Friday, February 6, 2009

Tibetan carpets

Spinning wool for carpets at Khawachen Carpet Factory, Lhasa ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

A newly produced, high quality Tibetan carpet made of top-grade wool is like walking on warm whipped cream. They are as rich in colour and traditional culture as Tibetan furniture and possess an earthy, eccentric quality that is quite unlike Chinese carpets (however beautiful they are too!). They also come in unusual shapes: butterfly-silhouette saddle rugs or rugs that were specifically made to fit around a piece of furniture or monastery pillar, small to be used as chair cushions or prayer rugs and bedsize to be placed on top of a sofabed. All good quality rugs are handmade and use non-toxic dyes. Tibetan rugs often carry Buddhist iconography and many borrowed patterns and motifs from China and India, but tweaked to make then uniquely Tibetan. Besides the tiger-skin patterned carpet that most will immediately recognize as Tibetan there are other traditional patterns that look surprisingly modern: rainbow stripes or checkerboard squares, frog stencils, dots and geometric checks.

Two producers of superb quality Tibetan rugs that follow all the rules of fair-trade and green product are:

Khawachen Carpet and Wool Handicraft Co. Ltd
(Kawajian Ditan He Tangmao Gongyin Youxian Gongsi)
Jinzhu Xilu 102, Lhasa, Tibet
Tel: 0891-686-3257
Khawachen has a shop in New York and at the Beijing Lufthansa Centre. Check out their "Gangchen" selection of purely Tibetan patterns.

Torana Galleries
Shops in:
Beijing 86-10-6465 3388 x5542
Shanghai 86-21-5404 4886 

Tibetan furniture

Photos ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn

Tibetan furniture is absolutely fascinating. Somewhat clunky and boxy, yes, but full of vibrant life, personality and tangible, living culture. Their earthy colours and folksy craftsmanship convey a sense of warmth and closeness to nature and life itself. Old Tibetan furniture is scarce and hard to come by and for various reasons I'd rather that the pieces that do exist stay with the Tibetans themselves. Luckily the demand for newly produced furniture increases all the time which means that it is easy to acquire a newly produced item today. Even though I live in an area of China that has a large Tibetan population and in the Tibetan area of Chengdu, I've found that the widest selection of newly produced furniture outside of Tibet of high quality is in Beijing. Furniture produced in Sichuan or Yunnan is, in my taste, many times too bright with gaudy colour and not of the best quality. On the other hand, it is extremely cheap. So if you want a brightly colored, exotic sofabed for the kids room, by all mean buy one here, they can be found for around 600 yuan and only need a thin mattress. 

The amount of furniture used in a typical Tibetan home varies with the geographical area and of course nomads carry only a small amount of furniture with them, typical items being small altars, low tables or chests. Wood is scarce up on the high plateau but in the Tibetans areas of Sichuan, which is densely forested, homes are richly decorated with in situ built cabinets from floor to ceiling, bed/benches around the entire room that are then decorated with low tables, rugs and cushions.  The furniture is usually extremely colorful, every visible surface decorated, most often with religious motifs and auspicious iconography but also paintings of everyday life, flora and fauna. The contrast between a typical country Chinese home and a Tibetan home couldn't be more different, although both are unique in their own way.

I'm lucky to have acquired a few pieces here in China from Mansu, a Tibetan contact in Beijing that has a number of craftsmen producing new pieces with old patina. He says he ships them down from the craftsmen in Shigatse in Tibet (Shigatse is known as a furniture area). (I suspect however that a number of the items might be produced in the enormous furniture area of SE Beijing, but no matter, they are definitely made by Tibetan craftsmen). I try and choose pieces that look as old or authentic as possible, using traditional patterns, styles etc. Mansu has several large warehouses packed to the ceiling with different pieces.

Shown here are two cabinets (top) and an altar (above) that I bought in Beijing and had shipped (included in purchase price) to Chengdu. Mansu also has a large number of medium quality wool carpets in traditional patterns and muted dyes (two can be seen beneath the cabinets). Very nice, soft and affordable, but of course no where near the quality of Torana or Khawachen, two magnificent carpet producers that I highly recommend (see separate posting).

Mansu in Beijing:
Tel: (8610) 87693479
Mobile 13911739981

NOTE: As I say about every region of China or the world, I strongly recommend buying locally produced products produced by the people themselves, to help promote traditional culture and local values. So please try and buy Tibetan furniture, carpets and any other Tibetan handicrafts directly from Tibetans themselves or those shops or organizations that work directly with the Tibetan suppliers in order to support the continuance of fine quality, local traditions and to help bolster the local economy. 

For anyone interested in learning more about Tibetan furniture please read: 
Wooden Wonders, Tibetan furniture in secular and religious life, Edited by David Kamansky. Published by Pacific Asia Museum, Pasadena and Serindia Publications, Chicago. ISBN: 1-932476-17-2 (Hardcover) or 1-932476-16-4 (Softcover)

Earthquake update...

Read this article in the NY Times about possible earthquake/dam connection.

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Monolith, Vigeland Sculpture Park, Oslo, Norway ©Ingrid Booz Morejohn