Moroccan Carpets & Modernism

The appeal of oriental carpets has never been lost on artists and architects, whose imaginations have often been caught by these gorgeous weavings. However, Moroccan Berber rugs in particular maintain a special place in early & mid twentieth century Western design.

These distinctive textiles and rugs are hand crafted by various tribes of Moroccan Berber and Arab nomads and settled peoples. Berber pile, knotted, or flat-woven carpets started to attract a great deal of exposure and attention in the 1920s and 30s. They were displayed in the homes of collectors and design enthusiasts across Europe and North America, often championed by French collectors. Until that time, there was little or no demand for Moroccan carpets internationally, and they had for centuries been woven principally for personal use or local trade.

Two original mid-century Moroccan carpets from Maroc Tribal

Two original mid-century Moroccan carpets from Maroc Tribal

The rural weavings deployed a decades-old approach which was in keeping with the tenets of modern design, namely minimalist and abstract forms, bold colours and shapes, and an authentic spirituality. It was for this reason, among others, that they so successfully captured the attention of artists and architects at the beginning of the twentieth century. The rejection of figurative representation, a preference for abstraction, a spontaneous and bold character, even a lack of technical perfection: all these characteristics chimed with modernism’s pursuit of new forms of art. The energy and innovation seen in Moroccan Berber carpets, with their allusions to human life and to society, made them attractive companions and references for modernist architecture and design

Renowned designer Le Corbusier brought these carpets to the attention of others in the early twentieth century, using deep and boldly-coloured Berber rugs and flat weaves extensively in Villa La Roche in Paris (1924-25). He also showed Berber carpets in the rooms of the Pavillon de l’Esprit Nouveau (1925), explaining, ‘Do as the Berber do: marry imagination to the most recognisable geometry, but define the imagination’, and included these rugs in the handful of powerful decorations he used in his rooms.  Marcel Breuer is believed to have made the Bauhaus aware of Berber textiles, perhaps attracted to the visual dominance and powerful compositions of the carpets.

A contemporay shot of Alvar Aalto's Villa Mairea  

A contemporay shot of Alvar Aalto's Villa Mairea

 

In 1939, when Alvar Aalto designed Villa Mairea for the parents of Finnish architect Kristian Gullischen, it was furnished with simple yet lush cream and charcoal coloured Beni Ouarain carpets, featuring large and powerful lozenges. Famously, Frank Lloyd Wright employed giant creamy-coloured Beni Ouarain carpets in furnishing his Fallingwater house, built for the Kaufmann family at Bear Run in Pennsylvania (1939). Mid-century photos also show Charles and Ray Eames opting to use intricate geometric red, rust and orange-hued Moroccan flat-woven rugs in their Pacific Palisades, CA, home.

Charles and Ray Eames' home, with a Moroccan carpet in the foreground

Charles and Ray Eames' home, with a Moroccan carpet in the foreground

In the last 20 years, Moroccan carpets have once again attracted the attention of the international design world. Their creative use of colour and abstraction, their powerfully independent style, their small irregularities and their authentic expression of culture and beliefs continue to enrich contemporary and 20th century interiors.

Special thanks go to Jürgen Adam's Moroccan Carpets and Modern Art, Arnoldsche Art Publishers, which presents an insightful commentary on the links between modern art genres and North African textile design.