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The placement of rugs

Written 2002, updated 2003, 2004, 2008


I haven't found much information on the internet regarding the placement of rugs on the floor - that's why I have decided to post this sketch. There used to be a guide by Jessie Milligan at bayarea.com, taking a more conventional approach, but the link is now defunct.

I am not a keen buyer of books on interior design, and I am put off by most design examples I see photographed in the type of magazines you find when you visit your dentist. They are clean and consonant, and if they appear lively, they still look like a carefully arranged film set, and any liveliness looks learned. There is no trace of wear, of living, nothing that gives you the history or character of the inhabitants. The idea of interior design seems to be to get the place right in one go, and then maintain it that way, make sure it stays immaculate (until you change to another fashion). Like a film set that is returned to default state for each new take. I just don't like it.

Traditional rug layout in the orient

Traditional rug layout in the 'orient' (?? - was it the same everywhere?) Drawing adapted from Reinhard Hubel, Ullstein Teppichbuch, 1965.

Traditional placement

Perhaps a good starting point is the traditional rug layout in the 'Orient' (my dated source, Hubel's classic rug book, is not specific as to the geographic scope of this practice), where one central carpet of kelleyi size 2 to 3 times the length of its width is flanked by two runners (kenarehs). At the top of the room the compostion is crowned by a smaller kelleyi, a kelleghi the length of the added width of middle carpet and two rugs. (I am not sure about the exact referents of the rug format names and also the transcriptions here, they vary across sources).

These four rugs used to be woven as a set, in fitting design. I don't know whether they were different, complementing each other in some way, or whether they wre kept in 'same style / colours in different sizes'. In a sense it is a flat variant to our 'three piece suite'. The illustration indicates a sofreh from which people ate, sitting on the floor.

What I find interesting is the close tiling of the rugs, rather than the western concept of allowing for sufficient space around it to let each piece come to its own. It looks more like an old concept of 'wall-to-wall carpeting (albeit much more subtle). My rug books tell me that the nomads in their tents used to roll out rugs for sleeping, and also use them as room dividers (let alone all the woven and knotted bags for bedding, food, household utensils etc used for storage and transport during migration). So here, there is more flexibility in placement. I would assume that rugs (where available) would also be placed one on top of the other, for better insulation when it gets cold.

The following guide is in no way intended to be definitive. It may actually strike many as somewhat weird, considering the results applied to my room (see photo). I have no intention to claim that following the rules sketched at the end, the result will be more pleasing than any other placement you may decide.

Approach in this guide

If this guide owes anything to anyone, it is to Christopher Alexander and his (and his co-thinkers') pattern language - more in the manner of approaching the design problem than in drawing on Pattern 233 FLOOR SURFACE, which sugests that all-over wooden floors with carpets on it are an unsatisfactory design solution. The pattern instead suggests a separation of common areas with heavy traffic with hard-wearing floor coverings, intermediate zones with hardwearing surfaces and some comfortable spots, and private comfortable zones with soft clean precious materials (following another pattern, 127 INTIMACY GRADIENT). The threshold between hard and soft areas would then be the place to take off your shoes (common, for example, in Japanese and Russian houses).

Rug placement in 2008

The latest placement of rugs in my room ( March 2008). The Armenian Karabagh in the foreground is my first restoration project. The rug has peculiar damages, many small holes, as if someone had stabbed it. Often, the holes appear offset by a few inches. I have mended numerous of these holes. Now I will try to restore one corner where a bit is missing, using Peter Stone's "Oriental rug repair" as a guide.

Although I have some misgivings about the approach, I cannot recommend Alexander too highly to anyone trying to think in some fundamental way about their living environment and how to improve it whereever they can.

Alexander et. al.'s pattern 233 FLOOR SURFACE does not address the placement of rugs in the way I try to discuss it here. In our case, the flat happens to have wooden floor boards so in this case (and I guess in most cases of rented accommodation), we had to accept the floor type as a given constraint. (Of course you can put in wall-to-wall carpeting.) If you own your house, there is more freedom as to what you may change. Look at Alexander to get some ideas.

There seem to be a few accepted rules regarding the placement of rugs. Bear in mind that they are just the sum of my looking at the way people whose places I have seen deal with the issue. I infer this is a fairly common practice, but there may be differences from country to country, as well as between different social strata. Obviously the amount of space someone can afford to rent or buy is a limiting factor as well.

So here as a few rules that may be inferred from common rug placement practice:

So, to sum it up, I am not happy with these rules.

While I was trying to work out the placement of my own rugs in my room, I began to think about the factors that will affect placement decisions. Once I had provisionally formulated these factors as parameters, the right placement seemed far from obvious: I began to play around with placement simply by practically trying out different arrangements, and to think about the reasons why certain placements seemed somehow more successful than others.

Parameters for rug placement

Here are some parameters affecting the placement of rugs, which I will discuss in more detail further down:

Distribution of light in room

If the room receives not so much light, a light floor can help, so rugs should not be all too dark. I found that placing darker rugs near the window and lighter rugs further away counteracts the light loss in the common situation that a room receives light only from one side. In the photo, the lighter Shiraz in the bottom right of the photograph is farther away from the windows than the adjacent darker and newer Qashqai.

