The art of the carpet and tapestry in the 20th century

Carpets have become a design essential. It dresses up interiors with elegance, all styles are allowed, from the most classic to the most contemporary. Many contemporary designers express their creativity by designing models for publishers. Interestingly, the art of weaving regularly returns to the forefront with exhibitions that celebrate its most famous representatives. In 2018, the Tate Modern in London devoted a major retrospective to the textile artist Anni Albers. This article looks at the history of carpets and tapestries and their evolution during the 20th century.

Caption: View of the exhibition “Anni Albers” at Tate Modern, London (11/10/2018-27/01/2019). One of Anni Albers’ best known monumental works: Six Prayers, 1966-67 Photo credit Tate Photography for The Josef and Ani Albers Foundation.

Carpet making can be traced back to ancient Mesopotamia and Turkey, as far back as 7,000 and 8,000 BC, before it spread to Egypt (wool and cotton), then to Mongolia and China. The oldest carpet that has come down to us, the Pazyryk carpet, dates from the 5th century B.C., at the time of the Persian Empire. It was made by the nomadic tribes along the Silk Road. At that time, carpets were used for many purposes, as blankets, mattresses, tablecloths or even as movable partitions…

Imported into Europe by Italian merchants, the carpet experienced its first golden age in the 16th century, when magnificent Persian carpets woven in silk and velvet were used as diplomatic gifts in the great European courts. In France, Henri IV created in 1650 the Manufacture de la Savonnerie – which has since been integrated into the Manufacture des Gobelins – which specialised in the production of velvet carpets for the French Court. It was also at this time that the first “footed carpets” appeared: whereas until then carpets had been used to cover furniture and warm rooms, like tapestries, people were now allowed to walk on them and sit on them.

Oriental carpets, symbols of voluptuousness and exoticism, were highly prized in the 19th century, before the Industrial Revolution disrupted weaving. European carpet production was then industrialized with the introduction of weaving machines. In reaction, William Morris, a figure of the decorative arts and the Arts & Crafts movement, began to produce his own rugs

Now produced in large quantities, carpet designs became more uniform until the Art Deco explosion after the First World War, which restored the style to its former glory. The great decorators of the time, Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann, Paul Follot and Paul Poiret in particular, designed models in their workshops intended to dress large luxurious interiors. At the same time, the Irish designer and architect Eileen Gray, who had learned to dye and weave, produced her most beautiful carpets, including the emblematic Méditerranée.

Image insertion from website: https: //, from page: https: //, caption: Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann (1879-1933), wool carpet with knotted stitches and stylized flowers.
Photo credit : La Gazette Drouot
Insert image from website: https: //, from page: https: //, caption: Jacques-Émile Ruhlmann (1879-1933), wool carpet with knotted stitches and styl ised flowers. Photo credit : Artcurial
caption: Cabin of the liner Normandie, the carpet is a creation of the decorator Paul Follot, manufactured by the company Tapis France Orient. Photo credit Creative Commons CC0 license.
Rectangular carpet in coloured wool with garlands and trellises of flowers on a blue background, designed by Paul Follot, circa 1920. Photo credit : Artcurial
Mediterranean” rug, Eileen Gray design (1925-1935). Another artistic language is woven into the carpet. Photo credit : Ecart Paris

The motifs on the carpets designed by Eileen Gray in 1925 reflect the renewal of artistic and architectural language. There is a world of difference between a carpet with flowery motifs by Paul Follot and the abstract geometric shapes that make up Méditerranée! The predominantly blue carpet designed by Eileen Gray reflects the evolution of the Art Deco style towards a more abstract international style, notably carried by the great figures of the Bauhaus School.

Among them, Anni Albers, born Annelise Fleischmann (1899-1994), emerged. She entered the Bauhaus in Weimar in 1922 and became one of the rare artists from the famous avant-garde school to achieve success during her lifetime. She trained in the school’s weaving workshops and designed abstract and resolutely geometric forms for her carpets and hangings, in line with the radical and refined style theorised at the time. She revolutionised weaving, testing new techniques: double and triple fabrics, relief work; she combined various materials in her compositions, including jute, paper and cellophane, until she became director of the Bauhaus weaving school in 1930. Active until the end of her life, she elevated textiles to the rank of art. Anni Albers was the first textile artist to have her own solo exhibition at MoMA in New York.

