Interior design from the ground up: how antique Oriental carpets can transform your space

Pitzhanger Manor — the country retreat of celebrated English architect Sir John Soane (1753-1837) — provides the ideal backdrop for specialist Louise Broadhurst to advise on picking the perfect carpet or rug for your own home

A large Tabriz carpet, northwest Persia, circa 1880

A large Tabriz carpet, northwest Persia, circa 1880, photographed at Pitzhanger Manor. Estimate: £30,000-50,000. Offered in Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds Including Oriental Rugs and Carpets on 27 April 2023 at Christie’s in London

The importance of colour

Antique carpets with bold and brilliant colours can brighten a room and your mood.

‘In ancient cultures, red is traditionally considered to give energy, strength, motivation and confidence, while yellow is uplifting,’ says Broadhurst. ‘Green represents harmony and balance, while blue offers a sense of calm, peace, truth and self-expression.’

Lighter colours have been favoured by many contemporary interior designers in recent decades, but dark, rich shades are now enjoying a resurgence thanks in part to innovators such as Lulu Lytle of Soane Britain, Kit Kemp and Remy Renzullo.

‘These designers favour layering colours, textiles and patterns,’ says Broadhurst. ‘If a rug features intricate floral motifs, for instance, you might want to echo those in a trim, ruffle or pleat around a sofa cushion, along a curtain, or in the wallpaper.

‘Rugs with geometric patterns, on the other hand, bring energy to an interior and work well with post-Impressionist and post-war and contemporary artworks. If you already have strong focal points such as statement wallpaper in the room, look to complement these to unify the look.’

A carpet can transform the look and feel of a room. It can brighten a space or make it feel warm and inviting — but it can also make it unique. ‘We take a lot of care and time to select pieces that are very hard to find,’ says Louise Broadhurst, head of Oriental Rugs & Carpets at Christie’s in London. ‘Our core focus is on pieces produced before 1900. Rugs and carpets produced before the time of commercial expansion are hand-woven and naturally dyed, and as a result they tend to be of better quality than the mass-produced carpets of today.’

Buying an antique carpet is both a sustainable way of refreshing your interiors and a savvy one. ‘You’re not only giving a highly crafted piece a new lease of life, but also investing in something that will retain its value and last for generations to come,’ says the specialist.

There is a lot to consider when buying an antique Oriental carpet, from colour and design to material and age. ‘It can be difficult to understand a rug’s proportions and nuances of colour by looking at images online,’ says Broadhurst, who notes that natural dyes change in appearance with the atmospheric conditions outside. ‘We would always encourage collectors to come into Christie’s to gauge a carpet’s colour, condition, texture, quality and lustre.’

Here, Broadhurst shares her tips for styling antique Oriental rugs in contemporary interiors.

A ‘Transylvanian’ double-niche rug, west Anatolia, mid-17th century, photographed at Pitzhanger Manor.

A ‘Transylvanian’ double-niche rug, west Anatolia, mid-17th century, photographed at Pitzhanger Manor. ‘Red is traditionally considered to give energy, strength, motivation and confidence, while blue offers a sense of calm, peace, truth and self-expression’

A Sewan rug, Kazak region, south Caucasus, circa 1880. 8 ft 10 in x 6 ft 10 in (269 x 206 cm). Estimate: £7,000-9,000. Offered in Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds Including Oriental Rugs and Carpets on 27 April 2023 at Christie’s in London

Caucasian carpets such as the Sewan Kazak rug above will add vibrancy to neutral spaces. Characterised by strong primary colours and geometric patterns, they were usually woven in villages and sold locally: the loom was erected within the home and the carpets woven without a drawn design, relying on the memory of the women who wove them. This means that no two rugs are exactly the same.

The weavers were often exceptionally skilled dyers, too. ‘The dyes of this rug have retained an intense saturation and are balanced extremely well,’ says the specialist, noting that the dye for the red ground would have been made from the locally sourced madder root, Rubia tinctorum L. ‘Natural dyes are more stable and nuanced than the synthetic ones used today, and so are less likely to fade.’

With such dyes having been produced from the surrounding flora, the precise shade can often reveal the country, city, village or district where the rug was woven. ‘For example, the terracotta-red dyes of northwest Persia differ dramatically from the cooler wine-reds of the southern plains,’ the specialist explains.

