In this dining room, a vintage Bessarabian Kilim inspired by French Art Deco rug styles lends its London home a bold foundation.
Granted, this author adores in-situ photos that show not just a gorgeous interior, but its little signs of life. That’s the heart of what many praise as “unpretentious” design — but what might they see in the rug? To some, it stands out quite naturally beneath clean white geometry, calm suppertime light and rich hardwood floors. Some might see it as a graceful transition between the subtly varied shades in the floor and table. To another, it’s the single-most graphic addition to such a calm, sophisticated dining room, and somehow perfect therein. Others might see it as modern art, given this mid-century flat weave’s good condition and ahead-of-its-time sensibility.
Beauty remains in the eye of the beholder, but context always has such a potential to enrich a design. To wit, today we highlight the classic Bessarabian rug and Kilim style — one of the most unusual, and furthermore irreplaceable, European rug styles in history that stands alone even today.
“Bessarabia” no longer exists as a region in Eastern Europe, but its rug culture once thrived since as early as the 18th century. Many of its handwoven Kilims, in particular, originate from modern-day Moldova, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine, Yugoslavia and Russia. Hand-knotted Bessarabian rugs, however, tend to trace back to Ukraine.
A keen eye may discern their specific provenance by weave and other minute details, but their patterns are a different story. This is a point of intrigue for connoisseurs and ateliers alike — namely, the unusual range of influences in these works. Some of the oldest Bessarabians draw on French Aubusson and Savonnerie rugs, English Axminster rugs and a variety of neoclassical styles. Conversely some of its few, equally rare vintage descendants recapture Art Deco rug principles.
Like many ancestral styles, aristocracy played a role in the early halcyon days of Bessarabian Kilims and pile rugs. Many owe thanks to Russia’s Catherine and Peter (both “the Great”) for Bessarabian Kilims found in Europe today. As neoclassical style swept 17th-century Europe, their love for the style led the industry. Soon they would patronize and even create looms to satisfy the royal desire for these rugs. One might argue Russian aristocracy is, to Bessarabian rug history, what Emperor Akbar (again, “the Great”) is to Indian rug history.
In the years to come, though, the craft would spread beyond the barriers of class. Smaller provincial looms and factories soon gave birth to the more domestic, but equally beautiful Bessarabian Kilims and rugs. These comprise many of the smaller flat weave and pile rugs one sees in the handmade rug market today.
“Popular” is better used in quotes since, as suggested, Bessarabians make up some of the most individualistic rugs and Kilims ever known. Today we curate as many grand pictorials and tapestries as narrow, medallion-style gallery runners. Earth tones, especially rich black-trending browns, as well as vibrant pinks and deeply saturated reds prevail in many antiques we find. Still, many vintage descendants exhibit a shift to near-polychromatic preferences and abstract, painterly sensibilities just as often.
Bessarabian Kilims of all ages are of an extremely fine weave, whereas their pile counterparts tend to favor lush, almost shaggy texture. Many favor the slit-tapestry weave, as they were often made as pictorial tapestries and centerpieces. Others favor a geometric approach to neoclassical floral cartouches, and just as many depart from tradition entirely. Many countries, overtime, would adapt their own interpretation of neoclassical emblems and patterns, as cultural diffusion invites. To wit, more provincial factories with smaller looms and metropolitan factories with larger looms would create what they could achieve. It’s one of the few universal circumstances even the trailblazing Bessarabian tradition can’t outrun, but its results are no less collectible.
To see different Bessarabian rugs together is to contemplate a highly subjective, yet endlessly fascinating evolution in craft. As always, we invite you to do the same and share your thoughts here or below.