Ancient Iranian rug tradition gets makeover as sales sink

A visitor at the 29th Handmade Carpet Exhibition in Teheran on Aug 23, 2022. The event features about 400 exhibitors from across Iran. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TEHERAN (AFP) - Striking geometric shapes that recall 20th century abstract art are not what you would expect to see adorning a handmade Iranian rug. But changing tastes and increased competition from Asia have forced some in the trade to redesign and resize a tradition dating back more than 2,000 years.

"A revolution is underway," said Mr Ahad Azimzadeh, 65, who calls himself "the biggest exporter of Persian carpets in the world".

Rugs traditionally woven in the Islamic republic are known for dense, curving floral designs in rich colours. Their beauty and quality have long been recognised worldwide, yet sales have collapsed over the past 30 years.

"In 1994, the value of Iranian carpets sold abroad reached US$1.7 billion (S$2.4 billion) and represented 40 per cent of our non-petroleum exports," Mr Ahmad Karimi, chief of the Handmade Carpet Manufacturers' and Exporters' Union, said.

By 2019-20 that figure had shrunk to US$70 million (S$98 million), he said.

By another measure, in 2000 Iran represented 32 per cent of global handmade carpet exports. This fell to 7.9 per cent by 2019, as exports from China and India rose, Mr Karimi said.

'New generations'

There was "an impact" from international sanctions that targeted Iran over its nuclear programme, human rights and other issues, but he said other factors are more to blame.

"Especially by the big diversity of carpets on the market and the change in the mentality and tastes of the new generations," Mr Karimi said.

Mr Azimzadeh, the carpet exporter, said "the future is with modern handmade rugs". He spoke at last week's handmade carpet exhibition in Teheran. The annual event, suspended for two years because of the coronavirus pandemic, features about 400 exhibitors from across Iran.

"The patterns of Iranian carpets are ancient, but today there is a strong demand for contemporary styles. They're more suitable for a modern house," said Mr Azimzadeh, a big talker who started small - as a seven-year-old weaver. By 14, he graduated to the commercial side of the trade.

Among the new styles on display at the exhibition, which ended Sunday (Aug 28): a rug featuring small squares of hypnotic diagonal blue and white lines.

Another depicts diamond and other geometric patterns in gold silk on a black background. One wool rug looks as if an ink roller has left splashes of gold on it.

Among the designs for "modern handmade rugs" are those depicting global personalities, as well as those that are smaller in size and that feature clear colours. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

"The colours are clear and the sizes smaller", which is what modern tastes demand, Mr Azimzadeh said.

As an extreme but less typical example of this "revolution", Mr Azimzadeh stands in front of a woven rug 3m square in size. It depicts global personalities, including actor Charlie Chaplin, the physicist Albert Einstein and Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

From art to doormat

The new style is also cheaper. Some sell for US$3,000 or US$4,000, whereas Mr Azimzadeh has a 2,000 sq m traditional carpet from Tabriz priced at US$120 million.

His inventory also holds a 170-year-old piece from Kashan available for about US$160,000.

For now, modern designs are still a minority at his stand in the exhibition, but the traditional stock will be gradually withdrawn, he said.

"Next year, 70 per cent of the rugs on display will be modern," Mr Azimzadeh predicts.

Mr Karimi, of the exporters' union, regrets that Iranian carpets are nowadays seen as "a consumer good to put in front of the door, whereas in the past it was an investment. It's lost its status as an object of art".

A visitor looking at handmade carpets at the 29th Handmade Carpet Exhibition in Teheran. The annual event had been suspended for two years because of Covid-19. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Another trader, Mr Abbas Arsin, was perhaps ahead of his time when he created what he calls the "transitional carpet" 25 years ago. He took traditional patterns and made the bright colours fade by rubbing them and leaving them in the sun.

"My father and my older brother didn't understand why I wore myself out making the old rugs fade," said Mr Arsin, 40, the third generation of his family in the business.

But when he exhibited his first works and customers came, his family encouraged him to "only do that", he recalled with a smile.

Mr Arsin said India, Pakistan, Turkey and China overtook Iran in the global market because "we Iranians had fewer relations with the rest of the world. We didn't see the changes that were happening".

Iran represented 32 per cent of global handmade carpet exports in 2000, but this fell to 7.9 per cent by 2019 amid competition from places such as India and China. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Even now, not everyone is convinced.

"A year ago we began to make carpets in modern designs, but they represent only 5 per cent of our production, and I don't think we will go beyond that," said Mr Mehdi Jamshidi, 42, director of sales for Iran Carpet company.

"Modern carpets will never replace the traditional ones, which are deep-rooted in our culture and regions," he said.

Mr Hamid Sayahfar, 54, a dealer who spends his time between Teheran and Toronto, said the new geometric styles might be suitable for an office, but not at home.

It's just a fashion, he said, "and like every fashion it will disappear".

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