On a magic carpet ride
WHILE some people consider the carpet as the most humble of furnishings, others regard it as the highest form of art - an item with a touch of magic.
The territory's experts on fine and antique carpets - Chinese, Tibetan and Persian - explain their passion for rugs by pointing out the hours of painstaking work that go into their making.
Each carpet can take up to 25 years to produce. As self-confessed 'carpet fantastic', Rehman Mir - the owner of Mir Oriental Carpets - says: 'A carpet is the highest form of creative art, because a lot of effort and imagination has gone into making it.' His family-run shop in Wyndham Street is one of the territory's most distinguished dealers in Persian carpets, and sells rugs ranging from $1,000 to millions of dollars.
To the expert or collector, picking out a fine carpet from a pile of substandard rugs is easy; but to the inexperienced shopper, selecting a good purchase can be a headache. This is where experts like Mir - the fifth generation in his family to deal in carpets - come into their own.
Mir's advice to the novice buyer is to look for good colour combinations: 'Only an ugly colour can bring down the value of a carpet. The eye should roll over the carpet without one colour jumping out at you.' And he advises shoppers not to shop with the intention of trying to blend the colours of a carpet with a particular decor.
'That's so boring. You wouldn't try to match paintings with your furnishings, and carpets are like works of art on the floor.' Tami Bradley - manager of Altfield Gallery which specialises in Chinese and Tibetan antique carpets - offers similar advice.
'Carpets can cost a lot of money, so only buy something that you like and that will fit into your house. After all, you've got to live with it. And go for something in good condition rather than one that is frayed because it will deteriorate with use,' she says.
But is it really a good idea to walk all over an antique carpet that could cost millions of dollars? Mir laughs. 'That's what they are there for and you should not be afraid to use them. They only need to be washed with soap and water. They are very hard wearing and are made to last forever. They are there not only to beautify your home, but are also an investment.' If you are looking for a Persian carpet, Mir points out you have the choice of either a tribal, village or city carpet.
The tribal type, reflecting the nomadic life of the people who make them, are very simple in both design and materials. Village carpets, due to the more settled life of the craftsmen, have more set patterns which vary from village to village; and city carpets, as expected, are sophisticated with linear designs.
Carpets in last category, with their intricate detail, are the most popular among local shoppers - and the most expensive. But Mir, who is not afraid to admit he prefers the cheaper tribal carpets, says just because a rug is costly does not mean it is the best.
'A lot of people can appreciate the work that goes into a city carpet, but they just don't like it. My taste is very down-to-earth. For me the village and tribal carpets have a naive quality and are like a dream, but the city carpet is like a very sophisticated piece of engineering. They each have their charm.' Mir sells carpets from Iran, Afghanistan, Turkey, Pakistan and America as well as Chinese and Tibetan antique rugs.
Carpets from each region have particular attributes. In Pakistan, for example, only chemical dyes are used so the colours are bright but also stark and cold; in Iran mainly natural dyes are used so the colours are very mellow and warm, while colour is used sparingly in those from Turkey.
While colour is the key to appreciating Persian carpets, Bradley says symbolism is crucial in Chinese rugs; the butterfly for happiness and long life; the bat for good luck; the crane for long life and immortality, and a pair of fish for abundance.
Antique Chinese carpets come from three regions on the northern frontier: Ningxia, Baotou and Xinjiang.
During the Qing Dynasty, Ningxia carpets adorned temples and imperial residences throughout China. In a limited colour range of blue, yellow and dusty rose - featuring classical Buddhist motifs - these carpets are easily distinguished from others. Commissioned for temples, they are small in size and quite rare.
Carpets from the Baotou region have a high, thick and velvety pile and are usually blue with white, red and brown patterns. A red base is rare. They can be distinguished from Ningxia carpets by their tighter knots.
Xinjiang province, at the crossroads between East and West, has a unique range of carpets. Rugs fall into several categories: symbolic vase rugs, pomegranate rugs and lozenge-shaped medallion rugs.
Tibetan varieties also use lots of Chinese motifs, explains Bradley, but these are included for their artistic rather than symbolic meaning.
'The main thing about Tibetan rugs is that they are cheerful and colourful, and if the symbols are used in the wrong way they don't really care.' And due to the Tibetan people's nomadic lifestyle, the carpets are smaller than Chinese varieties so they can easily be rolled up and transported.
For this reason, Tibetan rugs come in various shapes and sizes: long, narrow ones for sleeping on; small, square ones for sitting on; and saddle rugs.
Chinese carpets at Altfield Gallery cost between $5,000 and $20,000 - and sometimes more - with a similar price range for Tibetan rugs.
But, as Bradley points out, carpets are not simply for treading on. They can be framed and used as wall hangings, or put on tables. One customer even used an antique rug as a bath mat - not something Bradley recommends!