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A Brooklyn Designer's Modern Spin on Traditional Indian Rugs

July  5, 2018

So many brilliant discoveries have happened by accident; so many classic recipes have been developed by chance. The stories all follow a familiar narrative: a creative, curious person sets out on a path and, by mistake or unanticipated interruption or divine intervention, ends up creating something far more significant. Which is exactly how Arati Rao came to be making room-defining rugs that not only transform the spaces they live in, but also change the lives of the men and women 7,000 miles away while maintaining threatened artisanal craftways.

Rao is the founder and designer of Tantuvi (or “weaver” in Sanskrit), a Brooklyn-based rug company that seamlessly blends modernist designs with hand-dyed, hand-loomed Indian weaving techniques. But Rao didn’t set out to create rugs at all.


HOW IT ALL BEGAN

Disillusioned with working in corporate ready-to-wear fashion (“I wasn’t touching anything, I wasn’t feeling the fabrics...I was just on a computer emailing with people I’d never met on the other side of the world,” she says), Rao quit her job in 2010 and spent nearly a year traveling throughout India, a country she’s known since she was a child from family trips back to her parents’ homeland. She met with craftspeople and textile artisans, all the while trying to figure out what it was she was going to create. At the time, she had one goal in mind: “I wanted to have a more transparent production chain,” she says. “Work directly with artisans, not have all the middle-people involved, pay them better, and have it be a very transparent process.”

She began working with a factory in South India, developing fabrics that she would use for her line of women’s clothing. And then, in August 2015, she received a call from NY NOW, the massive home and lifestyle trade show, asking if she had a line of homewares, and if so would she want to present her work at the show.

“I had done a few blankets,” she says, “and I was thinking we should do a rug at some point, but it was just a thought.” Suddenly, that thought was becoming a reality, and in six months Rao had created a small line of rugs. “We didn’t have time to overthink it,” she says of that first line. “We just had to sit down with our sketchbooks and just go.” The result was a collection of bold, graphic flat-woven cotton dhurrie rugs, and the orders started pouring in.

Tantuvi’s rugs struck a chord because they felt different from so much of what was on the market at the time. “When you look at rugs that are out there, there are a few different categories,” explains Rao. “There are the shaggy rugs, the more Iranian/Persian style rugs, contemporary minimal stuff. We wanted to do something thinking about flat weaves historically, thinking about how they’re made in India.” Most rug weaving in India is done in the desert, and Rao was inspired by the traditional patterns—but she wanted to put her own spin on the designs, transforming the classic repeating pattern into a single large design.


INSPIRED BY INDIA & Beyond

She takes her inspiration from India, of course. “I always refer back to India,” Rao says. “It constantly provides so much inspiration: the colors and the way the light is there, especially in the desert.” But she’s also inspired by history and her surroundings. Anni and Josef Albers and Bauhaus are obvious influences in her work, as well as a small number of rugs the painter Francis Bacon designed before he started painting (“They’re so weird and amazing!” she says). She travels often and uses the photographs from her trips to spark creativity. A recent trip to Peru left her with images of hand-built stone walls, which she might eventually incorporate into the design for a rug or a color palate.

Francis Bacon's "weird and amazing" rugs. Photo by Christie's, Tate

As her rug line has grown, so have her practical considerations for what makes a great rug—beyond simply being beautiful. “If a pattern is heavily focused in the center of a rug I’ll try to rethink it, because people have coffee tables,” she says, a simple observation but one that leads to pieces that work for more people in more spaces.

Her attraction to color has also undergone reexamination. “I definitely think about color a lot because [a rug is] living in someone’s home,” she says. “Not everyone buys art, not everyone has things on their walls. Having a really bold rug is a very easy way to make a big statement in your space and not have to be too fussy about it. Being able to throw a colorful rug down can change the whole space.”


MATERIALLY MINDED

Today, Tantuvi is producing rugs in both cotton and hemp, a new material for Rao that presents its own challenges. “With hemp,” she explains, “because it’s such a heavy fiber and is a lot thicker than cotton, you can’t get the detail we can get with our cotton rugs and it doesn’t absorb dyes the same way cotton does, so they’re not as vibrant.” But hemp comes with its own benefits, like being naturally antibacterial—which makes it perfect for humid environments and outdoor spaces, where it won’t get mildewy. The hemp rugs—which she makes in 2x3, 3x5, and 4x6—have been so successful that they’ve sold out everywhere. In fact, Food52 is the only place they’ll be available this summer.

With this change in material, Rao is now working more with India’s cottage industry of traditional rug weavers. “Everyone works from home in their villages,” she explains. The villages are remote, in the deserts of Rajasthan, and economic opportunities in the region are limited; most families have a small herd of goats or work as day laborers. By working within the cottage industry, Rao says, the craftspeople of the region “can maintain all their communal obligations and still be able to provide an income and work at their own pace,” all while keeping the tradition of hand-weaving alive.


What Lies Ahead

In the future, Rao hopes to create a line of bedding for Tantuvi. But her thoughts about the future are larger than her next design project. “Climate change is a big part of some of the problems we’re facing,” she says. “With the rains being heavier and more sporadic and unpredictable, it’s going to eventually come to a point where I think weavers aren’t going to be able to work for three months out of the year.” Temperatures in the villages where the weavers live and work outdoors often spike as high as 114°F in the summer, and the monsoons have become more extreme as well. “These are new problems,” Rao says, “and we have to adjust our needs and demands to what's happening with the environment.”

〰Production in Progress 〰🔹🔺▪️🔶

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