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Morocco's shaggy chic rugs are timeless treasures

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By Elizabeth Mayhew
Sunday, Nov. 3, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
 

There is a craze underfoot. Crack open any shelter magazine or visit nearly any decorating blog and you will be overwhelmed with images of stylish rooms that are anchored by a singular shared object: the Moroccan rug.

Take, for example, the resuscitated Domino magazine. In it, just about every featured room proudly boasts one of these shaggy geometric patterned rugs — it's as if they are a prerequisite for publication. I guess such pervasiveness is not surprising, because everyone from Pottery Barn and West Elm to 1stdibs has a version for sale. You can even buy one directly from Domino. But what is it that makes these floor coverings suddenly seem as ubiquitous as sisal?

To be clear, the Moroccan rug designs of which I speak are from the Beni Ourain people, who comprise 17 Berber tribes from the Atlas Mountains. These rugs have distinctive designs, which range from ordered geometric shapes to more free-form, expressive patterns. They almost always are in a neutral palette (usually they have an ivory background with brown or black geometric lines), and they have a shaggy pile. Never intended to be decorative objects, the rugs were originally woven for practical purposes: It is cold in the mountains, so they were used for blankets, shawls and bedcovers.

Traditionally the rugs are no wider than seven feet. You will never find a vintage piece that is wider. This is because the Beni Ourain are nomadic, so no loom could be too large to carry from place to place. And lastly, women who had no formal training traditionally made these rugs, just like the American quilt. James Ffrench, a director of Beauvais Carpets in New York, points out that traditional Beni Ourain tribal designs were woven from memory, not patterns, so they have an appealing “quirkiness.”

This quirkiness is exactly what makes these rugs appealing to interior designers. “They give a room, particularly a cold, modern room, warmth and patina as well as a dose of ethnicity,” says Timothy Whealon of Timothy Whealon Interiors in New York. The converse is also true: The idiosyncratic patterns of Beni Ourain designs give more traditional rooms a much-needed shot of modernity. It is because of this versatility that Whealon, like other decorators, has used them for years. And despite their recent omnipresence, he says he will continue to use them. “I don't see them as trendy; I see them as timeless.”

He couldn't be more right. Whealon, like many of us, is following a long line of designers and tastemakers who have had a love fest with these rugs. “In Paris in the 1920s and 1930s, designers used Moroccan rugs for their inherent sense of modernity and ethnographic qualities,” Ffrench says. A couple decades later, mid-century modernists, such as Le Corbusier and Charles and Ray Eames, were known to use the same fluffy piled rugs as a counterpoint to their sleekly designed furniture. In 1972, Billy Baldwin chose a room with a diamond-patterned Beni Ourain rug for the cover of his book “Billy Baldwin Decorates,” which illustrates his masterful ability to bridge style and comfort.

Although it has been a staple in the haute decorating world for almost a century, the Moroccan rug filtered into the mainstream only in the past 10 years, thanks in part to magazines such as the original Domino, whose editors drew attention to the rugs with their signature arrows and simulated handwriting typeface that said things like “try this neutral Moroccan rug as an alternative to sisal.”

Companies caught on. Although vintage pieces are still available on the market, they are too long and narrow for many spaces. (Check out 1stdibs.com for examples.) Bigger, new off-the-rack and custom sizes are available from both high-end companies, such as Beauvais, and mass-market brands like Pottery Barn. Ironically, however, very few new Beni Ourain-style rugs are made in Morocco. As Ffrench explains, Morocco is still tribal, so production is hard to control, which is why companies have found weavers in Egypt and China.

Prices at Beauvais start at about $160 per square foot for new rugs. Beauvais also sells vintage pieces that range in price from $5,000 to $8,000 for mid-century rugs and as much as $25,000 for older rugs. For a less expensive rug, Pottery Barn offers a Moroccan rug style at $599 to $1,099. A West Elm version is $179 to $1,299.

Elizabeth Mayhew, a “Today” show style expert and former magazine editor, is a contributing writer for The Washington Post.

 

 
 


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