Oriental Rugs in Modern Spaces

One of the home design-y things that freaks me out a little is rugs. Whether it’s ultra-mod FLOR carpet tiles or a swanky shag, rugs lend an undeniable homeyness to rooms and definitely have the potential to make a big visual impact. But I also take issue with many affordable contemporary rugs in much the same way I dislike that art you can buy from Bed Bath and Beyond or even Ikea: mediocrity masquerading as modernity, perhaps. But rugs can also get pretty pricey, and it’s not the sort of thing you can easily swap out unless you have a place to store and extra rug or two when they aren’t in use. Which we don’t.

Which leads me to my aunt and uncle. Aside from being amazing people, they’re also incredible designers. Every time I go to their house in Chicago, I’m always completely in awe of their choices, their furniture, and their upgrades. Through the several houses they’ve lived in during my lifetime, they’ve always maintained a style that is both completely beautiful, complementary to the architecture, and so thoroughly them, and who wouldn’t admire that? They’re big collectors of both big and small, but the big collections that are most evident upon entry to their home are mid-century modern furniture, 20th century Abstract Expressionist and contemporary art (among lots of other really, really cool art), and antique oriental rugs.

When I think of modern spaces, oriental rugs aren’t exactly the first things that leap to mind. But my aunt and uncle’s rugs fit seamlessly into the rest of their particular aesthetic, and I’ve always thought they were completely stunning in their home (though I’m not sure I would appreciate them as much if surrounded by more traditional furniture, despite that they’re beautiful pieces all on their own). But really, once you start paying attention, oriental rugs aren’t actually all that rare in modern spaces, and when used effectively I think they’re great.

My aunt and uncle's old house in Metropolitan Home
And again
And again. Is there anything not to love about this bedroom?
From Apartment Therapy. Note the rug.
From Apartment Therapy
Apartment Therapy

And, you guessed it, Apartment Therapy

Inspired by these examples (plus a whole bunch from Dwell Magazine that I didn’t want to scan), I pitched the idea to Eva, who I’m not sure was too impressed. Because let’s face it, there’s a lot of really, really fugly oriental rugs out there too. Like, a whole lot.

Not really my style.

So I decided to start in my bedroom. I think the trick to sorting through the whole mess of available oriental rugs is to establish some criteria and figure out what you like.

1. When I badgered my uncle to teach me about oriental rugs, he told me the most important thing to consider is color. While this might seem obvious, it’s really good advice because these rugs tend to have such interesting designs that sometimes you can get so caught up in the patterns that you forget to focus on the palette.

2. Many of the rugs I’ve been attracted to have a very “tribal” kind of vibe, with strong geometric shapes and comparatively simple design. However, if you look at the third picture especially (of the bedroom), that rug is very geometric (not floral) without being at all simple or straightforward. So there’s a lot of wiggle room.

3. Go old. While true antique oriental rugs can run well into the tens of thousands–check out the top floor of ABC Carpet and Home next time you’re in Union Square– I definitely didn’t want a new rug. Part of what makes these rugs so pretty is that they show some wear, they have some history. You can’t go out and buy it from Ikea and nobody else will have the same one.

So I went scouring craigslist (for months, literally, before we moved in) looking for rugs. And there was a lot out there that sucked, but there were some that didn’t. And over and over again as the weeks went on, I kept stumbling upon this one ad for this rug in the East Village. Listed as a “semi-antique,” I liked the design but kept feeling like it wasn’t quite exactly what I was looking for. The seller also posted a link to a website that had all their rugs, and I liked their taste and bookmarked it.

Fast forward to mid-May, the price has dropped $75 and the seller announces that she’s clearing out her inventory to move onto more lucrative work. And I realized, I didn’t really know quite what I was looking for, and isn’t the whole point of buying things like this that if you’re flexible and keep an open mind, you might find something great that that’s nothing like what you set out for?

Here she is

Like I said, I’m kind of scared of rugs and I’ve never owned or lived anywhere with anything remotely like this. But I do think I really like it! It’s not as tribal-y as I was looking for, but I do like how geometric it is. And I like the colors even though I’m not really a red person, although it’s more tomato colored than that deep red-red you usually see on oriental rugs. It’s technically a runner, but at almost 4′ wide by 11′ long, it fits the dimensions and layout of my room (more on that in another post) really well without covering too much of our pretty wood floors. And since I’m not too concerned with sticking to one style but rather incorporating things I like in a cohesive way, I think this rug offers enough colors and interest that I can build off of it without too much worry.

