The Arraiolos revival

By: Cláudia Baptista

The Arraiolos rug has the potential to be brought out of the stuffy attic to take pride of place as an attractive decorative piece. Rodrigo Azambuja has given back the dignity to the traditional carpet and turned it into a must-have Decorative Art once more

The Arraiolos rug is part of Portugal’s handicrafts heritage, but that doesn’t necessarily ensure the survival of a craft that boasts such a long tradition. In some way neglected by the new generations, who associate it to their grandparents’ old houses, the Arraiolos carpet can only overcome the threat of extinction if it gets a new lease of life and people wake up to the need of preserving it and not relegating it to a museum display.

In the past, Arraiolos rugs abounded in Portuguese houses, either covering the floor or decorating the walls, generally spread across large surfaces. More recently, there has been the perception that youngsters have little interest in this type of embroidered tapestry, and are instead captivated by accessible and industrialised options that flood the market. However, the classic Arraiolos could see a revival, maintaining the essence of the oblique cross-stitch that defines it but renewing the patterns for a contemporary and artistically inspired style, which could very much see its return to elegant settings.

Rodrigo Azambuja is responsible for an inspired solution to revive the Arraiolos rug. Respecting the traditional stitching, he incorporates the designs inspired by someone who studied Fine Arts, with a diploma from the University of Brasilia. Some of the motifs are geometric-abstract; others draw inspiration from Portuguese azulejo tiles on buildings; others still are reproductions of designs outlined in tune with the settings in which they will be placed. The chances of survival of the Arraiolos are immense, and the choice of free patterns born from the artist’s sensibility as organiser of interior environments is a gateway to infinite ideas.

Born in Mexico, Rodrigo Azambuja travelled the world depending on where his father, a diplomat, was stationed. In the 1960s, the tour stopped in Portugal. After setting down roots in Lisbon, his mother, the renowned Brazilian decorator Malú Futscher Pereira, took over Sociedade Inglesa in Chiado, founded by Lady Blance Ellis, at the time a pioneer in private decorating in the capital. Rodrigo started a profitable collaboration with his mother as back-up, thanks to his talent for drawing. The Arraiolos were included in the interior design commissions of an elegant and wealthy clientele, and an extensive series of designs – classics or from the artist’s imagination – began to come together.

Today it is a valuable archive that comprises designs inspired by the old azulejo tiles, the roofs of the Trianon in Versailles and the velvet collection of the Gulbenkian Museum, for example. Despite not being Portuguese, Rodrigo Azambuja is one of the last champions of Arraiolos, concerned with its possible disappearance. “The disinterest in the Arraiolos rug is a huge shame,” he says. “I tried to promote it on the occasion of Expo 98, but unfortunately I couldn’t bring in interested investors.”

For a long time, the rugs were ordered from the firm of Joaquim Alves Valente, a prominent name in Porto for producing Arraiolos rugs. With the owner’s passing, Rodrigo Azambuja found an alternative in a group of qualified embroiderers in Beira Alta. Many rugs are commissioned for private residences and institutions, the biggest of which, at 18m x 7m, is in good health on the administration floor of the Millenniumbcp bank.

The commissions, however, face some obstacles when it comes to the raw material. Tradition dictates that the Arraiolos rug be embroidered on a jute canvas, with thick three-ply sheep’s wool, requiring 1.6kg per square metre. The sheep from Serra da Estrela once ensured the supply of wool, part of an established chain similar to the industrial model. The textile crisis (just as others that lost ancient Portuguese skills, such as in tinwork and passemanterie) also hit this craft with the disappearance of spinning factories; long gone is the annual production of 60,000sqm of Arraiolos carpets.

This number was lost in Portugal in favour of China, which produced a considerable amount and whose main buyer was…Portugal. The solution was to import canvases and wool from New Zealand, Scotland and India to overcome the shortage. It doesn’t affect the authenticity of the good Portuguese rug, with its characteristic density of 40,000 stitches per square metre.

According to research (there are few known in-depth publications on the subject, but worthy of mention are the historiographical works of F. Baptista de Oliveira and Teresa Pacheco Pereira), the Arraiolos rug became “official” from the moment the Portuguese Royal House placed an order at the Arraiolos convent in the Alentejo – hence its name – in the 17th century, when much of the craft was inspired by Arabic tapestry or Manueline motifs. However, it is known that this typical needle work was used since the 12th century, which is confirmed by the oldest Moorish designs.

The subject-matter changed as time went on, with each specimen bearing witness to each different period. In the 18th and 19th centuries, bright colours gave way to compositions based on fauna, flora and regional motifs, in drier colours. The influence was clearly Anglo-Saxonic, with an abundance of floral designs and reproductions of classic patterns such as the Aubusson. Sadly, in recent times, that flourish gave way to a production shortage.

However, the increased interest in traditional arts, an inspiring springboard for the most diverse arts and crafts that are provided with fertile ground for renewal, makes the Arraiolos rug a treasure to be explored. It’s worth noting that traditional crafts are attractive to the world of luxury; that’s where it finds its noble material founded on authenticity, savoir-faire, history, heritage, exclusivity and craftsmanship, among other attributes.

The investment in a genuinely Portuguese piece, steeped in tradition, edicts and quality (requirements that can’t be found in foreign imitations), can save the Arraiolos. The dignity of a national heritage that faces extinction has a future that can honour a long memory, but an element of modernity should be incorporated in the production, combined with suitable software. Only then can Arraiolos be updated and recover the prestige of bygone days.

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