, and after the customary Big Lebowsky reference (yes, they really do tie the room together, sigh) I usually get a flood of questions: what are the best materials, techniques, manufacturers… So I thought I’d start this blog with a little article sharing some of the things I know about the subject, and how I got into this fascinating branch of design.

I have a long standing love affair with ornaments and patterns, and rugs hadn’t escaped my interest, from the warm tones and geometric lines of Persian rugs in our living room to the blue and white Chinese florals of my grandparents bedroom… but I’d never really thought that I could apply my drawing skills to them. 

 

How it all started

That was until I started working at the French interior design agency Gilles & Boissier over a year and half ago. Since the success of their Baccarat hotel in New York in 2015, Gilles & Boissier have been working on multiple high end hospitality projects. Hospitality standards often require carpets for all sorts of sexy reasons (comfort, sound proofing, ease of maintenance, cost…), hence they usually become a big part of an interior designer’s already hefty workload on a hotel project. 

Although I joined their agency to illustrate the catalogue of their first furniture collection, I am naturally nosy and couldn’t help but chip in during creative discussions! I soon started sketching ideas for a corridor pattern here or a ballroom there… Before I knew it I was working on four simultaneous hotel projects all over the world, proposing drawings for every space imaginable, and in dramatically different styles.

For some spaces there was a clear brief, for others I had carte blanche. But of course many things determined my drawing, from the history of the building, to the function of the room, the lighting and of course the furniture and furnishings designed by the interior and furniture designers.  

One thing led to another and soon I was not only drawing patterns and designs but also overseeing the production of samples with the manufacturers and discussing specifications with the hotel operators and clients. It was fascinating to be able to follow my designs from the first sketch to the final install and I feel so grateful that the team at Gilles & Boissier trusted me with so many beautiful projects. 

Rugs and carpets offer a fantastic opportunity for making a strong graphic statement in a space. And Patrick and Dorothée, the founders and creative directors of Gilles & Boissier really liked the idea of using floors to express a gesture, to really feel “le trait”: the line work, the hand of the artist through the weaving of the rug. I loved that concept and worked hard to translate it as best as possible throughout different aesthetics and with various techniques. 

 

Weaving techniques

These can go from the extremely time taking and expensive hand knotted rugs, to the slightly faster and cheaper hand tufted rugs where the wool is pushed through a jute backing with a really cool looking tufting gun. Then come Axminster or Winston, mechanical looms that can produce larger quantities of carpet, ideal for public spaces or circulations. They are faster and cheaper but create a slightly pixellated design and the number of colours that one can use in the designs is limited. Finally the cheapest and fastest option is printing, where a white carpet is coated with pigments, just like a giant desk printer! To add to the complexity, there are as many techniques as there are manufacturers, as each factory has specific machines and processes.

Ultimately, choosing a technique or the other depends on four main factors: the budget, the surface needed, the quality or feel desired and the complexity of the design. 

 

Choosing the right materials

After the initial sketch or concept for a rug, you quickly want to make some choices of technique and materials, as these will influence how you develop your drawing and design. Just like with weaving techniques, there are as many fibres and names for them as there are manufacturers. Wool is the most durable and easy to maintain, it has a relatively soft feel and very matte look. Axminster is traditionally produced using threads mixing 80% wool with 20% nylon, but the density of threads pushed through the backing (the thread count) has a huge feel and visual impact on the result. The crème de la crème is of course silk - obtained from mulberry silk worms - it is the softest of all and the most beautiful with its delicate sheen. 

Many synthetic fibres have been invented to try and replicate silk at a lower cost, like nylon, viscose or rayon (my pet peeve!), with mixed results. Their sheen is often a bit tacky in my opinion and can also feel slightly rough to the touch. Some manufacturers have started to offer "vegetal silks", made from eucalyptus or bamboo fibres for example. These can be extremely soft and have a lovely sheen, but they are more expensive than petroleum based fibres, can only be dry cleaned and might not always meet fire regulations. 

A good manufacturer should be able to help you chose the right fibre for your project, but there is always the pitfall of them pushing for higher quality and pricier products, so do your research first! 

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Once you've chosen your technique and fibre, you can start playing with structure, varying pile height and finish to accentuate your drawing. I love raising the line of my designs a few millimetres above the "field", the background. You can also carve along a shape (an extra step in the production process, the strands are shaved by hand) to make it stand out. You could for example have a matte wool field, and a raised pile silk line drawing catching the light, now that's exciting! 

Some manufacturers offer insane add ons, like crystal inserts or even fibre optics! (Seriously?!) With all of these options it's easy to get carried away. But in my opinion, technique should always serve concept, not the other way round. Sometimes it's fun to go all out, but often the solution that serves the concept more elegantly and efficiently is the more restrained one. 

 

Bringing it all together

Designing rugs is a marathon that leaves very little space for improvisation. I personally thrive on this kind of challenge, but it takes treasures of patience! The visual research and idea sketching is usually the fastest. Once the client has approved my sketch, I draw a high resolution pattern and insert it in the space's rendering. I then develop the design with the manufacturer, defining the specs in accordance with the hotel operator's guidelines and with the client's budget. 

The first sample is a hit or miss, usually a miss. So try not to get your hopes up! The trickiest part is the choice of the colours with the wool pompoms of the manufacturer. I like to bring out all of the space's samples, from upholstery fabrics, to paint finishes and floor boards to really get a feel of the colour values of the future space. Beware of the lighting too! A carpet will not look the same in a bright room as in a blind corridor. Artificial light tends to warm the colours while day light cools them, and remember that the light is also different in Europe to in Africa or Asia. 

Happy accidents do happen but they are unfortunately not the norm. It takes usually between 2 and 3 samples to launch the final production. And with some samples taking up to 6 weeks to produce, time management is essential. This is why it is crucial to start developing the rugs early on in the project, it can take up to a year between the first sketch and the instal. 

It’s a lot of work, and sometimes it can be discouraging, like when you wait 6 weeks for a sample and that the factory has mixed up the poms, but nothing compares to rolling around your fluffy drawings! 

Pictures by Saulo Jamariqueli, 2017.