Kea Carpets and Kilims: A Woven Mix Of Art And History
By Jamie Larson
Upon entering the humble Hudson shop of Kea Carpets and Kilims, you may not know a thing about the history or plight of the Middle Eastern or Asian tribes that crafted the textiles on display, but the language of form and shape woven therein is universal, and masterfully beautiful. Bringing a rug from Kea into your home feels like more than just decor. It feels like a connection between your life and that of the people who so skillfully crafted it — and the rich culture it represents.
After university, in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, Susan Gomersall left England for the small Greek island of Kea. For a time, she and a group of friends reveled in traveling over land in a VW bus from the Mediterranean into the Middle East and India. They funded their “ramblings” at first by buying ethnic jewelry they could sell back in Europe, but the industry soon crowded them out.
“Through a teacher, I was introduced to textiles in Turkey,” Gomersall said from her large Brooklyn flagship. “But you couldn’t really get involved with moving rugs without having a business structure. At the time, it was very dicey to set up a business in Greece. It was chaos.”
She had no interest in repatriating, so a friend in New York helped her set up an experimental shipment to the U.S. in 1986. It was a success and she named her new company for the Greek island she missed dearly.
Gomersall’s knowledge and understanding of regional ethnic design grew quickly. She worked directly with dealers in cities who could take her safely to tribal areas to find designs that were both beautiful for her clients and meaningful artifacts of cultural study.
“In those early years, I’d meet up with some pickers and we’d go into tribal areas as a team. As a woman, you had to be very smart,” she recalled. “Every time I encountered a different kind of rug it was like discovering a genuine article. I’d ask questions like why a rug was such a large size and they would say, ‘it’s for sleeping on and wrapping yourself in.’ It was like being an anthropologist and all the rug dealers shared information. We still do.”
A photo by Gomersall during her travels.
The differences in uses, sizes and designs of rugs from tribe to tribe, and even weaver to weaver, became significant to Gomersall. Over the years, she’s written many papers and a book, Kilim Rugs: Tribal Tales in Wool. “Birth certificates” are kept on most pieces. The journey to bring these stunning rugs to Hudson and the importance of compensating the regional suppliers and artisan means the rugs at Kea are not inexpensive. The lower prices range around $900 while others, like a large 1920’s kilim from Dagestan, are $3,500.
“At first, the countries I worked in were really stable,” she recalled. “The first upheaval was in Iran, and the Russians invaded Afghanistan. So we had to get our act together. I still traveled to Turkey and Pakistan, and pieces would be brought over the border.”
As the region destabilized through the ‘90s, Gomersall grew uneasy, not just for her business structure but for the communities she had built relationships with.
“They became reluctant to bring me in,” she said. “I was concerned. I had been working with some of these families for 20 years and there was just no reaching them.”
As one might imagine, things didn’t improve after 2001. But the ensuing war without end brought an unexpected change to the industry that still allowed Gomersall to work, and it provided a lifeline to the tribal economies that needed to sell their masterful rugs.
“A lot of the guys we were working with fled to New York and became wholesalers,” she said. “I still had access but it was like the bazaar came to me.”
Five years ago Gomersall and her partners, who had been coming up to the RI region for years, were convinced by a visiting friend from Italy that they would be fools not to open a store in Hudson. They agreed.
The Hudson shop is run by the charming Richard Starna, who has a long history in American folk textiles as well as tribal rugs, and is given a big portion of the credit for the store’s unique esthetic. There’s no counter, computer or cash register visible in the space. There are a couple of small tables, a vase and one chair that’s draped with a shaggy carpet. Other than that it’s just rugs, hanging on the wall and folded in neatly stacked piles on the floor. While these are some of the highest-end rugs you will find, there is something gratifying about experiencing these rugs as you might if you were shopping for them in their native land, not just as handsome art but as functional purpose-made furnishings.
Kea’s home base in Brooklyn is run by Gomersall and contemporary rug designer Azy Schecter, who works with architects and design clients on custom commissions and creates new designs for Kea’s contemporary line.
Kea also recently began showcasing the contemporary rugs of Ptolemy Mann, who has family in the RI region. Her pieces, which she makes with traditional techniques, bridge the gap between modern Western art figures and tribal elegance. Her boldly colored pieces at once echo minimalist paintings, digital elements and a deep understanding of tribal patterns, stripes and color work.
“I’ve resisted selling new rugs,” said Gomersall. “But I was just blown away by her work.”
It’s also enlightening in a general sense to see Mann’s modern pieces hanging beside tribal examples. One draws attention to details in the other that might not seem as vivid when viewed alone. It’s a bit of visual magic you shouldn’t miss. You shouldn’t miss Kea at all, frankly. It is as much an art gallery or anthropological history exhibit as it is a store. There’s nothing else quite like it.
Kea Carpets and Kilims
238 Warren St., Hudson, NY
Open Wednesday – Monday, noon – 6 p.m., or by appointment.