Chinese Art Deco Rugs

Geometric Chinese motifCarpets provide the perfect canvas to display Art Deco

Fuchsia. Teal. Raspberry. Copper. Geometry. Symmetry. Chevrons. What could those colors and motifs possibly have to do with rug making? They are a sampling of the artfully combined components that resulted in the unique creations known as Art Deco rugs.  The term Art Deco refers to the style launched at the 1925 Paris World’s Fair Exhibition of Modern and Industrial Decorative Art where it exploded into the design and arts community — and rug making was no exception.

Carpets provided the perfect canvas to display the geometric and angular shapes, symmetrical patterns, chevron borders and resplendent colors of Art Deco. Americans embraced the look with enthusiasm and, as expected, their demand necessitated supply.  Art Deco rugs introduced a new, nonrestrictive color palette. Bright, never-before-used combinations were the new trend. The soft blue of traditional Chinese rugs was replaced by a more vibrant lapis blue, while the traditional calm gold gave way to varying shades of ochre. Peridot (green), raspberry, plum, purple and teal also became popular.

Hot pink field with flowers and a turquoise bandHot pink field with flowers and a turquoise band

Because of its low production costs, China became the hub for weaving Art Deco rugs exported to the States. There were hundreds of factories producing rugs but it was two enterprising Americans who dominated: Helen Fette and Walter Nichols. Little did they know their names would become synonymous with the term and virtually all rugs woven during that era, which ran from the mid 1920’s to around 1935.

Helen Fette went to China as a missionary, selling small rugs to raise funds for charities. She teamed up with Chinese rug manufacturer Li Meng Shu to form the Fette-Li Company. They started producing rugs out of the Peking area in the early 1920’s and were one of the largest exporters of the period. Fette rugs are recognizable by their floppy feel. The cotton warps are thinner and more pliable than those used in Nichols carpets, resulting in a soft, supple feel to the pile.

In 1924 Walter Nichols opened the doors of his venture, Nichols Super Yarn and Carpets in Tientsin, North China. “Super” because of the machine spun yarn, the strong cotton used for the foundation, and the overall tightly packed weave of the rugs. In stark contrast to his Fette counterpart, a Nichols rug was quite dense and heavy.

Orange and teal border and bright red field on a NicholsOrange and teal border and bright red field on a Nichols

Both Fette and Nichols placed identifying fabric tags on the back of their rugs. Nichols also stamped his name onto the backside of the fringe, however if the fringe has worn down or been repaired, the mark is usually absent. Because Fette and Nichols were so closely associated with the Deco period, rugs woven in their trademark style, absent any remaining identification marks, are routinely referred to as “Fette” or “Nichols” style.

Rug stamped "Handmade in China By Nichols"Rug stamped “Handmade in China By Nichols”

In my opinion, no other Oriental rugs are as representative of their time as the Chinese Decos. The dynamics of the designs and the colors used are hallmarks of the era. It was a time of experimentation with abstract forms and unrestrained colors. The style arrived energetically, but was cut short due to the Great Depression. The few remaining factories were destroyed when Japan invaded China during World War II.

Cobalt & turquoise floral NicholsCobalt & turquoise floral Nichols

At the height of the style, these rugs displayed artistically designed, saturated color. Decades later, those formerly revered attributes often work against the carpets. Today’s consumers find the trademark bright colors, along with the often directional (one way) and pictorial aspect of room-sized rugs difficult to use without furniture obstructing the design.  But for those who accept the challenge, the reward is a step back in time and a splendid display of style, geometry and color.

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2 Responses to Chinese Art Deco Rugs

  1. Jimmie Ritchie December 23, 2012 at 6:28 pm #

    I LOVE the Nichols carpets you show in your piece!
    Are they for sale? Can you tell me any good sources
    for this wonderful kind of carpet?
    Jimmie Bly Ritchie


  1. Mixed Color Decor | - August 4, 2014

    […] rolled up in the basement. Our friend and Atticmag emeritus Jane Tulanian did a wonderful post on Chinese Art Deco Rugs, that explains their aesthetic very clearly. Anyone who loves big color might look out for […]

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