Wild Beauty - Beni Ouarain Rugs

Beni Ouarain rugs

Glorious, creamy Beni Ouarain (or Ourain) rugs really do look good in nearly any context, and particularly suit mid-century and modernist interiors. And despite the the popularity of this type of rug, and a flood of fakes, the original Beni Ourain Berber carpet is still highly sought after for a reason  So, what’s the back story to these wonderful carpets, and what’s really authentic in a market increasingly flooded with copies?

The ‘Beni Ouarain’ are a confederation of seventeen Moroccan Berber tribes, from the most north easterly part of the Middle Atlas mountains. They speak the Berber language. Here you can still find the breed of sheep whose excellent wool is responsible for the quality of authentic Beni Ouarain rugs and textiles. These tribes wove for protection against winter cold in the mountains, and carpets served as thick and cosy sleeping mats, often measuring more than 6m to accommodate the whole family. The Beni Ouarain pile-weaving tradition is an ancient one

The classic Beni Ouarain carpet design has a network of diamonds or lozenges made up of relatively fine charcoal or brown lines on a white or cream background.  Borders are uncommon. The oldest documented rugs have very complex designs; richer than the more simple designs we see today.  The Beni Ouarain tribes also produced exceptional flat weaves, where weavers were able to display all their skill in the making of women's shawls and blankets, some of the finest and technically demanding of Moroccan textiles

Beni Ourain Rug

The classic Beni Ouarain design

Frank Lloyd Wright, Marcel Breuer, Alvar Aalto and Arne Jacobsen used these rugs in their interiors.  Le Corbusier perceived them as an enrichment of his architecture. Their combination of simplicity and creative inventiveness works well with modernism’s aesthetics, also balancing its austerity with some softness.

Maire and Harry Gullichsen at home in Villa Mairea, late 1930s ALVAR AALTO FOUNDATION. PHOTO ALVAR AALTO MUSEUM

Maire and Harry Gullichsen at home in Villa Mairea, late 1930s ALVAR AALTO FOUNDATION. PHOTO ALVAR AALTO MUSEUM

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.

Villa Mairea by Alvar Aalto, living room with Beni Ouarain carpets. Photo Maija Holma, Alvar Aalto Museum

Villa Mairea by Alvar Aalto, living room with Beni Ouarain carpets. Photo Maija Holma, Alvar Aalto Museum

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Since the late 1990s weavers started to produce Beni Ouarain carpets adapted to European and American market demands, with sizes suitable to modern houses and with more marketable designs. But these designs often lack the spirit and personality of authentic tribal carpets of the past.  More recently copies have sprung up woven in India and Turkey. And even in Morocco, "antique finish" washing prepares new carpets to be sold as being old.

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Only an authentic vintage Beni Ouarain carpet will display a deep earthy creativeness and special richness of design. They are now hard to find

Tribal hunts down original old Beni Ouarain carpets, making direct contact with families and tribes, trying ensure we pass the maximum amount of money we can to the weavers’ families.  We have just started to commission three Berber weavers to produce carpets working to more unusual ancient designs, and we pay them directly and generously. Much more needs to be done to ensure that these designs are preserved so that the culture and lives of the artisans who make them can thrive