A Guide to Decorating with Antique Oriental Carpets

By Jan David Winitz, President & Founder

Rare Sultanabad Oriental Carpet Complements Décor

A seldom-seen, flaxen-toned antique Persian Sultanabad creates a very welcoming environment for entertaining.

For over four decades, I have been privileged to share my knowledge and expertise with clients, helping them to incorporate the artistry of antique rugs into their lives. In approaching the addition of fine Oriental rugs to a décor, I would like to begin with a single question: what is a home?

Ideally, it’s a sanctuary, a nurturing environment where the psyche can rest and emotions regain their balance, where one can relax after the responsibilities of the day and “rejuvenate.” It’s a counterpoint to the great demands of modern life. 

A home is a place furnished with objects that express one’s passions and history, tastes and values. It’s an intimate refuge conducive to both creative solitude and time spent with family and friends. I have repeatedly seen how art-level Oriental rugs add immeasurably to the quality and character of this haven.

A rare Serapi “Vase Rug” sets the tone for this connoisseur’s elegant home.

Where does one start and what should be considered as the process begins?

Some new buyers are uncertain about the merits of choosing authentic antique rugs over the late 20th century Persian rugs and modern reproductions that are prevalent in today’s market. Some clients put enormous attention into their homes’ craftsmanship and detail work, but give little thought to the quality of what goes on their floors. They may think that a contemporary reproduction is a safer choice, its condition unquestionable, its colors, design, and even its size, available on demand. But the difference between an innovative antique creation and a new floor covering that, while hand-knotted, has a design and limited color spectrum that is reproduced in different sizes is infinitely greater than that of an original work of art and the poster that depicts it.

Just as there are no shortcuts when it comes to aging wine, there are none here. The antique carpets still available to us today come from a millennia-long tradition of skills and intellectual property that exposes contemporary rugs as flat and lifeless by comparison.

Left: Antique Persian Serapi, 9′ 8″ x 12′ 7″, late 19th century with a masterful hierarchy of scale and an exquisite color palette CLICK HERE. Right: Modern handwoven Romanian crudely adapting the Serapi design in contemporary colors.

Some basic rules of thumb when beginning your search.

For large rooms with high ceilings, choose deeper, contrasting colors that have weight and grander, more graphic designs. Soft, low-contrast hues will often look lost in a high-volume space. Lacking enough presence, they wash out. They will, however, come to life in smaller, more intimate settings.

The inclination for many clients is often to furnish a large room with a single oversize or palace-size carpet. In some cases, this creates a majestic, very well integrated ambiance. The carpet will serve as a canvas, enveloping the room’s occupants in the artistry of the weavers’ world, offering the experience of living within the artwork.

Sultanabad Antique Rug in Light Filled Family Room

A two-story East Coast living room benefits from the time-softened crimson background and large scale stylized floral design of a palace size circa 1850 Persian Sultanabad carpet.

However, at times a single carpet of great size will create an effect more suited to a hotel lobby than a home. In this case, it’s wise to consider several smaller pieces that work well together. These will help ground the room and also differentiate seating areas. Using a series of smaller carpets placed partially beneath major pieces of furniture will expose more of the artistic elements of the rugs rather than obscuring them.

“Where my rugs and I am, this is my home.” — Traditional saying of South Persian Qashqai nomads

For dining rooms, most clients initially think of a carpet with an all-over pattern, as they fear their table will obscure a center medallion. However, some end up choosing a medallion rug, discovering that they usually feature wider, more compelling borders and spandrels that frame both the room and the table. This adds elegance and visual interest, as the medallion will peek out intriguingly. Carpets with beautiful all-over patterns command less attention, blending in with the decorating scheme of the room in which they are placed.

 Left: In dining rooms, rugs with central medallions impact a décor quite differently than an overall-pattern carpet, as this top-tier palace size Serapi demonstrates. Right: A passageway becomes an opportunity for art appreciation when an art-level antique Oriental runner is underfoot. (Décor: Carla Carstens I.D.)

  •  Halls and corridors have tremendous design potential, though they are usually thought of as places to be passed through. A well-chosen runner looks entrancing when “framed” by the walls of a hallway. For longer hallways, multiple runners can create an engaging display of woven art.
  • Rugs of the same style or region typically share a general color palette and can be chosen to accentuate a home’s overall color and design themes. But many of my clients find it even more exciting when different styles and color palettes are used to give each room a particular character.

  • The condition of a rug often will dictate where it should be used. Bedrooms, home offices and libraries can be the ideal venue for more fragile pieces.

Left: Persian Dabir Kashan, 8′ 9″ x 11′ 10″, circa 1910, High-Decorative CLICK HERE. Right: Caucasian Baku, 3′ 11″ x 6′ 4″, circa 1860, High-Collectible CLICK HERE.

  • The graphic composition of many antique rugs makes them ideal for hanging vertically as wall art, adding dignity and sophistication to the overall environment. Woven by a single weaver,  3 x 4 to 5 x 7 art rugs are enrapturing when viewed at eye-level, revealing their numerous subtle details and nuances of color.

As life speeds up, high-caliber antique carpets offer us the opportunity to slow down, to enjoy the work of the tremendously dexterous weavers who spent months, even years, lovingly creating a single piece. Living with art-level Oriental rugs allows us to look deeply at and create a relationship with these artifacts that emanate a level of balance and harmony that is enormously nurturing.

A Connoisseur-Caliber, 19th-century Persian city carpet from the famed Hadji Jallili Tabriz workshop unifies this casual space with its unique earth-toned color palette, and elegant medallion and spandrel design. (Carole Laventhol I.D.)

