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Frame Worthy

Londoner Christopher Farr's new L.A. gallery showcases underfoot artwork

July 25, 2002|JANET EASTMAN

It seemed so simple to the college-age painter on vacation: He would translate his love of contemporary art onto handmade rugs. But Christopher Farr's three-decade journey from being inspired by the pre-Columbian textiles he saw in Peru to helping to revitalize an art form has been anything but easy.

To create the sensuous rugs in the Los Angeles gallery he's just opened, Farr has had to honor the ancient process of hand-knotting while inventing weaving techniques that allow his free-flowing art to come first. Along the way, the Londoner, who has achieved his organic shapes only with time-consuming craftsmanship, has guided other artists in rug design and received critical acclaim.

"Christopher Farr's designs transcend the functional into the lyrical," says Andrea Fiuczynski, president of Christie's Los Angeles, who attended a reception at Farr's gallery last week to celebrate the opening of his first U.S. showroom and the release of his new book, "Contemporary Rugs: Art and Design" (Merrell, 2002), a 100-year history of modern rugs. "His works are powerful yet poetic, exclamations of color celebrating art."

One of Farr's most popular rugs, "Huaras," was inspired by an Inca fortress he saw in Cuzco, Peru, in 1973. Three soft-edged boulder-like forms in light gray, wheat yellow and burnt orange are stacked on a 10-by-13-foot, taupe-colored field. Another rug, "Code," from his new collection, is 9 by 12 feet and has three sets of hard-edged stripes in gray, reddish brown and lilac sharing space with solid blocks of ivory.

Most of Farr's rugs bear his signature logo and are limited to editions of 15, and prices can be steep: "Huaras" costs just under $14,000 and "Code" is priced at $12,000. This combination creates a collectible art market for fine rug designers following in the tradition of such artists as Miro, Picasso, Lichtenstein and others who have also wrestled with the difficult medium of wool and pile.

"There is a world of creativity out there, and artists know that it's OK to seduce, to invite in any medium, and it's not without content because it's on the floor," says Farr, who was celebrated for replicating the Bauhaus carpets of Gunta Stolzl for an exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects two years ago..

His new book recognizes the work of rug artists who have broken traditional rules of symmetrical shape and repeating patterns. Fields with irregular edges hold a minimum of images, if any. Some artists rely only on the texture and color of the yarn to evoke feelings.

"Rug designers should have fun and show what's possible," says Farr, who co-wrote the 208-page book with business partner Matthew Bourne and Fiona Leslie, curator of the designs collection in the prints, drawings and paintings department of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Like his gallery in London, which counts Hugh Grant, Annie Lennox and Ralph Fiennes as customers, Farr's Los Angeles space is simple. The 1940s building on La Cienega has white walls, bare floors, big windows and an empty fireplace. There is nothing to distract from the rugs pegged to the walls.

The gallery showcases the work of several other artists, many of whom credit Farr with their success. Allegra Hicks, a textile and fashion designer who uses variations of color tone to great effect, has learned from Farr how rugs could be woven "the wrong way"--lengthwise--to enhance the fluidity of her designs. In Hicks' "Lotus" ($9,654), rows of linked flowers meander across a 9-by-12-foot field.

"Working with Chris has been a wonderful experience in that he has helped me develop my rug design vocabulary through his great knowledge of traditional weaving technique," says Hicks. "The great contrast between our design styles has also made him a perfect editor of my work."

A collection of silk rugs by abstract painters Brad Davis and Janis Provisor occupies one of the two major rooms on the ground floor. Unlike the other rugs in the gallery, these were not produced by Farr's London-based company but by the husband-and-wife team's Fort Street Studio in Hong Kong. "We respect these artists tremendously," says Farr.

Davis and Provisor's "Fringe" ($15,120) has a sharp purple linear motif interrupting a rich green field interlaced with lighter greens. Wild silk, instead of Farr's preferred wool, gives the surface a glistening, copper appearance.

Art Begets Art

A Farr rug begins with hundreds of sketches, mostly abstractions of natural forms. He uses watercolors and crayons to experiment with color and carefully considers fields where furniture might be positioned without compromising the design. He slowly edits his sketches down to the few he thinks will reproduce well onto a rug.

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