Rugs have played a defining role in the design of rooms for centuries. It is said that Henry VIII admired and owned Turkish rugs; Sigmund Freud, an avid collector of Oriental and Persian rugs, often draped them over the couch on which his patients sat; William Andrews Clark bequeathed a Persian rug to the Corcoran Gallery of Art; and more than likely, a rug — whether antique or contemporary — covers the living space in your home.
Most often categorized by the region from which they hail, rugs are unique in design. “You can find the geometric shapes from Persian rugs also in Southwestern American rugs. In addition, the floral designs are found throughout Turkey and Iran,” explains Nicholas Sumner, owner of Nashville Rug Gallery. Persian rugs, once the most coveted of Oriental rugs, now compete with Turkish knot rugs, such as Oushak rugs, Khotan rugs and Moroccan rugs. “If you ask me, the quality is in the weaving,” Nicholas tells us. And in fact, we did ask him. We asked him to explain the differences between Persian rugs, Turkish rugs, Moroccan rugs and Kilim rugs, and he directed our focus to Nepal, due to the superior hand-spun Tibetan wool. “The best natural dyes are made in Nepal and Kurdistan. They simply have the knowledge and patience to produce excellent dye.”
Just as the construction of rugs is an artistic expression, so, too, is the display. Like any mass-produced product, machine-made rugs lack true artistic expression and are a far cry from the artisanal productions found around the world. The differences between various rugs are vast and celebrated.
Nicholas’ rug knowledge comes from world travels and time spent in Syria and Europe. “I grew up on an old plantation in North Mississippi. Unfortunately, my parents divorced when I was 8, and I started to travel the world. My mother remarried into a Syrian family, and I lived in Syria and Europe during my Christmas and summer vacations.” The first rug Nicholas bought was also the first rug he sold. “My first rug was an antique Persian Tabriz 4×6, which I sold for $600,” he tells us. While in international business school at the University of Memphis, Nicholas put an ad in the 20 Century Newspaper. “A lady came with $600 and asked if we had any more. I said no, but we can get more.” Nicholas began buying in Iran and Syria. “When the embargo was lifted for business to be done in containers, we filled three 20-foot containers of antique and vintage rugs the first month in [the year] 2000. Then, we knew a hobby had become a business.” Today, Nicholas has weaving operations in Turkey, Nepal, India, Kurdistan and Iran (depending on the embargo). Founded in 2005, Nashville Rug Gallery calls itself a boutique weaving operation and collector of fine semi-antique and antique carpets.
“At Nashville Rug Gallery, we produce our own products that are new. For the vintage and the antique, we work with pickers we have done business with over the years. We were one of the first three original companies that began reproduction of Turkish Oushaks 17 years ago,” Nicholas explains. “We have woven modern Tibetan rugs in Nepal for the past seven years, and for the last four years, wool, reversible double-foundation flatweaves in India. Also, two years ago, we began manufacturing in Kurdistan for our higher-end Oushaks and more exotic collections.” At Nashville Rug Gallery you can find cost-effective flatweaves, a modern silk carpet, a stunning all-natural dyed reproduction Oushak or a unique antique rug. “We are not your typical rug dealer. We are, as I say, rug art dealers. The rug must speak to its new buyer.”
In hopes of demystifying the rug-buying experience, we talked to Nicholas about markers of quality, cleaning, most-requested styles, sourcing and pieces worthy of an investment. With a seven hour time difference and nearly 6,000 miles between us, Nicholas and I unravel his complex understanding of rugs.
What are markers of quality if you are looking for vintage?
We always like all-natural dyes in antique rugs. In addition, one looks at the state of condition. If we live to be 100 years old, we could expect to have had a little repair done to look good — the same for a rug. Rarely will you see a true mint-condition rug. They exist, but command the top of the market.
Which rugs are easiest to clean, and how (and how often) should we be cleaning them?
Wool is the best to clean and maintain. Under any condition, do not buy art silk, viscose, aqua silk, bamboo silk, tencel or any synthetic product. They will not clean correctly or will change appearance. We learned this after we produced a few, then ceased production. As for the high shag Moroccans you see now, I advise all to stay away from them. They are impossible to clean, but beautiful to look at. We shave ours low to give the appearance of an antique, making them easy to clean.
We clean our rugs ourselves. However, when we get large containers and get backed up, we refer them to Trey of Pro-Care of Nashville. He knows how to clean well. As for how often, I say three to five years. Most people are not as dirty as they think.
Do you have a favorite piece at the store?
My personal favorites are our modern rugs we weave in Nepal with antique Persian and Oushak designs that we modernized for the 21st century. They are true works of art.
What do you look for in rugs you source?
We try to be different from everyone else. You will not find the same rugs sold to other dealers, since our business model is to the interior designer, architect, high-end home good stores and the residential customer. Never do we sell to rug dealers.
I am sure you have met some of the most interesting people in your travels. Do you have any stories you can share?
We have worked with five billionaires over our career, and I must say they were the most honest, humble and down-to-earth people I have met. However, they are 10 to 15 steps ahead of you. I am sure that is why they are so rare and unique.
What type of rug do you think is the most timeless investment piece that you will never tire of?
An antique Oushak will stand the test of time. Follow Sotheby’s or any high-end action house, and you will find that they are the most sought-after. Persian rugs would be second.
Nashville Rug Gallery customers return time and time again because Nicholas understands the importance of quality, customer service and, of course, rugs. “It never gets old in the rug business,” he tells us. “Every day and rug is different than the last. It has been a love and passion that is second only to my family. We really love what we do.”
Nashville Rug Gallery is located at 3630 Trousdale Drive, Ste. B, Nashville, TN 37204. Hours are Monday through Friday, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. or by appointment. Learn more at (615) 484-1719.