Deco Chinese Rug Collection

Art Deco Chinese Rugs From 1920’s


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Antique art deco Chinese rugs were produced from the 1910’s to the 1940’s. Prior to the 1920’s, during the experimental stages of production, the design and color remained similar to classical antique carpets from China. After the 1920’s began the experimentation with vibrant colors and drifting away from the characteristic two-toned contrasting colors.

These art decor designed rugs were made in China during the 1920’s and 1930’s. The most recognizable Chinese Deco rugs were made by Walter Nichols, an American who set up factories in China. The most prolific weaving center was in Tientsin where the designs tended to be more open and spacious than Oriental rugs. Nichols’ rugs are usually made of wool and silk and have a thick plushy and luxurious feel. Chinese art deco rugs are designed with both medallion as well as all-over formats. Frequently design elements include pictorial scenes, trees, clouds, mountains, dragons, birds and exotic flowers. Colors are very lively and energetic, rich jewel tones of magenta, turquoise, emerald, ruby and violet are common.

Rare and Beautiful Chinese Art Deco Rugs

Rugs of all kinds have been produced in China for centuries. Indeed, China is the among the first places people typically think of when they hear a term like “antique Oriental rugs.” Boasting one of the longest and most illustrious rug making traditions anywhere across the globe, China has been responsible for inspiring some of the most important trends and advances in the Oriental rug world, and has also been receptive to changes in the market – especially Chinese Art Deco rugs.

While antique Chinese rugs that were manufactured before the turn of the twentieth century tend to express a traditionally “Chinese” aesthetic, often being characterized by a composition featuring two tones of contrasting colors and straightforward compositions, Chinese Deco rugs exhibit a totally different set of aesthetic and design preferences.

Beginning in the 1920’s and continuing onward until the 1940’s, rug makers in China took to producing distinctly “Art Deco” style pieces, in an attempt to capitalize on prevailing tastes and trends in the rug market.

The most immediately recognizable examples of these rugs were made by an individual by the name of Walter Nichols – an American citizen who relocated China in order to set up manufactures in that country.

Nichols’ rugs often feature traditionally Chinese design elements, but presented in an Art Deco idiom. Chinese Deco carpets by Nichols will often include trees, clouds, dragons, exotic flowers, and mountaintops. Colors tend to stray toward the vibrant, especially rich shades of blue, emerald, and ruby.

A great many Chinese Deco rugs were woven in the great weaving center of Tientsin, an area with a particular aesthetic which favored wide open, spacious designs was dominant.

The Chinese Deco Walter Nichols Carpets: A Story of Fortunes Made and Lost

In 1925, the Paris World’s Fair Exhibition of Modern and Industrial Decorative Art changed the world of art and interior design forever. This event marked the official beginning of what would become known as the Art Deco period. This period is characterized by the introduction of new, bright color combinations that were a rebellion against the realism of previous artistic movements. It also opened the doors for Walter Nichols to take advantage of the favorable economic and labor conditions in China and produce some of the most beautiful Art Deco rugs of the world.

Art Deco Movement and Changing Trends

One of the greatest changes in the art deco movement was that traditional colors were replaced by more vibrant hues and unusual color combinations. For instance, traditional Chinese rugs had been marked by softer blue tones that reflected the natural colors of sky and water. Jewel tone colors replaced more natural ones. The Art Deco color palette included electric lapis blue, purples, plums, ochre, greens, hot pinks, deep burgundies, raspberry and teal.

Heavy zigzag and geometric patterns replaced natural, realistic floral designs. Lines were bold and sleek. Sunrise and sunburst motifs in vibrant colors became popular. These designs found their way onto textiles, furniture, painting and architecture. Paris was the hub of the movement, and it seemed that the world readily embraced this new fashion trend.

The first whispers of this new design trend began to appear at the turn of the 20th century, but by the 1920’s, it was in full swing. Art Deco was an answer to the formal, yet somewhat restricted, realism of the previous century. It offered a bold and daring alternative with its exaggerated curves, low reliefs, and streamlined abstract forms.

Art Deco – A World of Opportunity

The Art Deco movement gave artists and designers a world of opportunity to try out new ideas and experiment.  For thousands of years, China was a hub for the production of some of the finest rugs in the world. In the 1920’s, there were hundreds of factories producing carpets in China, and this is what attracted artist Walter Nichols to explore the possibilities of creating Art Deco rugs in China.

China offered a relatively cheap workforce of experienced rug weavers. It was also close to the raw materials needed. In 1924, Walter Nichols opened the doors of his new venture in Tientsin, in the northern part of China. It was called Nichols Super Yarn and Carpets.

