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Rugs are getting weirder

And so are blankets and bathmats, thanks to abstract shapes and unusual color combinations.

The Sphinx rug by Evi O is just one of many off-kilter textiles currently on the market.
Slowdown Studio

Welcome to Noticed, The Goods’ design trend column. You know that thing you’ve been seeing all over the place? Allow us to explain it.

What it is: Rugs, throw blankets, bathmats, woven wall hangings, and other textiles for the home scattered with abstract — sometimes geometric but frequently curvy or lumpy — shapes. A bit of a riff on color blocking, they’re often rendered in surprising, dissonant color combinations, like pale green and tangerine or slate blue and buttery yellow.

A rug from Minna, a textile company started by a graphic designer.

Where it is: Upscale boutiques like Totokaelo in Seattle and the Richmond, Virginia-based Need Supply, plus independent home goods stores like New York’s Coming Soon.

Why you’re seeing it everywhere: Culprit No. 1 is the artist Henri Matisse, though it’s not really his fault since he died in 1954. During the post-recession startup minimalism boom, designers seized on Matisse’s illustrations and paper cutouts — the latter being the subject of a 2014 exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York — as a way to give simple branding a more playful edge. You can currently find a plant-patterned jumpsuit that channels the artist at Madewell, as well as “Matisse” earrings at Lou & Grey.

With their flat, bright colors and imperfect shapes, the textiles we’re now seeing draw on Matisse’s cutouts too, as with this twisting, long-limbed female figure, which seems to reference the artist’s Blue Nudes series.

At Slowdown Studio in Los Angeles, Marc Hendrick works with artists to translate their work into shoppable products like rugs, towels, and blankets. Sourcing its textile patterns from a wide variety of artists means that Slowdown Studio doesn’t have one particular aesthetic, but Matisse-y pieces have been prevalent on its site.

“I see a lot of artists doing Matisse-style cutouts, big-time,” says Hendrick, a former graphic designer and art director. “We have to be careful about how much of this stuff we do. Even in terms of subject matter, I have to be careful about how many things involve a plant, a vase, or a figurative woman. They’re the three things that are very common.”

A throw sold by Slowdown Studio references Matisse.
Slowdown Studio
Another Matisse-like throw from Slowdown Studio.
Slowdown Studio

Whitney Crutchfield, the founder of the Brooklyn-based educational textile studio We Gather, also ties the rise of this style to the recent resurgence of the 1980s Memphis movement (in all its wacky, squiggly glory) and the massive return of ’90s fashion. Consider the retro windbreaker, with its broad, flat shapes and nontraditional color pairings.

Beyond these aesthetic currents, Crutchfield has noticed more people, specifically women, trying out weaving for the first time during the past five years, which has raised awareness of and interest in textiles as a whole. The growing ranks of amateur weavers resulted in a surge in textile wall hangings, which are a good place for beginners to start, since they don’t need to be functional. Much like the story of paint-dipped decor, this kicked off a positive feedback loop between big retailers, who were keen to participate in the trend, and DIYers, who wanted to replicate what they saw in stores.

Crutchfield doesn’t often weave amorphous shapes, but she understands the appeal from a consumer perspective. As with abstract art and amoebic home goods, these blankets and rugs give the viewer the space to free-associate. There’s a certain basic aesthetic pleasure in shapes presented without much context.

“You could take one rug and put it in front of 300 different people, and all of them could find a different memory that it reminds them of,” Crutchfield says. “It broadens the possible audience when you’re not making something specifically figural.”

The color choices in Cold Picnic’s bathmats (top) and rugs (bottom) are especially striking.

While these rugs and blankets have a certain childlike joyfulness, brands like Cold Picnic work with unexpected color combinations that add a layer of sophistication. This caters particularly well to those investing in their home decor for the first time. Teal and tomato is an acquired taste.

Ironically, it’s much more technically difficult to weave these naive-looking shapes than it is to create a geometric pattern or a standard horizontal stripe; because looms operate on a grid, curves are tougher to achieve. Sara Berks, a former graphic designer who founded the textile brand Minna in 2013, says creating the organic, freeform shapes she prefers requires pushing back on the geometry of weaving and working more closely with the artisans in Central and South America who produce Minna’s goods.

“When I started weaving, I think because I taught myself and didn’t learn a proper way, I was experimenting and fell into shapes that were more curvy and blob-like,” Berks says. “But because that’s not really inherent in how weaving is everywhere in the world, with the collaborations that we do with artisans, we’ve had to push them to try it this way. It’s been a lot of back-and-forth of what I want out of the design and what’s actually possible.”

An abstract throw from Minna.

This is, no doubt, one reason abstract rugs and blankets gained a toehold in the textile market: They’re different from what many shoppers are accustomed to seeing, though they do have historical precedent.

“If you look at an old Moroccan hand-woven rug, it has a lot of the same feeling to what’s coming out,” Hendrick says. “It feels fresh. It has its own identity without overpowering a room, and I think that’s what you want in a textile: You want it to add personality without dominating the space.”

Hendrick, for his part, is ready to push into new territory. Matisse-like rugs and blankets still perform well for Slowdown Studio, so it’s a matter of merchandising to fulfill the brand’s financial and aesthetic needs. If he’s putting out a collection of six textiles, two will be full-on Matisse, which will sell; two will offer something experimental, which will not; and two will be something in between.

That doesn’t mean the style can’t be done in a compelling way, Hendrick says. If a piece is too derivative of Matisse’s cutouts, it feels stale. But if an artist manages to add something new to the look, it has life yet.

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