Floor type (wood, lino, carpeting, special rug padding)

If the floor is ugly or unpleasant to walk on, there is a need to place rugs adjacent or with small gaps (or, to put in monochrome wall-to-wall carpeting on which then to put the rug(s). I cannot say much about paddings but certain types of rugs (like old turkoman rugs or other rugs with all warps in the same layer (what P.R.J. Ford calls "double-weave") tend to slip easily, especially on polished wooden floors, so they may need som pad or mat underneath. Search here on this issue.

Photo of other placement approach

Another placement approch in the same room. The window seat did not exist then).

Interaction with room interior (walls, floor, furniture)

This works both ways: you may choose rugs, or determine their placement, because they fit in a particular space, resonate with its shape, patterns, colours, or furniture; or you may try to create the suroundings that will resonate with the rug. Since there is infinite variability here, non much can be said about it in general. Also some people will aim for similarity while others like strong contrasts.

I was toying with the idea of putting a pictorial rug at the wall, but got off it since the wall is difficult to roll on (and my 7 year old daughter categorically disapproved of the idea). When there is a corner in a room for people to sit on the floor, putting a rug at the wall to lean on may work quite nicely. (I intend to do that on a small scale in a raised window place I am going to build.)

One or several rugs

It's not a matter of right or wrong, but one of taste perhaps, whether you choose one large carpet that will dominate the room, or several smaller rugs. My preference is for smaller rugs for the following reasons:

Of course, the advantage of one large carpet (and even more so, of wall-to wall carpeting) is greater ease of cleaning, less chance of tripping etc. Also, for those who like a uniform homogenous feel to their room, one rug may be best. Needless to say, if the room is small, there is less space to use several rugs anyway.

Offset from walls

I personally dislike the gap between wall and rug, at least when it seems to follow the rule that the (wooden) floor should frame the rug (like a picture frame frames a painting). It is not easy to pin down what I find troubling here. I think it is the implicit statement of the value of the rug as an aesthetic item on display, a fetish to be highlighted and protected, which I find repelling. There seems to be an implict order to stand back and appreciate the rug as a piece of art, evidencing the good taste and possibly deep pockets of the owner.

Offset from other rugs, overlaps

I know I will part company with many here, but my personal feeling is that one rug wants to touch another rug, that they gain strength and vitality overlapping each other. A remarkable experience of the interaction of overlapping rugs was when I had bought a nice 30-40 year old Persian Beluch rug with a soft faded red and pleasant abrash, carried it home, and unrolled it, without thinking *where*, so it happened to overlap a rather bland and soulless red and black standard larger Afghan which I had bought new in a department store a month or so earlier after moving to a new and larger flat. Not only was the old Beluch infinitely nicer than the new ware underneath, but the way in squarely (or rather skewedly) broke the regularity of the larger Afghan suddenly introduced an element of careless beauty into my room. It bridged the clear separation of the area with the rug and that without (I soon managed to return the new Afgan to the department store, getting a full refund - money that I re-invested in getting smaller nicer rugs through Ebay).

There is a photograph of a Qashqai family at the Spongobongo site (way down the page) which shows rugs stacked up and overlapping to provide comfortable seating for the family. I don't point at this as 'authentic' evidence to support my preference for overlapping - it just shows to what extent any individual piece can appear to be part of an integrated overall setting, involving many other types of (textile) furniture.

Orientation in relation to room shape

My intuition first told me that the orientation of the rug should not be the same as that of the room - so if both room and rug were roughly a long rectangle, the rug(s) should go across the width, not the length of the room. I tried this, but it didn't work - it split the rooms in two halves, and these were not consonant with areas of use. I found a mix of orientations to work best (see photograph). But this is certainly a parameter that is very much down to the type of rug(s) you have and the type of room you have, and must be worked out by trial and error.

Orientation with respect to the direction of light

Many rugs (especially those having piles with little wear) look much brighter (reflect more light) from one side than from another, owing to the slant of the wool fibres. Depending on whether you prefer the rug to look bright or more sombre, you can turn it to look the preferred way from the area with more traffic (usually central to the room). This may be in conflict with the design, though. The Qashqai in the top right of the photo looks much brighter the way it is oriented now, but the horse heads next to the medallion are upside down from most viewing positions. You have to step to the window to see it (darker) the right way round.

Angle of placement in relation to room grid

There is no reason why the sides of the rug should have to be parallel with the walls. I know nearly everyone does it that way, but I challenge you to try out a slightly skewed position (not diagonal / 45 degrees - just a few degrees skewed). You may be surprised how this adds life to the room. When placing several rugs, I play with orientation in a way that I avoid that the rugs are parallel or rectangular to or onto each other or to the walls. When they overlap, skewed overlaps seem to work better since they respect the integral geometric regularity within each rug more than an overlap that ends along a warp of weft line. Regarding the partly covered rug, there is information in the part less covered that allows the viewer to infer the continuation of pattern in the part more covered. It's a bit like detecting and understanding a voice inmidst several other voices.

