Dyed in the Wool: The Custom Rugs of Barbara Barran

The term “custom” is bandied about the home décor world a great deal these days; advertisements and promises for custom lighting, custom cabinetry, and custom furniture abound. In many cases, what this actually means is that you’ll receive—for an inflated price—a piece that may be only slightly modified from another. A new color, a slight adjustment in size, some new hardware and voilà! It’s “custom.”

But rug designer Barbara Barran would like you to know that when a client orders one of her custom rugs, she means that she will create a rug that is completely unique and original, in a process that begins with putting pencil to paper.

Private Residence Tennessee. The hand-tufted rug was designed to coordinate with the client's Frank Lloyd Wright windows.
Private Residence Tennessee. The hand-tufted rug was designed to coordinate with the client’s Frank Lloyd Wright windows.

“When people walk into my showroom, they’ll say, ‘I’ve never seen rugs that look like these,'” explains Barran, who started her company, Classic Rug Collection, Inc. in New York City in 1999. “I tell them that’s a good thing, because otherwise there’d be no need for me to be creating my rugs!” Her showroom is designed to give potential clients just a sense of what’s possible for her to create.

Eschewing the trends and color of the moment for designs based on her study of art, architecture, nature, and culture, Barran designs each of her rugs one at a time after meeting with the client to talk palette, décor, and style. A studied historian (Barran holds a PhD in English with a specialty in Shakespeare from Columbia University), she frequently then turns to books and other historical sources to research a particular motif or culture, then “closes the book” to come up with a design that’s uniquely her own. Inspiration for her rugs has come from everything from Art Deco to 18th-century natural history texts to classic Eastern geometrics. Others come from her own imagination.

The space and the occupants of that space inform the materials and construction of each rug. “I ask so many questions of my client,” Barran laughs, “but I like to know how a rug will be used in a space before I create it. It doesn’t matter how beautiful my rug is if it’s been constructed with the wrong material or technique.” Placement in a corporate meeting room with chairs that roll back and forth, for example, requires a rug of a different type than a rug created for a private residence with pets and children. Will people be walking on the rug directly from outdoors? Does it need to be ADA compliant? What is the client’s budget? All of this informs Barran of what is possible to meet the client’s needs.

Barran works closely with a handful of manufacturers in Thailand, Nepal, New Zealand, and India to bring her designs to life in New Zealand wool, natural silk, pashmina, hemp, nettle, linen, or some combination. Rugs may be hand-tufted, or hand-knotted up to 300 knots per square inch, a quality virtually unheard of in the United States. All of Barran’s rugs are certified GoodWeave, to ensure that no children are exploited for labor in the creation of her pieces. Completed rugs are typically delivered to the client in 6-10 weeks.

“I’ve worked with my manufacturers for years, and they have a wonderful ability to translate all of my designs and notes into truly beautiful and original rugs,” says Barran. “One particularly challenging rug I worked on with my manufacturer in Thailand had these undulating patterns on the surface and was so spectacular that people immediately wanted to touch it,” Barran recalls. “The manufacturer later told me ‘This was a beautiful and strange rug,'” she laughs. “But I have no desire to create mass-produced rugs,” Barran adds. “If you have a custom home or business, why would you go out and buy a rug off the rack?”

The Quilt as Rug

Barran’s work has been commissioned and exhibited for homes, businesses, and museums worldwide. But like many artists, she developed her love for art and design during her childhood. “I was the nerdy kid who begged my parents to take me to museums and spent a lot of time looking at art,” recalls Barran, who grew up in the small town of Washington, Pennsylvania, where her father owned a furniture and carpet store. It was “quilting country,” as Barran describes it, a place where neighbors hung their handmade quilts out on the line to dry, dotting the landscape in a patchwork of texture and color.

Anjum Hotel Presidential Suite, Mecca KSA (Please note the spelling--with an M). 7 Presidential Suites. Designer: Henrietta Spencer-Churchill.
Anjum Hotel Presidential Suite, Mecca KSA. 7 Presidential Suites. Designer: Henrietta Spencer-Churchill.

Graduate work in English Literature heightened her research skills, while work for a variety of high-end furniture stores and manufacturers kept her involved in the world of décor and design. She began teaching at the New York School of Interior Design, and found inspiration to begin making her first fabricated, quilt-patterned rugs from a trip she took with her mother to the Civil War-era Gamble Mansion in South Florida, where she noted the painted floor cloths.

In 2002, a New York Times article featuring the Whitney Museum’s Gee’s Bend Quilt exhibit immediately caught Barran’s attention. “They ran the review of the exhibit with a huge photo of one of the quilts,” recalls Barran, “and I immediately contacted the owner of the quilts and signed a licensing agreement that allowed me to make rugs from the quilt designs.” Other museum-related collections would follow for Barran, including two limited-edition rugs based on Turkish-inspired Islamic artifacts from the 10th century for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Court and Cosmos” exhibition. This was the first time that the museum commissioned an artist to design rugs based on works in their collection.

Covering the World

Work on the Gee’s Bend rugs also launched Barran’s business, which moved from a tiny showroom in Brooklyn and eventually landed in Manhattan’s D&D Building, where she works today. Barran often partners with other artists to translate their work into rugs, and she regularly consults with other designers, who may be looking for a particular look or feel in a rug and need her expertise.

 Private Residence Manhattan. This is the main photo. The clients collect contemporary art and love French Art Deco.
Private Residence Manhattan. The clients collect contemporary art and love French Art Deco.

Today, over fifty percent of Barran’s rugs go to overseas clients, including many in the Middle East. Working in conjunction with British designer Henrietta Spencer-Churchill, Barran designed fourteen rugs based on Islamic design for the Mecca-based Anjum Hotel’s presidential suites. She was also commissioned to design twenty-four rugs, plus hallway and stair runners, for an eighteenth-century chateau in Normandy, France, and traveled to France several times for this project, measuring the rooms, selecting the colors, and consulting with the owner. Barran’s shipping manager coordinated the arrival and delivery of rugs from Thailand, Nepal, and India, as well as padding from the U.S., so that all of the components for the project were on hand when Barran arrived to supervise the installation. This year New York State awarded two grants to Classic Rug Collection for the company’s work in exporting.

“At the end of the day, a rug is the biggest piece of art you’re likely to have in a space,” says Barran of her work. “It’s really the foundation of a room and can draw all of the furniture and furnishings together. There’s a real thrill to creating a commissioned work of art that will last a lifetime. Having a piece created just for your home or business is special— some of my clients even burst out into tears of joy when they see their finished rug. I want everyone to be that happy.”