Fashion underfoot

From a bold branding statement in a lobby to an elegant finishing touch in a loft office, floorcoverings are key elements in commercial interiors.

The Rug Company's Marni Margherita
The Rug Company's Marni Margherita

From a bold branding statement in a lobby to an elegant finishing touch in a loft office, floorcoverings are key elements in commercial interiors.

Colour, texture and form are seminal to our experience of our environment. Inside our built spaces, it is the sensitive and innovative manipulation of these characteristics that sets the good designer above the average.

And this comes down not only to vision and imagination, but also to market knowledge, and an awareness of developing technologies and trends. One market driven by both - but in particular by the first - is the world of floorcoverings: carpets and rugs.

In terms of carpets, the most popular fibre for commercial use remains nylon. This accounts for approximately 65% of carpet products, both long-run and the highly versatile and easily replaced carpet squares.

Made from long-chain synthetic polyamides, nylon first put in an appearance in carpets in 1959. Since then, it has established itself as a market leader in areas of high-traffic use, given its durability, resilience and wear-resistance - hence its popularity statistic.

From an aesthetic point of view, it broadcasts rich colour, and can be made into either staple (short lengths spun or fused together to create a strand) or continuous filament yarns, for products that offer a variety of distinctly different looks.

Coming in behind nylon are the other manmade fibres, polyester and polypropylene. There's also the pricier natural wool, with its luxurious touch qualities.

And there are more fibres under development as we speak, but it's unlikely a designer will recommend a company drag up its office flooring purely to try the newest product on the catalogues.

"While carpets certainly follow trends, particularly in colour - just like any other fashion item - they tend to be a big-ticket item in any project. They're therefore not something that gets changed with the seasons like a cushion or a throw," says commercial interior designer Rae Ashley.

"For this reason, in commercial use, the palettes tend to be relatively neutral or chosen to reflect a company's branding."

In more residential uses, such as apartment design, classical patterns are selected these days, more to stamp a room with personality, than for their trendiness, she says. For example, a geometric Axminster will complement roll-arm sofas, wingback chairs and dark wood antiques, imparting a sense of solidity and tradition.

On the other hand, a floral design brings to life lighter, more informal or feminine furniture, and saturated garden colours. At the other end of the scale, a retro Art Déco pattern will work well with the distinctive colours, textures, forms and finishes of the 1930s resurgence.

"Each of these looks have their own personality, and none of them date," says Ashley.

The personal aspect of interior design aside - whether it's driven by character, fad or culture - there are, of course, distinct trends dictating the direction of the carpet industry at the time of any given project.

"Like any fashion product, shades and styles in the carpet industry are always changing," says Mohamed Sameer, of CarpetLand. "As far as colour is concerned, we have seen white, black, beige, maroon, red and dark brown dominating this season. In terms of style, the current trend is inclining towards plain, self-patterned, textured carpets that carry a shine in the fibres. Then, of course, there is always the shag-pile, which remains a perennial favourite with designers and customers alike."

More subject overall to a range of trends - from personal preference and the fashion runway, to social and cultural fads and modern art - is carpet's smaller cousin, the rug.

"The beauty of a rug," emphasises Object Carpet's Iris Seiffer, "is that it can be easily moved to suit the changing look or role of a room."

However, in addition to providing an interesting accent or focal point, or serving to set one area of a space apart from its surroundings, rugs are also enjoying something of a renaissance due to the current popularity of hard floors. Surf through any number of rug company websites, and most are shown lying proud in their own worth on timber, tile, or stone.

"Rugs are often seen as providing the finishing touch, helping to unify furniture and fabrics with colour and pattern," observes Susanna Joicey-Cecil from The Rug Company. "More than that, though, a rug can be a real object of art. A fine hand-knotted rug is not only wonderful to sit on, but it's a treasure in its own right; a family heirloom to be handed down across generations and homes, and therefore transcending all fashion or trends."

In discussing the evolution of rugs in the last 10 years, she says the major change has been the increase in the sheer range of designs now readily available.

This has become especially apparent as companies have recognised the potential of approaching leading designers or artists and working with them to interpret the rug in new ways.