A Yomut main carpet, west Turkmenistan, early 19th century. 8 ft 2 in x 5 ft 5 in (248 x 165 cm). Estimate: £8,000-12,000. Offered in Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds Including Oriental Rugs and Carpets on 27 April 2023 at Christie’s in London

In Broadhurst’s estimation, a carpet with a dark ground tends to work best in an intimate space, such as a study or library. ‘This Turkmen tribal piece [above] has a warm, chestnut-brown field which would complement dark furnishings and architectural features such as wood panelling or wooden beams,’ she says. ‘It is very finely woven and of wonderful quality, and would make those warm, snug-like areas feel inviting and cosy.’

A Tabriz carpet, northwest Persia, circa 1890. 13 ft 3 in x 9 ft 2 in (405 x 252 cm). Estimate: £6,000-8,000. Offered in Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds Including Oriental Rugs and Carpets on 27 April 2023 at Christie’s in London

Carpets with a softer, more feminine palette tend to work well in bedrooms or rooms with a lot of light. ‘Pale rose-pinks and ice-blues can have an extremely calming effect,’ says the specialist, referencing the Tabriz carpet above. ‘Padding about on a luxurious wool carpet would be such an indulgent way to start and end the day.’

Lighter-coloured carpets can also integrate into a range of styled spaces. ‘It looked absolutely wonderful when we displayed it at Pitzhanger Manor,’ she says. ‘Its blue tones were enhanced by the blue wallpaper, the fabrics on the bed and the ceramics on the table.’

The Tabriz Persian carpet, photographed at Pitzhanger Manor

The Tabriz Persian carpet illustrated above, photographed at Pitzhanger Manor. ‘Its blue tones were enhanced by the blue wallpaper, the fabrics on the bed and the ceramics on the table’

Pattern: beyond the decorative

When buying an antique carpet, collectors should look for designs that are well balanced, well spaced and harmonious. They should also have a sense of movement, spatial depth and clarity.

‘When you understand where a design has come from and what its symbols stand for, it becomes much easier to read,’ says Broadhurst. ‘The design can also offer fascinating insights into the rug’s history.’

A Yarkand carpet, east Turkestan, third quarter 19th century. 14 ft x 8 ft 2 in (426 x 209 cm). Estimate: £12,000-16,000. Offered in Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds Including Oriental Rugs and Carpets on 27 April 2023 at Christie’s in London

The Yarkand carpet above is a good example. It was made during the third quarter of the 19th century, and has a mirrored design along the central vertical axis with two vases at each end, each with a flowering pomegranate tree. ‘In the Islamic world, pomegranates are symbolic of fertility,’ explains Broadhurst. ‘It may look like a purely decorative design to the untrained eye, but it is actually full of meaning.’

A Yarkand carpet at Pitzhanger Manor

The Yarkand carpet illustrated above, photographed at Pitzhanger Manor. ‘In the Islamic world, pomegranates are symbolic of fertility. It may look like a purely decorative design, but it is full of meaning’

While some designs are one-of-a-kind, others have been used repeatedly down the centuries. Early 16th- and 17th-century Safavid motifs have remained particularly popular, such as those seen on the Kirman ‘Vase’ carpets of southeast Persia, which continue to be woven on later 20th-century Tabriz carpets, including the one below which has a sky-blue ground interlaced with split palmette arabesques.

The design of this PETAG carpet (made by the German company Persische Teppiche A.G., which had a workshop in Tabriz) is a direct copy of one of the most magnificent Safavid Kirman Vase carpets ever woven, a fragment of which now resides in the Museum of Applied Arts in Vienna. ‘It shows how the very best designs really do stand the test of time,’ says Broadhurst. ‘This carpet is nearly 100 years old, but it looks almost new, which is a testament to the exceptional quality of the wool used by the PETAG workshop.’

A PETAG Tabriz carpet, northwest Persia, circa 1930. 14 ft x 11 ft 8 in (427 x 356 cm). Estimate: £22,000-26,000. Offered in Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds Including Oriental Rugs and Carpets on 27 April 2023 at Christie’s in London

A large-scale carpet with a well-balanced design in the field would make an elegant addition to any drawing or dining room. By way of example, Broadhurst singles out the large Tabriz carpet below, which was formerly in the dining room of the Bank of England. It has a centralised medallion design inspired by the ‘Ardabil’ carpet — the oldest dated carpet in the world, made in 1539/40 — which now resides in London’s Victoria & Albert Museum. While the design of the carpet below remains largely true to the original, the colour palette was altered to suit Western tastes.