Uncovered or partly covered by furniture

Basically, it's nice to be able to use rugs as furniture (lie on them, head supported by a cushion) or roll around on them and use them as playground (as I do with the kids). On the other hand, furniture (leg of a table or desk) overlapping slightly breaks the dominance of the internal structural organisation of a rug. In some cases, e.g., that of a dominant border design as in the qashqai alread mentioned, breaking this dominance through overlaps by other rugs or furniture integrates the rug better in the overall setting of the room. Finally, a rug covered to a large part by furniture, or covered in a way that there is not enough space left to lie down or play on it, seems to be wasteful. But then, I don't know whether you also like to lie down on your rugs...

Interaction of attributes with types of activity (wear, soiling, slipping, tactile comfort)

This is pretty straightforward. Thin or delicate rugs should be in places where little wear will occur, darker hard-wearing rugs with lively patterns may be in areas with higher wear. Window places (compare Alexanders pattern 180 WINDOW PLACE) or places where you like to lie down should have the plusher rugs that are nice to the touch. These are often also places where you may eat and drink. It's good to be able to see tea or wine stains as the trace of life which will not necessarily invalidate the comfort and perhaps not even the beauty of a rug. It does reduce the resale value, but I don't deal with rugs or have them as investment. If this is the prime objective, they will be safest tucked away in a plastic tube under your bed - but what is the point... I mean I want to *savour* my rugs, and that involves the risk of stains! Of course I also get up and get the paper napkin to soak up spillages, but I won't get crazy about a stain either.

Interaction with close, adjacent or overlapping rugs

If rugs are close to each other or even overlap, they begin to interact as you look at them. The eye travels back and forth, picking up resonances of colour or pattern. Rugs seem to work well together if they share a few colours (or have similar colours) and are not too dissimilar in design. (I haven't tried combining floral and geometric rugs simply because I don't have any of the floral type.) To give two examples: The pictorial beluch in the left foreground works well with the old Shiraz in the right foreground because they share some browns and tans, a faded red, a light blue, and have the same muted cream white - even if the basic colour scheme and the style are quite different. The Hamadan-Kurdish rug centre left and the newer Qashqai centre right work because they both have a stronger red and black as background colour. Also, both are quite angular. The Hamadan and the Shiraz both break / cover the strong border design of the Qashqai which I never liked that much.

Interaction is not limited to colour and design. Walking barefoot over the relief landscape of overlapping rugs, encountering areas of different texture and thickess and yield, is a great pleasure for the tactile-minded.

Provisional rules for the placement of rugs

  1. Place darker rugs nearer the window to counteract light loss in the back of a room
  2. Place hardwearing / lively, darker, less valuable rugs in areas of expected high wear / soiling
  3. Minimise design conflict by separating disagreeing rugs (colour clashes, old/new clashes)
  4. Use a third rug to make two rugs agree better
  5. Place rugs so they resonate with centres of activity
  6. Use skewed overlaps with other rugs to cover or break unpleasantly harsh aspects of the rug (e.g., dominant borders)
  7. Skew rugs slightly to add a subtle tension to the indoor space or break unpleasant room angularity or symmetry
  8. Make colours / design elements resonate agreeably with other colours / elements / patterns of the room


Added August 22, 2003

A while after posting this guide, I have had second thoughts regarding the non-parallel, overlapping style promoted above. Also, I was told that moths love those areas of rugs that are covered by furniture or other rugs - so I got a bit paranoid.

Finally, I decided to rearrange. The image below shows the result of a new, more regular layout.

new layout of rugs on the same floor

It is still a bit cramped - I might sell one or two rugs as winter approaches (and prices go up).

A few months later. I have sold the horse head Qashqai at a loss. The large Shiraz is already rolled up awaiting sale maybe again at a loss - these were items I bought at the buy-now price and (at ebay UK) above reserve price).

The Kurdish Hamadan has been moved into the corner near the window. Two Beluch balishts function as cushions (not comfy enough yet - the filling is not firm enough) - a Moroccan flatweave forms a heap, I intend to turn it into another cushion for the corner.

An recent acquisition, an old tribal Shiraz with a large medallion, takes the centre of the room, just slightly slanted (our cleaning lady tends to align it in right angle).

Photo of latest placement

I am getting very disillusioned regarding rugs on ebay now - the german antiques > rugs section has recently been swamped by merchants trying to offload their dead inventory. Hardly any of this is antique or even semi-antique. Only very rarely something mildly interesting appears, often badly worn. But the nice stuff at cloudband.com etc is more expensive by an order of magnitude. Auction houses such as Wooley and Wallis are an interesting option, but quality is difficult to tell remotely, and shipping charges are quite high. The ability to touch and feel implies the higher price level of the rug dealer.

Why worry if the floor space is used up anyway? The collector's devil inside notes walls ready for display of more precious items.

Last update: 11 April 2008 | Impressum—Imprint