What do you think? Have I lost my marbles, or do you like what you see?

About Daniel Kanter

Hi, I'm Daniel, and I love houses! I'm a serial renovator, DIY-er, and dog-cuddler based in Kingston, New York. Follow along as I bring my 1865 Greek Revival back to life and tackle my 30s to varying degrees of success. Welcome!

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  1. 6.9.10
    Mom said:

    I love it.

  2. 6.27.10
    misst said:

    I think it is SPECTACULAR! Seriously. And you know my house has its share of oriental rugs. And, can I just say OMG to the photos of your Aunt and Uncle’s pad? Tres cool. Want that bedroom like a dream!!!!

  3. 7.14.10

    The rug is lovely. We have a Persian rug, though it is contemporary and not as charming as yours. I prefer but the battered, vintage look but it has been pleasant to break it in…

  4. 7.15.10

    Amazing, phenomenal colors and the geometric pattern will completely compliment your aesthetic. I know what you mean about the rug thing, I’m color-phobic, but when my boyf pulled out his grandma’s giant, antique, baby pink, very rococo rug I thought I might pass out placing it under all of our mid century stuff. But seriously it was so good, it made the whole room feel less forced and more lived in. Yay for breaking rules.

  5. 7.15.10
    Uncle Tom said:

    I really didn’t think you were paying any attention to my blithering about rugs. Looks like I was wrong… still, you should have bought that pretty little Caucasian piece we saw that day at the estate sale! It was a great buy. I’ve got my eye on you.

    • 7.15.10

      I know, I know! I make mistakes. I’m looking for a good cheap one for the living room, but good god there’s some awful stuff out there! I’m trying to get an education but I hope you’re game for a few more rug chats, master.

  6. 7.16.10
    Uncle Tom said:

    What is the ideal size for the LR?

    • 7.16.10

      Anything between about 4′-6′ x 7′-9′. Are you just dying to get rid of (/lend me) a rug?!

  7. 9.14.10
    Sarah said:

    I heart craigslist. I just found an 8X11 antique, hand knotted red oriental rug with a floral pattern. It will complement an abstract oil painting we have over our mantel. I was reading though, that if you have a busy rug as your focal point to keep everything else simple or else focal points will compete. Anybody else run into this?

    • 9.15.10

      I think that’s probably sound advice to an extent, but my oh-so-unqualified feeling is that it’s more about what YOU’RE comfortable with and what looks balanced to you than any hard and fast rule. For example, I think busy patterned duvet covers look bad with my rug (so far I’ve just kept white linens all around), but I have a pretty busy piece of arton the wall (and plan to hang more), and I don’t think the two things compete. But sometimes you just need to see it all together to know!

    • 9.15.10
      Uncle Tom said:

      After 40 years of collecting and decorating many, many apartments and homes I believe that if you acquire stuff you love and bring it into your space it just seems to all come together. Daniel is spot on… what works for you ”“ what makes you happy ”“ is what works. Learn to trust your own eye.

  8. 12.23.10
    M.D. said:

    Love your photos and discussion on this topic!

  9. 2.10.11
    Hans said:

    Very entertaining post, specially for those of us who enjoy older area rugs. As Uncle Tom points out, I completely agree that if you bring in something that you absolutely love, it will come together nicely in your space. Rugs do not have to match or contrast the existing environment, and can be used as a separate piece of furniture holding and showing their very own beauty.

  10. 2.14.11

    I found this post googling ‘battered oriental rugs’. What a fantastic read and it’s so great to see that I’m not alone in finding that everything old is new again and these rugs can indeed work in a more modern asthetic. I love your Uncle’s advice on bringing in what you love and somehow, it will all work.

    If you get a chance, please hop on over to my blog and you can read my thoughts on this subject: http://gettingitswoonworthy.blogspot.com/2011/02/flashbacks-looking-at-oriental-rugs-in.html

    In the meantime, my search continues for my little piece of history on the cheap ;)