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In pictures: Gehry, Hadid and Graves design ‘oriental’ rugs for Afghan women's cause

Gehry and Hadid design ‘oriental’ rugs, but how do they compare with traditional weaves? asks Rory Olcayto

Zaha Hadid has designed a carpet. No, not an ‘urban carpet’ like she ended up calling that curved bit of sidewalk-cum-wall in her Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati, but an actual carpet, ‘hand-woven by teams of highly skilled artisan weavers’. She’s not the only one either. Frank Gehry, Robert Stern and Michael Graves have all knocked out carpet designs.

The designs were commissioned by Connie K Duckworth, a retired Goldman Sachs MD, for her not-for-profit organisation Arzu, which sells rugs made by Afghan women weavers. Together with Chicago architect Tigerman-McCurry, these brand name efforts form Arzu’s Masters Collection and are promoted using the kind of queasy language befitting a project of this kind. ‘This unique collaboration between iconic modern architects and rural Afghan weavers elegantly embodies the marriage of high design and traditional techniques,’ a plug on the website reads.

The connections between carpet design and great architecture run deep. Mimar Sinan’s mosques, largely decoration-free today, were once adorned with spherical pendants, Murano glass oil lamps, mirror globes, painted ostrich eggs and precious, specially commissioned carpets.

The artistry of their designs was of great importance. During the inauguration of the Sulemmaniye mosque in 1557, the ambassador of Suleyman’s great rival Shah Tahmasp, the Shiite ruler of Safavid Iran, was given a ringside view in order to report back on the grandeur on display in Istanbul. Yet despite the Ottomans being the stronger power in a recently agreed peace treaty, the ambassador subtly dismissed Sinan’s work by suggesting he could help furnish the new mosque with custom-made carpets from Iran. ‘The appointment of befitting carpets is a cause of ornament and perhaps a necessity for that mosque,’ he wrote in an attempt to undermine Suleyman’s authority over the Shah.

The Shah’s ambassador probably wouldn’t be impressed with Arzu’s Masters Collection either. They are custom-made for a new kind of client, one unconcerned that the ‘high designs’ are not a patch on those devised everyday by the ‘rural’ Afghans, Central Asians, Iranians and Turks; the people at the core of carpetmaking culture.

That’s because Arzu is targeting a global jetset looking to bank its funds in luxury branded products. If that’s you, here’s a quick guide: Hadid’s rug has a long thin format. At a glance the pattern resembles a wire mesh model of a craggy landscape. It feels rushed. It comes in pink but, yes, there’s a black option too. Stern’s is an Escher-like pattern of interlocking Ionic volutes, while Gehry’s Puzz (pictured), like his buildings, is a collage of jigsaw pieces that don’t quite fit together. Graves’s, however, is painterly in style – and he did paint the patterns first – but it’s still not much use, despite his having designed carpets before. ‘I wanted something that was a field pattern,’ he told Architectural Digest, ‘the whole thing attempts to be spatial with these floating fragments.’ Tigerman-McCurry’s rugs, which have simple kilim-style designs, are the best of the bunch.

Although prices are not shown on Arzu’s website, you can tell Gehry’s and Hadid’s are the priciest. They are the bigger names, but, crucially, their carpets are woven with 275 knots per square inch (KPSI). Stern’s and Graves’s have 150. Tigerman-Curry’s has a paltry 120. The higher the KPSI, the more valuable – usually – the carpet. Age and pattern obviously count, too. But let’s put the starchitects in perspective: the silk rugs from the Turkish coastal town of Hereke have 1,200 knots per square inch. Yet you can still imagine Gehry asking Arzu before agreeing to the project: ‘How many KPSI has Zaha got?’

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