A large Tabriz carpet, northwest Persia, circa 1880. 28 ft 10 in x 19 ft 1 in (864 x 580 cm). Estimate: £30,000-50,000. Offered in Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds Including Oriental Rugs and Carpets on 27 April 2023 at Christie’s in London

Large carpets with a repeating motif, known as an ‘all-over design’, also work well in formal entertaining rooms. ‘It can be easier to arrange furniture around a repeating pattern than a centralised medallion,’ says Broadhurst. ‘But, above all, you should look for a design that is enclosed in a well-proportioned border, especially if you’re planning to place furniture over the centre of the carpet.’

A Kurdish runner, Azerbaijan, mid-19th century, photographed at Pitzhanger Manor

A Kurdish runner, Azerbaijan, mid-19th century, photographed at Pitzhanger Manor. ‘This runner, with an indigo field and a red border filled with flowering shrubs, would transform a transitional area into a space with personality and warmth’

A question of texture

Bijar carpets like the one below tend to be large and hard-wearing, making them a good choice for rooms with heavy footfall or frequently moved furniture, such as dining-room chairs. ‘Bijars have a wool warp and weft as well as a wool pile, and so they are extremely durable,’ the specialist says.

A large Bijar carpet, west Persia, circa 1880. 18 ft 11 in x 11 ft 5 in (575 x 348 cm). Estimate: £35,000-45,000. Offered in Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds Including Oriental Rugs and Carpets on 27 April 2023 at Christie’s in London

Wool runners tend to be equally durable. ‘Collectors today are generally looking for hard-wearing runners that are long and narrow, because modern hallways are often fitted with radiators,’ says Broadhurst. ‘This Kurdish runner [below], with an indigo field and a red border filled with flowering shrubs, would transform a transitional area into a space with personality and warmth.’

A Kurdish runner, Azerbaijan, mid-19th century (detail). 15 ft 6 in x 3 ft 2 in (473 x 93 cm). Estimate: £8,000-12,000. Offered in Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds Including Oriental Rugs and Carpets on 27 April 2023 at Christie’s in London

Thin or flat-woven carpets tend to be more delicate and prone to wear, and so are better suited to spaces with less traffic, such as bedrooms.

The Kashan ‘Mohtasham’ carpet pictured below fits into this category. It has an ivory ground and a harmonious directional design featuring birds and flowering trees, loosely based on a Mughal Indian carpet made in Lahore in 1600.

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‘It is woven with kurk  wool, which is the softest and finest wool thanks to its high lanolin content,’ explains Broadhurst. ‘As a result, it has a soft, lustrous sheen and feels almost velvety to the touch.

‘Carpets like this one remain extremely popular with decorators because they are timeless and add an elegant touch to sleek, contemporary interiors.’

A Kashan ‘Mohtasham’ carpet, central Persia, circa 1890. 10 ft x 7 ft 9 in (304 x 236 cm). Estimate: £30,000-50,000. Offered in Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds Including Oriental Rugs and Carpets on 27 April 2023 at Christie’s in London

Silk fibres are more lustrous than wool, with the Yarkand carpet below being a particularly fine example. It has a shimmering, pistachio-green field overlaid by a closely knit, hooked red lattice design that is found on early Chinese carpets.

A silk Yarkand carpet, east Turkestan, circa 1880

A silk Yarkand carpet, east Turkestan, circa 1880. 10 ft 4 in x 4 ft 6 in (315 x 137 cm). Estimate: £25,000-35,000. Offered in Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds Including Oriental Rugs and Carpets on 27 April 2023 at Christie’s in London

‘This pistachio-green colour is extremely unusual,’ says Broadhurst, who draws attention to the colour change through the middle of the carpet. ‘Collectors are looking for these tonal differences in hand-woven carpets as evidence of the weavers’ use of natural dyes.’

It is worth noting that, as well as being more lustrous, silk carpets are also more fragile and susceptible to humidity than those made of wool. If they become wet and are then dried incorrectly, the foundation may become brittle, and splits could possibly begin to appear. Such carpets therefore need to be treated with special care.

Join Christie’s Education to explore the diversity and influence of Islamic art, from its origins in the 7th century to the present day: The Arts of Islam Across Time and Space, 17-21 July 2023, London

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