And at the Domotex fair in Hannover on January 13-16 -- one of the biggest annual trade shows for the industry -- many are watching Bayat Nomad Gaminchi, a successful, high-end production house that operates in Iran and the United States.
That is because the house is using the occasion of the fair to unveil a new line of Persian carpets in what traditionally are almost unthinkable colors.
As oriental-carpet producers again come under enormous pressure to meet Western consumers at least halfway, carpet makers must once again choose between tradition and fashion.
Whereas Persian carpets historically are woven in deep, saturated hues that shine splendidly in the intense sunlight of the east, the well-known producer is for the first time shifting part of its production to softer and brighter pastels.
Bright Colors For Dull Winters
Those are the kinds of colors that are popular with fashion designers today for curtains and other furnishings in the West -- where the long winters reduce the sun to a dim glow above the clouds. The designers put a premium on brightness inside the home.
Ali Bayat, one of the house's partners, says the decision recognizes the realities of the Western market.
"There are two types of demand in the market," Bayat says. "One has been developed by interior designers and fashion designers and 'color broadcasters,' and you have to go with them because there is a market demand for that. And there is another demand of a type that looks at the carpet as an art form, and they are looking for the carpet to be as original as it used to be. And they are looking for that and there is a demand for that. So, we have to keep up with both parts of the market."
Bayat is standing in his glass-enclosed display area in the center of the bustling trade fair. Outside -- as far as the eye can see -- the great hangars of the exposition complex are filled with chest-high piles of carpets. Wholesale buyers from across Europe are prowling the floor, purchasing hundreds of pieces at a time.
Tension In The Hall
The atmosphere is genteel but tense as millions of euros change hand in cash and credit in a few days. The faces in the crowd are German, Italian, Spanish, European, Persian, Turkmen, Turkish, Chinese, Indian, Pakistani. The list goes on and on.
A pastel-colored carpet on display at Domotex (RFE/RL)
In the middle is a Turkish tearoom, filled with chain-smoking men drinking glasses of black tea.
So, why are people watching Bayat? Because his break with tradition is the latest measure of how much interior designers are pressing oriental carpet makers to cater to popular Western tastes.
Some carpet makers at the fair lament the trend, which not only touches the colors used in a carpet but also the motifs.
"Before, for the consumers, the most important thing was the culture of the rug," says Ahmet Koker, a representative of the Istanbul-based My Home production house. "The women who wove the carpets were weaving what they feel and for many years [their traditional motifs] have been collected and there is a good collection in any one area. But at the moment you can see the patterns are mixed. There are some designers -- they get some flowers from Persia, they get some flowers from India, some flowers from Turkey, some flowers from Russia, some flowers from Azerbaijan, like that. So if you look to any one carpet it is not [a reflection of] a culture, it is a good collection of a designer."
Meet The Chobi
The pressure to change is keenly felt by Persian and Turkish producers. But perhaps the greatest adaptation so far has been shown by Afghan refugee weavers in Pakistan.
Predominantly Turkmen, and now also Hazara, weavers have created a design that is hugely in evidence at the trade fair. The design -- called chobi -- uses a soft palette of whites and reds to present simplified floral designs reminiscent of mogul art.
The chobi design -- the name means "wood" and describes the predominantly wood-based, natural dyes used for the soft coloring -- is now being imitated by some Chinese producers. In the carpet world, that is a clear recognition of its salability in the Western market.
The move to a softer palette is not the first time oriental carpets have felt, and responded to, Western market pressure. In many ways it recalls an earlier wave of pressure that Persian producers felt from the West in the late 1800s.
At that time, the economic surge that accompanied rapid industrialization in Europe and the United States created a large moneyed class almost overnight. The newly prosperous wanted the traditional status symbols of the very rich, including luxuriant carpets. But they wanted less complicated designs than the often highly complex motifs popular in Islamic cultures.
To meet the demand, Western carpet importers and department stores worked with Eastern producers to create new, modified oriental styles. One of the most famous designs of that time -- the ziegler -- has clear echoes in today's chobi.
Now, as oriental-carpet producers again come under enormous pressure to meet Western consumers at least halfway, carpet makers must once again choose between tradition and fashion.
The 'Organic' Choice
Many appear ready to experiment -- tentatively moving toward softer colors, while also producing traditional carpets in the saturated colors that, so far, have withstood every shift in consumer tastes.
But some producers say the answer is not to follow
the interior designers but to resist them. And, with the fervor of pioneers,
they are staking their fortunes to another Western trend: a longing for
"natural" things that have a strong sense of time and place.
Hossein Attaran and one of his "organic" carpets (RFE/RL)
Hossein Attaran is the London manager of the Tehran-based company Carpet Heritage. The Persian-carpet producer distinguishes its carpets by prominently labeling them "organic."
Attaran says "organic" means the carpets are woven in a specific region and in a specific design that has traditionally been woven there.
He says that gives his carpets -- which are antique reproductions -- a sense of purity that is too often missing in the modern world.
"I personally get energy from these carpets," Attaran says. "I mean, I know it is organic. I know the material is organic. I know it is done by a weaver in her home. It is not machine-made; it is not factory-made. Everything takes you [back to a traditional world], the collection is named Persia Revisited, and it takes you back to what Persia used to be."
The variety of trends in Western consumer culture present producers with tough, conflicting choices. And they must carefully weigh them as they present their wares to the wholesalers at Domotex.
The wholesalers' fingers run so quickly over the wool, feeling its quality and the tightness of the knots, that an observer might think they are barely interested. But that is because they are not only looking for quality. They are also trying to answer that hardest question of all -- what will appeal to the retailers who must sell the carpets to the consumers?
And as the wholesalers think and close their eyes, weighing the fortunes to be won or lost with a single "yes" or "no," the decision is clearly never easy.