Los Angeles spoils us with its weather, high end shopping, and art so much that one can be forgiven for taking it for granted. Fortune hasn’t smiled as fondly on other parts of the world but, despite hardships, the human longing for fine art cannot be quelled. Such is the case in a strange trend that dominated Russia and parts of the Ukraine starting in the late ‘50s or early ‘60s; a trend that has been resurrected in a blend of hipster irony and genuine nostalgia. Whereas our prized rugs grace our floors, it was more common in a Russian home to find cherished rugs adorning the walls. But while that may seem like madness from the sunny climes of L.A., there was a method to it.
The popularity of hanging rugs on walls originated with the dawn of the Khrushchyovka, basic homes mass-constructed by the Russian government. These homes were far from perfect but for many Russian civilians, the humble Khrushchyovka meant opportunity. While the Khrushchyovka were highly affordable they were also cheaply constructed, only offering thin concrete-paneled walls to shield away brutally frigid winter weather and the noise of numerous neighbors in conditions that we would find cramped, to say the least. Similar to the uses of tapestries in the medieval period, Russian rugs were used to insulate freezing homes, provide some semblance of a buffer from noise, and serve as an ornate decoration that could also convey the homeowner’s financial status, depending on the quality of the rug. In the Ukraine, the rugs that adorned the walls of homes were specifically referred to as kilimi.
The role of the rug in Russian society of this time was quite different than the way we typically view fine Persian rugs as collectors. That’s not to say the Russian rugs weren’t granted esteem among families finally making it on their own. Quite the contrary, rugs were highly valued and sough after, crossing the line from status symbol to household necessity. Part of this stemmed from the difficulty in attaining a rug in those rigorous days.
Today, we have the luxury of hopping in our car, driving to our favorite Los Angeles rug store, and browsing numerous luxury options. A rug woven in Russia could cost a Russian family a minimum of 1 month’s wages and easily stretch to 4 months’ wages. More luxurious rugs from other regions of the world were on the market but could set an average Russian family back by several years' wages. Therefore, a family’s rugs were a great source of pride and status.
But even if a family had the money to purchase a rug for their wall, they may find themselves waiting in excess of a year. Commodities such as rugs often had lengthy wait times and found themselves subject to a “first come, first serve” system. Typically, the proud family would hang their rugs from the walls using tiny threaded stitching due to a cautionary proverb that warned against nailing rugs to walls for fear of a consequential family rift.
Today, it’s easy to find full online galleries devoted to the phenomenon of Russian rugs adorning walls. With the advent of the selfie, the retro quirkiness of a quick photo in front of the intricately patterned wall-mounted rug is too much for many to resist. But it’s easy to laugh at an eyebrow-raising trend out of context. Knowing the history of why Russian families mounted rugs to the walls of their first real homes is actually inspiring. It reminds us that appreciation for art knows no bounds. In the face of rugged elements and crippling financial conditions, the Russian people still placed immense value in their art, treating their rugs with the reverence we hold for our luxury rugs today.