Nichols claimed that his art deco Chinese rugs were superior to those produced using traditional methods. The wool was machine spun, and sturdy cotton was used for the foundation. The carpets were tightly packed and were heavy and dense. The Chinese Deco Nichols rugs are heavy, weighing about a pound per square foot. He used Chinese wool and superior German rug dyes that were guaranteed to remain light fast and colorfast with a light washing.

Nichols rugs would become known as open field “Chinese Deco” in the carpet world. At the height of production, the factory was producing and exporting about 3,000 room sized carpets a month. At one time, Nichols had showrooms in Tientsin, Peking, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Honolulu, Manila, London, Panama and Australia.

The Chinese Deco Nichols Rugs Shift

The business was booming, and Nichols was producing and exporting thousands of deco Chinese rugs worldwide. He became an influential designer in the world of Art Deco design and carpet production. Then, one day, his distributor of rugs in the USA, Pande-Cameron, would tell him that he was out of touch with American tastes. He told him that the American rug market would not accept the bright, colors in the same way as the Chinese market. He told Nichols that his deco designs were too colorful, too busy, and too Chinese.

The distributor refused to buy the designs that he considered to be garish and too loud. He demanded simpler designs, told Nichols to drop the “oriental” style border and to eliminate the Chinese symbols. Pande-Cameron wanted no animals to step on and feared the Deco Chinese rug designs would provoke arguments between sales associates and potential customers. He wanted fewer colors and fewer flowers.

This fateful meeting would alter the life course of Nichols forever. He took the advice of Pande-Cameron and began altering the designs to what he thought would appeal more to American tastes.

The new Nichols rugs became solid color, with perhaps a spray or two flowers. These flowers eventually would disappear, and the antique rugs would become completely monochromatic or tone-on-tone. The bold colors and designs were replaced by sculpted carving. This means that there are two eras of Chinese Nichols carpets, those produced before that fateful meeting and those produced afterward.

Nichols continued to produce whatever he was asked and did commission work for palaces, offices, homes, hotels, and wealthy estates. In these designs, he continued to draw on French, Peking, and Indian patterns for inspiration. He also produced carpets that copied other Chinese designers, such as Helen and Franklin Fette.

Sometimes, the designs are so close it is difficult to distinguish them, particularly if the label and fringe stamp are lost.

A Deco Chinese Nichols carpet will have a label that reads, “HAND MADE IN CHINA BY NICHOLS.”

Three Fortunes Made and Lost by Nichols in China

Nichols made and then lost, three fortunes in China. In his early 30’s, he over expanded just as the Great Depression worsened. He went bankrupt. The second fortune would be lost in the Japanese invasion of China in the 1930’s. He would move his operations to Mexico for safety.

After the war, Nichols returned to Tientsin to find that the Japanese had used his factory to wash uniforms and had turned his home into a hospital. He was able to recover and make rugs again for about two years. During this time, he made carpets for several well-known celebrities, ambassadors, and princesses.

In 1948, Nichols was hospitalized for a heart attack. While in the hospital in Hong Kong, the communist takeover of china would mean his third lost fortune.

After this third fortune was lost, he sold much of his collection of stock from his years of Chinese production. He moved to Honolulu where he met Art Harris. Harris ran a rug cleaning business; the two would be business partners for the next ten years. In about 1960, another heart attack would force Nichols to retire for good. He and his wife would move to California where Nichols would die only a few months later.

Nichols’ designs are considered icons of Chinese Art Deco design. The early designs used abstract forms, high-energy colors, and bold lines. Nichols rugs are highly desirable in the marketplace for several reasons. First, they are one of the most iconic representations of the Art Deco artistic movement. Secondly, people love their vibrant colors and playful designs. They can add vibrancy to modern design schemes and serve as the centerpiece of the room. The Chinese Nichols carpets were produced with quality and longevity in mind. The quality of the materials and dense packing of the weave allows them to withstand the test of time. Also, there were only a limited number produced.

The story of the Walter Nichols Deco Chinese rugs is a fascinating one. The Art Deco period itself would be short-lived and would be subdued by the Great Depression, but its design innovations would continue to be reflected in the streamlined modern designs of the mid-20th century.

Designers, such as Walter Nichols, left an indelible mark on the future of art that can still be seen today. Styles such as minimalist, modern Scandinavian, and retro styles are the perfect setting to show off an Art Deco Chinese Nichols carpet for those who are fortunate enough to find one.

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