DESIGN UNDERFOOT From Navajo to Soho Styles, Custom-Made Rugs Are Art You Can Stand On


The White House recently unveiled a stunning renovation of the East Room. And did you notice, most of the press coverage was of the lavish use of custom-designed carpets? The diplomats who visit the rooms will be standing, toes deep in pile, squarely on a hot trend in home furnishings: custom floor coverings.

It's hardly surprising that so much attention is being paid to what's underfoot. More and more people today are participating in the design of their homes. Not content with cookie-cutter interiors and the "color of the year," they're looking for definitive statements of individuality in the way they furnish their homes. And as one result, the market for custom floor coverings is booming.

Floor coverings? Aren't we really just talking rugs, here? Well, no. Not only rugs, which are woven to cover an area of floor, but carpets, which are woven to cover the whole room, and floorcloths, which are painted heavy canvas.

All right, suppose you've decided you want to reproduce on a floor covering the design of Great Aunt Tillie's embroidered wedding handkerchief from the old country, in a rich cerulean blue. Where do you go to get it done? And how much will it cost?

This is America. There are lots of choices.

At the top end of the market are the interior designers, who have access to artists and weavers who can design and execute exactly what you want. There are designers with connections to Navajo weavers, traditional ateliers in Paris, factories in Thailand, craftsmen in India and China and loft workshops in the Soho section of New York City. Who they'll go to depends on the style you're looking for.

The interior designer will act as the middleman between you and the rug makers. You need a guarantee that the work will be done right, and delivery will be on time; the makers need a guarantee that you'll pay, before they commit the looms, workers and expensive materials to creating your heart's desire.

What do you get for your design fee? You get an expert to interpret your desires and then go to the best source to execute them.

"Most people don't realize that to create the effect of subtlety and shading in a rug, you have to use a lot of colors. The [customer's] design has to be redone so the weavers can put it on the loom," says Robert Kron, president of Robert Kron Custom Furniture and Cabinetry in New York.

Mr. Kron is accustomed to people demanding unusual designs for the eccentricities of Manhattan apartments. "They may like Memphis, modern, classical -- even great movie palaces. We research the idea, and we design something that creates the feeling. Then we send it to the manufacturers, where drawings are made for the weavers to follow."

Mr. Kron's company works with Thai Dynasty, which numbers the likes of Ivana Trump among its clients.

Suppose you want something special but aren't interested in coming up with a design yourself? One solution is to purchase a limited-edition copy of a modern artist's work, reincarnated as a rug. Gloria F. Ross, who has been designing interpretations of this kind since the '60s, calls this "art for the walls or the floor."

If you can picture yourself playing Monopoly on your favorite Louise Nevelson, or curled up reading on a Robert Motherwell, this may be the answer to your rug prayers. If that's what you're after, you should have your designer visit a gallery, like Pace Editions in New York, that displays and sells textile art.

Yet another option is to turn to a company like Edward Fields Inc., which designed and made the sumptuous carpet for the East Room of the White House. The carpet features a neoclassic central medallion that picks up the colors of the russet Vermont marble used for the baseboards and mantels of the room.

Edward Fields was founded in the '30s by the present owner's father, a man passionately committed to handcrafting rugs from original designs, in direct opposition to the trend then for mass production. The East Room is not the company's first government commission. It has three times donated replacements for the oval carpet in the Diplomatic Reception Room in the White House. And it created a 35-by-90-foot carpet for the Benjamin Franklin State Dining Room in the State Department Building. That piece weighed more than 3,000 pounds and had to be delivered lashed to an I-beam on a flatbed truck.

In the world of custom rug design, no space is too big or too oddly shaped. If you can visualize it and you're willing to pay for it, you can have it.

Maybe you're tired of seeing a rectangle or a square on your floor. Take a look at Elizabeth Browning Jackson's radical rugs: They're anything but plain old shapes. Ms. Jackson is part of a new generation of textile artists who are pushing the boundaries of floor covering design. Their works could have shapes from tree leaves to spirals to free-form bursts of color. Ms. Jackson calls her work "art you can stand on."

Now suppose you want a copy of the Mona Lisa underfoot, or a view of the universe? Designers like Mary Moross or those at Grey Dun Studios and Pemaquid Floorcloths are literally painting their favorite scenes onto floor canvases. Here, the choices are unlimited. You want a French garden? An American quilt? Michelangelo's work? It can be done. Floorcloth artists paint directly onto a heavy, durable canvas. The finished product is much less expensive than traditionally woven carpets, and the buyer has many more choices of color and subject matter.

If your rug budget is not quite up to gallery or artisan prices, you still have a considerable number of attractive choices. If you like the Southwestern style, you can buy a unique Navajo rug at the Indian Craft Shop in Washington, D.C. Closer to home, your local carpet store has the products of major manufacturers such as Couristan and American Rug Craftsmen. Both companies offer custom design options, from an infinite array of borders to special-order colors and patterns.

Couristan's lush products range from patterns evocative of William Morris bookplates to the beautiful deco rugs produced in China in the '20s. American Rug Craftsmen, at last count, had 25 designs and 20 colors.

With all these options available, all you have to do is decide just what you want on your floor. Next thing you know, you'll be walking on art.

Rug-shopping guide

American Rug Craftsmen. 25 designs and 20 colors, custom border program, from about $200. Available at most Sears, J. C. Penney and Sam's stores.

Couristan Creative Images Program. Designs evocative of major periods of decorative art history. At Shofer's Furniture, (410) 752-4212, and Royal Furniture, (410) 362-6300.

Indian Craft Shop, 18th and C streets N.W., Washington, D.C. One-of-a-kind pieces woven by Navajo weavers. From about $150. (202) 208-4056.

H. Chambers, 1010 N. Charles St. in Baltimore. A good starting place in your search for an interior designer. The firm, the oldest and largest design company in Maryland, offers a free initial consultation and a large design resource library. (410) 727-4535.

The American Society of Interior Designers. This trade organization maintains a file of licensed members. (410) 329-3366.

Products from the following group are available only through interior designers:

Edward Fields Inc. Custom-designed carpets beginning at about (212) 310-0400.

Grey Dun Studios. Floorcloths from about $600. Clever adaptations of art and design from many historical periods. (518) 329-2671.

Elizabeth Browning Jackson. Free-form rugs from about $50 a square foot. (508) 636-6673.

Robert Kron Custom Furniture and Cabinetry. Original designs. (515) 944-8760.

Mary Moross Floorcloths. A variety of designs, including geometric and antique. From about $225. (212) 541-0437.

Pemaquid Floorcloths. Light, airy designs, many based on Americana. From about $125. (207) 586-5444.

Gloria F. Ross Tapestries Inc. Limited editions of works by major contemporary artists, translated to wool. Available through Pace Editions. (212) 421-3237.

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