"The results have been spectacular and have really revolutionised the rug market. In such cases, the rug has been elevated beyond a purely utilitarian - albeit extremely useful and attractive - tool into a work of art," she comments.

"And alongside this leap in design we're seeing increasingly luxurious materials being used to articulate those Paul Smith and Vivienne Westwood works: silk, mohair or cashmere."

Looking ahead, Joicey-Cecil says the market can expect to see an ongoing blossoming of ground-breaking new techniques and novel materials coming to the fore in the rug industry.

Not everyone can afford floor-art, though - and others will want a hardy, more utilitarian accessory. A good alternative is the woven rug, says Sajith Pulikottil, manager of the contract division of flooring division Al Aqili Furnishings.

"Available at a lower price point, woven rugs are less flexible from a design point of view, due to their method of production, but like any well-placed rug, they can be the centre point of a space while also providing a conceptual theme to a design," he says.

Like, others in the sector, he's noticed a real resurgence in the popularity of rugs in the last 10 years.

"The industry has grown dramatically, and style and production methods have had to change to adapt," he explains. "Right now, the majority of rugs we're dealing with are made from wool, although silk and viscose are increasingly putting in a presence at the high end of the market.

Like Joicey-Cecil, he sees designers taking their cues from subtle colours, expressed in modern, abstract, often geometric patterns. And, he says, as with so many other aspects of modern life, another key trend underlying both the fixed floorcovering and rug markets is the global emphasis on sustainability.

"It's something of which we have to be very aware, as market education and demand grows. To this end, we make a conscious effort to stock the most environmentally friendly products we can," says Pulikottil.

As he says, sustainability doesn't necessarily affect the design of the rug, but does have ramifications on its manufacture. Al Aqili, for example, carries Shaw Contract Group's Dressed to Kill line, which features Eco Solution Q fibre and EcoWorx tile backing.

"Both components are fully recyclable in a closed-loop cradle-to-cradle process, which turns fibre into fibre and backing into backing," he explains. "The US-based Evergreen Nylon Recycling Facility will recycle 100 million pounds of post-consumer carpet this year, turning it back into new nylon fibre."

On the other side of the coin, the sustainability issue has also seen a consumer drift towards natural materials, especially in residential environments such as apartments, says Carrie Kabat, marketing associate for Merida Meridian, who does, however, has seen an associated change in design direction.

"Natural materials have become much more common in recent years, as people become more aware of the benefits of using renewable or sustainable products in interior design," she says. "And, with the use of natural materials has come a gravitation towards organic patterns and colours that create a harmony with the materials."

She also observes a developing trend towards a literal layering of different qualities and patterns in rug use.

"It's becoming increasingly common, for example, to see a tufted or woven wool rug laid on top of a larger sisal one," she explains. "The contrast in textures becomes a feature in itself."

Kabat predicts that the use of environmentally friendly materials and processes will remain in high demand.

"Innovative material combinations and constructions will also become more important to consumers who demand a distinctive look that is a personal expression of themselves. As an alternative to today's products, they may look for carpets and rugs that combine different fibres and constructions."

In example, she points to Merida Meridian's floorcoverings made from twisted and woven paper.

"Our Woodstock Collection was introduced last year, and has been refreshed for 2008," she explains. "It combines the simple lines of paper with the soft beauty of wool, in colourful patterns that create an interesting textural surface with a soft feel underfoot. I think we'll see more of this kind of innovation."

Elena Ientile, communications and advertising manager for Stile BK, agrees with her colleagues that experimentation is going to be the key word for the short- to medium-term future.

"We'll see different uses of colour, and the evolution of new fibres with better pliability and resistance to wear."

She cites Stile BK's ongoing initiatives with tough natural fibres such as aloe, nettle and cactus, and the part that these are playing in ongoing weaving research by the company. This is linked with increasing investigations into natural colours and weaving techniques that are free of chemical fixatives, she adds.

In her future vision, she sees an emerging trend towards the rug becoming an autonomous object in its own right, rather than simply a complement to furniture and design scheme.

After all, in many cultures, rugs have been respected in their own right for thousands of years. Today, there is every sign - especially as new technologies make one-off and bespoke rugs more affordable - that this trend will once again re-emerge in modern commercial interior design.

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