Carpets, wall hangings, fabric pieces and necklaces made by Anni Albers during her career.
Photo credit :
Drawing for Jacquard fabric, Annie Albers.
Photo credit :
Silk and cotton wall tapestry by Anni Albers, 1926. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo credit © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/DACS, London.
Intersecting, weaving piece in cotton and rayon (a natural material made from cellulose), designed by Anni Albers, 1962.
Photo credit : Paris Musées
Weaving piece Two made by Anni Albers in 1952. Piece made of linen, cotton, and rayon. Photo credit © 2021 The Josef and Anni AlbersFoundation/Artists Rights Society (ARS), NewYork/ADAGP, Paris 2021

In France, where tapestry has been a recognised art form for centuries (Aubusson Tapestry, the Gobelins, Beauvais and Savonnerie factories), the end of the 1930s marked a revival in textile creation. Gallery owners and decorators encouraged modern artists, especially painters (Jean Lurçat, Raoul Dufy, Marcel Gromaire), to renew the medium. Exchanges between artists and manufacturers intensified greatly in the post-war period. Matisse, Picasso and Vasarely conceived works that were originally conceived as tapestries.

A handmade tapestry in petit point in high wool representing the zodiacal sign of Capricorn, based on an original drawing by Jean Lurçat (1892-1966). Lurçat was both a painter, ceramist and creator of tapestryis at the origin of the revival of tapestry in France, from the end of the 1930s until the 1950s.
Photo credit :
Tapestry of haute lice, Manufacture des Gobelins, woven from carton GOB 1026, between 6 December 1957 and 19 June 1958. The weaving is signed Lurçat (lower right). The artist designed what is called a carton to be made into a tapestry.
Photo credit © Mobilier national, rights reserved.
Gouache and watercolour by Raoul Dufy, project for the tapestry Le bel été, 1940-1941. Photo credit : Arnet
Tapestry by Henri Matisse: La Femme au luth, 1947-1949, Manufacture des Gobelins. In order to have his tapestry made, Henri Matisse did not provide the original painting made in 1943 as a model, but a colour reproduction published in the magazine Verve. The photograph was then enlarged and reworked by the artist. Photo credit : Mobilier National
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Women at their Toilet, 1968-1969. A work designed for and produced by La Manufacture des Gobelins. Photo credit ©Manufacture des Gobelins
VP KEK wool tapestry, design concept: Victor Vasarely, 1971. The artist designs what are called cartoons to be made into tapestry. Photo credit : Galerie Hadjer

In the 1960s, carpet making evolved with the mixing of synthetic materials, such as Surnyl, with natural wools. Hippies brought back kilims from their oriental travels, carpets with very colourful geometric patterns and a strong ethnic style.

Vintage woolen kilim rug from the 1960s, origin: Turkey. The Kilim is a woven carpet instead of being knotted.
Red vintage kilim rug, designer: Antonín Kybal, 1950s. Antonín Kybal (1901-1971) was a renowned Czech artist and a pioneer of modern textile art in his country. For sale on Design Market
Large modernist geometric kilim rug, design : Antonín Kybal, 1960s. As with the tapestry, the design of the carpet evolves with the artistic styles of the time, as in this case an abstract and geometric style. For sale on Design Market

While the following years consecrated the oriental carpet, the interior design brand Habitat revived the market in the 1980s by releasing a collection of contemporary carpets signed by the tandem Elisabeth Garouste and Mattia Bonetti, in association with the manufacturer Sam Laïk. Since then, rugs have remained a popular accessory for embellishing and giving character to the interior.

Caption: Elisabeth Garouste & Mattia Bonetti, mechanical rug for Habitat and Sam Laïk, circa 1990. Photo credit : Cornette de Saint Cy
Large rectangular rug called “Rêverie” in red, black and white tufted wool with plant decoration, design: Elisabeth Garouste & Mattia Bonetti for Sam Laïk, 1991. Photo credit : Paulbert-sertpette

François Boutard