Old and New: The Oriental Rug for the ’90s

By Ann Brocklehurst
Originally published 28 November 1995, International Herald Tribune

In the beginning, there was the Oriental Rug made in the Orient. It was designed by locals, made from hand-spun wool and colored with vegetable dyes.

Then came automation and the 20th century. The Oriental rug was still made mostly in the East. But it was designed by foreigners, made from machine-spun wool and colored with synthetic dyes.

Now comes globalization and the ’90s. The Oriental rug of today is designed collectively by locals, foreigners and the occasional computer, made from Turkish fleece hand-spun in China, and colored with vegetable dyes rediscovered by a German chemist.

This new Oriental rug is one Of the 7,000 carpets produced each year in Turkey, China, India and Romania by the U.S. company Black Mountain Looms. The firm is a partnership venture between the rug dealers Teddy Sumner of Michaelian &Kohlberg; and George Jevremovic of Woven Legends. According to Leslie Stroh, publisher of Rug News, the two men are “the cause of the new interest in Oriental rugs.”

Sumner is the grandson of Michael (Frank) Michaelian, a legendary figure in the carpet world who ran operations in Persia, India, China and the United States. Photos of his travels line Michaelian & Kohlberg;’s lower Broadway showrooms and offices.

Sumner, who studied botany and fine arts, joined the family business after his grandfather died in 1978. He is largely responsible for its overseas operations while his brother runs Spinning Wheel Rugs in North Carolina, a custom designer that has made carpets for the White House Oval Office, the king of Saudi Arabia’s jet plane and Whoopi Goldberg, among others.

Jevremovic developed what he calls his “obsession” with rugs when he moved to Turkey to be with his Turkish girlfriend after university. “I resolved in a very short period of time to learn as much as I could about the rug business,” he said.

When he eventually returned to the United States, his girlfriend, Nestlihan, had become his wife and business partner, and he was literally selling antique rugs out of the back of his car. At the time, he “wouldn’t look at a new carpet.”

“They all tended to be lifeless in terms of coloration, design and quality of wool,” he says. “Oriental carpet weaving was not just in decline but dead.”

But Jevremovic changed his mind when he saw the rugs produced by Turkey’s DOBAG cooperatives, started in 1981 by the German chemist and rug scholar Harold Bohmer and sponsored by Marmara University in Istanbul. He bought DOBAG (the Turkish acronym for Natural Dye Research and Development Project) carpets for his Philadelphia store until he decided to start up his own production to provide more diversity of design, color and size. He is now the largest private-sector employer in the southeastern Turkish state of Adiyaman and has some 9,000 weavers, mostly girls and young women, on his payroll.

“The first time I saw those rugs, I thought they were so neat,” says Sumner. “They looked like they had character. I was getting bored with the homogeneity of perfect cookie-cutter rugs.”

While Sumner was particularly struck by the effects of using materials such as vegetable dyes and hand-spun wool, Jevremovic admired what Michaelian &Kohlberg; had achieved in design. Eventually, the two men decided to put their skills together to found Black Mountain Looms in 1990.

BY that time, China had opened up to foreign business ventures and Sumner had returned to the coastal city of Tianjin where his grandfather had owned a carpet factory before the Japanese occupation. With operations here as well as Turkey, Romania and India, he and Jevremovic are getting used to questions about the working conditions they provide. They are quick to respond that despite the nasty reputation of the rug business for using child and indentured labor, Black Loom weavers often work at home on their own schedules, earning good wages by local standards.

In China, Sumner originally produced floral-patterned needlepoint carpets, but the venture proved so successful that several copycat factories sprang up and supply began to outstrip demand. He then turned his attention to other types of carpet making, including production for Black Mountain Looms. Last year, the dye master from Turkey was sent to instruct the Chinese in the preparation and use of vegetable dyes and several old women with experience in hand-spinning taught their techniques to younger workers.

Ironically, these traditionally produced materials are then used to produce Black Mountain’s Van Campen collection, designed by American artists on computers. It’s the opposite extreme from company projects in India and Turkey where weavers design their own one-of-a-kind rugs.

“We broke what had been a nasty tradition for a long time that all rugs made in rug-producing countries have to be dictated to weavers,” says Jevremovic. Even though Turkish weavers tend to stick to secular imagery while Indians generally prefer religious motifs, the results are often an imagery not normally associated with particular areas.

While many rug experts consider these carpets “modern collectibles,” others find that the resulting aesthetics can be jarring. Also, old-style rug producers will often insist that a carpet from a certain village must be made using indigenous materials in the tried-and-true fashion. Sumner says he’s sometimes told that his grandfather would never have done it this way.

“My feeling is,” he says, “that if the people that lived in these villages had had these materials and these design ideas at their disposal, they wouldn’t have made the same rugs over and over again…. In 1995 they have all these other things at their disposal.”