Spacious desert home with antique Bakshaish Camelhair carpet and Mid-Century Modern furnishings.

Antique Oriental rugs can play a myriad of roles in enlivening and harmonizing a décor. Next, I will demonstrate through anecdotal experiences how the great variety of antique rugs styles available means anyone can identify carpets that will enrich the ambiance they envision for their décor.

A question I’m often asked is: “How will antique rugs—a handcrafted artifact created on the other side of the world a hundred or more years ago—fit into a modern home decorated with a collection of contemporary paintings, prints, photographs and sculpture?” Many people erroneously think that older Oriental carpets are compatible only with traditional settings, such as historical homes furnished with antiques or neoclassical decors.

19th-century Bakshaish medallion carpet enhances contemporary architecture and whimsical décor.

Yet, fine antique Persian, Caucasian and Turkish rugs are an art form that remains remarkably timely and never goes out of style. Infinitely versatile, they work as great unifiers in the home, bringing together disparate elements of a décor. Created as superbly harmonious compositions in their own right, they have the ability to integrate the settings in which they are placed.

With client after client for over four decades, I have experienced art-quality Oriental rugs to be extremely versatile, adding depth and an individual character to a great diversity of environments. They provide both a decorative foundation to a room and embody age-old principles of harmony and balance.

Left: Persian Dabir Kashan Garden Carpet, 9′ 9″ x 13′ 9″, circa 1910, would harmonize virtually any environment CLICK HERE. Right: Persian Serapi, 8′ 11″ x 12′ 2″, circa 1875, offers a singular color palette and brilliant decorative potential CLICK HERE.

Left: Antique palace size Kermanshah in historical home. Right: Palace size Manchester Kashan and Roy Lichtenstein painting.

For example, over a 30-year period, I had the privilege to work on a grand contemporary home in Piedmont, California for three different owners. In its first incarnation, our clients furnished the house with exquisite floral Persian Kashan and Ferahan carpets. The second clients opted for graphic Persian village Serapi carpets and Caucasian tribal rugs, and the third homeowners chose high-decorative Persian Sultanabad rugs with stylized floral designs and subtle colors. The house accommodated each makeover beautifully because the carpets expressed the owner’s taste and sensibilities. 

Contemporary, Mid-Century Modern, or Minimalist decors benefit exponentially from the presence of antique carpets, luxurious, soft textiles that complement the natural wood and stone hard surfaces in a home while reflecting the quality of the materials and workmanship of the custom environment.

Client after client have discovered that the spare graphics and abstract imagery of 19th-century Caucasian tribal rugs and Persian village carpets such as Bakshaishs, Serapis, Herizs, and Camelhairs work brilliantly with contemporary art. These styles have proven to be extremely complementary with the abstraction and asymmetry found in the work of such 20th century avant-garde masters as Klee and Kandinsky. 

Left: Caucasian Gubpa Shirvan in modern apartment. Right: Antique Persian tribal trappings on display in Tuscan-inspired home.

Well-chosen antique carpets can balance eclectic decors seamlessly. One client assembled a pre-Columbian artifact collection, a Napoleonic mantle and Deco-inspired chairs with a mid-19th century geometric Bakshaish carpet possessing a spacious elemental design that effectively grounded the various components. Another client intriguingly combined an oversize Persian Malayer undyed camelhair carpet featuring a series of angular medallions on a latticework field with a Chinese screen, a painting by Miro, and a Ming-style glass coffee table, all beneath a panoramic view of the San Francisco skyline.

Left: Antique Sultanabad providing a compatible foundation for modern furniture and artwork. Right: Antique Bakshaish area rug in Mediterranean inspired home.

Longtime art collectors were elated to see that Persian floral rugs are profoundly collaborative with the large Lichtenstein painting in the living room of their contemporary Midwest apartment and selected an extremely curvilinear, salmon-ground palace size Persian Manchester Kashan to grace the floor beneath it. The juxtaposition of the two is brilliant. Another client chose a classical Persian Hadji Jallili Tabriz carpet of rare corals as an exciting juxtaposition to her four contemporary abstract paintings.

Left: Persian Sultanabad, 8′ 8″ x 11′ 4″, late 19th century, offers surprisingly contemporary color hues and an elegant spacious design CLICK HERE. Right: Caucasian Shirvan, 4 x 4′ 11″, circa 1865, would significantly enliven many spaces throughout the home CLICK HERE.

The bottom line is that the great majority of art-level antique rugs will enrich virtually any environment. There is no absolute template to follow. Very likely if a particular antique carpet speaks to your aesthetic, it will share the overall mood of other decorative aspects of your home. There are numerous ways to approach designing with antique Oriental carpets, varying from when a house is still in the design stage to an empty, pre-existing home to when the furniture and artwork are already in the owner’s possession to after the home has been fully furnished.

Many clients start by selecting rugs for one or two rooms and then come to discover that other spaces of their home feel “empty” or “cold” in comparison. Some prefer to work with one or two styles of rugs to unify the entire house, while others opt for each room having its own individual character. Wherever you find yourself to be on the spectrum between these two approaches, rest assured that choosing and living with harmonious, art-level Oriental rugs woven 100 to 200 years ago by people who had created works of balance and harmony for millennia will afford you tremendous long-term satisfaction. 

Antique Sultanabad in a city view master bedroom

Circa 1850 Sultanabad with rare celadon field in art collector’s contemporary condo.