How Christopher Farr helped drive modern rug design
Where once only antique would do, Christopher Farr has championed contemporary rug design. Part of the John Lewis Design Collective, he creates graphic prints in warm tones that are abstract art for your floor
As a young abstract painter, Christopher Farr won a Boise travelling fellowship to Peru in South America. It was there, in 1975, that he discovered, and became captivated by, the pre-Columbian textiles that were to shape his life, and where he began to search for ways to marry his love of abstract art with the ancient craft of textile art. “From that moment I knew my artistic fate had been sealed. I just needed to figure out how to realise it,” he says.
Farr subsequently spent many months in a small mountain village in the wilds of western Turkey, designing and making rugs with traditional weavers, and learning how to fuse the venerable techniques of hand-dyeing and hand-looming with a modernist approach to colour and form. “The result, in effect, was abstract wool canvases for the floor,” he says. “But at the time, the term ‘new’ for rugs was a dirty word. No interior designer would ever have dreamed of using a contemporary design over a traditional one, so I was flying solo.”
By 1988 he had set up the Christopher Farr company with rug dealer and restorer Matthew Bourne, and within a couple of years they were devoting all their energy and resources to promoting the status and profile of contemporary rugs. “Right now, there’s a huge surge of interest in modern rug design. But, until recently, there had been nothing of any seriousness since the 1920s, when Marie Cuttoli began reproducing works from Picasso and other Cubist artists as hand-woven carpets,” he explains. “I would say we picked up the thread dropped by her and kick-started the whole contemporary rug renaissance.”
As part of the John Lewis Design Collective, Farr has produced 4 new designs: Aperture, Petra, Ply and Tri Colour. Using large-scale graphic patterns and blocks of colour, their soft minimalism resonates with the new simplicity that”s currently coming to the fore in fashion and interiors.
“When I was considering this collection, I thought: when one boils down all the different themes I”ve used over the years, it makes a very interesting cross section,” he says. “And from that thought process the new designs emerged. The warm colours, taken from tribal and nomadic tradition, are more subtle than some I’ve used in the past, but they create something magical when reinterpreted in a modern format. I hope people will be pleasantly surprised by them.”
Farr draws inspiration from many sources, going back many years. “In 1975, I visited Machu Picchu, in Peru. The beautiful polished dry stone walls of the architecture have always stayed with me,” he says. “And the chapel of Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France – a serene and beautiful building designed by Le Corbusier in 1956 – is unforgettable also. I love the way he uses curves and geometry. You really feel the true hand of the architect in the building.” Farr cites Richard Serra’s monumental steel sculptures and Mark Rothko’s Color Field paintings as other influences. “Their work is beyond space and time. It’s the thread that connects them that touches me creatively.”
Over the years, Farr has collaborated with some impressive names from the worlds of art and design: architectural designer John Pawson, artist Gary Hume and interior and product designer Andrée Putman among them. “There’s no particular agenda behind who we approach to work with. So long as they bring something new, regardless of the name, we welcome them,” he says. “They don’t even have to be living.”
Indeed, one of his most personally rewarding projects came in 1997, when he met the family of Gunta Stölzl, the late Bauhaus designer who was ultimately forced out of the Bauhaus school in 1931 due to the growing right-wing sentiments in Germany. With the Stölzl family”s blessing, Farr produced rugs from her original 1920s designs and thus ensured belated wider recognition of this genuine design pioneer.
The resurgence in the popularity of ‘new’ rugs is simply a sign of the times, he says. “Modern rugs have colour, personality and come with designer names attached. There’s often a story that goes with them too, which people connect with and want to incorporate into their lives.”
While Farr agrees that antique rugs can be things of exquisite beauty, contemporary design is what drives him. “The traditional rug world ridiculed me in the early days,” he says, “but now they ask me to come and be a consultant. That shows you just how much attitudes have changed, and for the better.”