Designing with Area Rugs: From customization to unique materials


By Calista Sprague

When specifying area rugs, today’s designers have unprecedented access to countless options at every price point from every corner of the globe. Narrowing those options to two or three rugs for a single project is no small task. Designers take into account the client, the region of the country and the overall design aesthetic. They consider color, texture and style. In addition to and perhaps paramount to these aesthetic criteria, budget and performance weigh heavily in the decision process.

Designers utilize area rugs for everything from defining a space to adding color or dampening sound. They specify rugs to create a bold focal point or soften an austere look. Area rugs lend a residential feel to commercial spaces like lobbies, offices and hotel rooms, and on the residential side, rugs make rooms feel cozier. 

Area rugs can be used in large spaces to delineate areas for specific activities or to define seating areas. Rugs with similar colors, patterns or textures can also help visually tie two rooms together. “If you have an area where you have a sofa and a couple of chairs that you really want to feel cozy and comfortable, that’s an area to designate with a beautiful area rug,” says Rashana Zaklit, an associate with Gensler in San Francisco. 

Zaklit works mainly in the hospitality sector and specifies area rugs for a wide range of spaces, including lobbies, suites and guest rooms. Budget often dictates broadloom for guest rooms, but when possible she specifies wood for a more upscale look and then layers on area rugs to add softness. “We usually like to include rugs where the guest can step out of bed and onto something soft,” she explains. “It feels really luxe.” 

The rising popularity of hard surfaces such as wood, tile, stone and concrete has helped spur the area rug market. Designers specify rugs to add warmth and softness underfoot, but hard surfaces tend to come with acoustic issues, so designers utilize area rugs for their sound absorbing qualities as well.

Rhea Vaflor, senior associate at Hickok Cole, specifies area rugs most often for amenity spaces in luxury apartments and hotels, such as lounges, party rooms and main lobbies. Vaflor says that she has noticed an increased interest in outdoor spaces, such as rooftops, that open up design possibilities for bringing the indoors out. Area rugs offer an immediate sense of indoors, even when the fibers are jute or sisal. A seating group anchored by an area rug, for example, gives an outdoor space living room appeal.

Performance, of course, is high on the priority list for the designers—and their clients—when choosing area rugs. Whether for luxury apartments or hotels, area rugs tend to get placed in high traffic areas, and because they can be a substantial budgetary item, rugs are chosen for their ability to withstand constant use. 

The value of rugs lies not only in their practicality, but also in their beauty. Both Vaflor and Zaklit specify rugs as art, capitalizing on their color, texture and style. Zaklit says that art often gets shortchanged in the design budget, so she relies on the artistry in rugs in lieu of paintings and sculpture.

Vaflor goes a step further, sometimes specifying area rugs to be hung on the walls. “They’re art pieces, especially if they’re artisanal, hand woven ones,” she says. “It’s a shame to hide them under your furniture.” Taking inspiration from medieval tapestries, Vaflor hangs rugs on the walls to add texture and depth. And when hung on the wall, the rug’s performance issues become void. “Wool felt, while awesome looking, doesn’t do well on the floor, but I will use them as wall hangings,” she says. 

Manufacturers talk a great deal about trends, but designers care more about customization. Their goal is to create unique spaces, not trendy rooms that could be ordered from a catalog. “Designers are just artists,” says Zaklit. Whenever she attends shows and manufacturers try to show her what’s hot, she tunes them out. She would prefer they show how their products could be manipulated or customized. She looks for options that allow her to choose personalized colors and patterns. “We steer away from things that we know everyone is using or everyone is specifying and really try to use the area rugs to make the space feel custom,” she says. 

Zaklit gives an example of a junior designer at Gensler who took images from Pinterest and overlaid them in Photoshop to create a unique graphic. With a vendor’s help, the colors and designs were used to create a one of a kind area rug.

“As designers, we always like to work with manufacturers on creating really unique pieces,” agrees Vaflor. “Whenever a manufacturer can offer us that option, that makes them more attractive to me.” 

Area rugs were once made mainly of wool and silk, but now nylon and polypropylene can be commonly found in rugs, along with jute and sisal. Wool is often a first choice for its durability, cleanability and longevity, but budgets don’t always accommodate the higher priced fiber. Vaflor says a wool-nylon blend is usually her choice when wool is not feasible. 

“Nothing looks better than silk,” Zaklit laughs, “but we never can seem to afford it or sell our clients on it. We try to use rugs that have an element of silk, but we’re talking our four- and five-star projects. In 11 years I’ve used silk on two projects for clients who didn’t care about maintenance.” 

Zaklit most often specifies Axminsters when the budget allows and CYP for smaller budgets. Axminsters allow her to layer designs and control the number of colors, and she says that recently she’s been able to achieve more intricate designs with a hand tufted look from CYP products that rival Axminsters at a much more affordable price.

Along with the wide range of carpet fibers, unusual materials are making their way into area rugs, and designers are taking advantage of the novelty. Vaflor recently specified hand crafted rugs from London made of reclaimed leather belts for a steam punk project. The unique rugs satisfy Valfor’s main requirements for rug specification—they fit the design aesthetic and the budget, plus the leather will perform “amazingly.”

In addition to the belts, Vaflor has noticed many other uncommon materials, such as recycled tires for an exterior rug. “I think you’re going to see more of those kinds of rugs come into the market place,” she said. “Or I’m hoping we will because it makes the design more interesting.”

Some designers tap into broadloom for additional rug options. Most manufacturers will cut broadloom to size and bind it for use as an area rug. In corporate and healthcare situations, where an area rug could cause a tripping hazard, contrasting patterns of broadloom can be specified to create the appearance of an area rug to anchor a seating arrangement or delineate a workspace.

Modular carpet also gives designers innumerable combinations for customized area rugs. Manufacturers have expanded design options and improved performance, making the tiles suitable for practically any market sector. Because individual tiles can be easily removed for cleaning or replacement, modular area rugs perform well in areas where dirt and spills might otherwise be a problem.

Vaflor was intrigued to find a new breed of modular rugs at a recent rug show. Rather than small, low pile rugs, the modular pieces were 4’x4’ and made from a high quality hand tufted New Zealand wool that could be custom colored. “Nothing is wrong with the commercial tiles, but this is definitely a different level of design quality,” she says.

Both designers report that the majority of rugs they buy are produced abroad. Vaflor would prefer to buy American made rugs, but thinks that the quality and price are not in line with overseas competitors. “There are only a few manufacturers who are doing great work,” she says. “We’re just not seeing as many options as we’d like, so we tend to go overseas.” Zaklit agrees, saying that many of the rugs she buys come from China. 

Sampling is another issue for designers. “If I’m going to specify a rug that’s going to cost the client $25,000, they’re not going to buy it off a rendering,” Vaflor explains. But getting a sample from an overseas manufacturer could take as long as six weeks—time designers can’t spare. Vaflor would like to see American fabricators develop a process to create quick mock-ups. “The sampling process has to be more sophisticated to keep up with the pace and speed that designers are working at,” she says.

Copyright 2015 Floor Focus