Decorative Rug Art With a Viking Warmth

Merin is a New York free-lance writer .

In this country, most households, as well as offices, hotels, restaurants and other public meeting places, have ultramodern interiors designed to reflect the Finnish philosophy that life should be lived in an environment that is as highly functional and beautiful as possible.

The design preference is for sleek contemporary furnishings and high-tech accessories and appliances to make one's life style comfortable. In the midst of this modernism, one traditional element is usually given a place of honor in the design scheme.

This is the ryijy (pronounced REE-ya) rug, a type of handcrafted tapestry developed in Finland centuries ago, during Viking times.

Today, it has the stature of a national art. Originally the rugs, with their thick, protective pile, were used as coverlets on beds, sleighs or aboard ships for warmth against Finland's beautiful but cruelly cold winters. Now they are used as wall hangings, highly valued objects of elegance and beauty. Some, made with coarser wools, are used as floor coverings.

The ryijys made today use traditional folk designs with bold geometric or symbolic shapes such as the tree of life in earthy colors, or patterns developed through the years by Finland's top artists and designers, with a varied palette of rich or subtle colors in flowing abstract forms.

Ryijy rugs are handmade, with the same materials and techniques used throughout history. The rugs are usually rectangular and made in various sizes. The value of a contemporary design is often judged by the subtlety with which the weaver is able to blend colors.

Museum Pieces

Ryijys are collected by museums and individuals around the world. The largest ryijy belongs to the University of Montana. It's about 33 feet by 19 feet, with a design of horses, and took more than a year to weave. Ryijy exhibitions have toured the Smithsonian and other U.S. museums.

The rugs are sold outside Finland, but export is limited and prices are usually double the cost in Finland. For best selection and price, Helsinki is the best place to buy ryijys .

Two rival ryijy rug shops in Helsinki are of particular interest: Friends of Finnish Handicraft and Ryijypalvelu. Each claims the purest link to tradition and the strongest relationship with Finland's best rug designers and makers. Each hints at disapproval of the other for reasons ranging from dilettantism to commercialism. Underneath it all, you sense a mutual respect.

Friends of Finnish Handicraft is in an old mansion at Tamminiementie 3, in a park-like area three miles from Helsinki's center. The organization, founded in 1879, wants to preserve and augment appreciation of Finnish culture and tradition. It is supported by well-known Finnish artists and designers, and also commissions rug designs. It introduced ryijy rugs to the world at the famous Paris Exposition of 1900.

Superb Collection

The shop has a permanent exhibition and a collection of rugs for sale. Many are one of a kind, others are limited editions and some are available in kit form so they can be made at home at much lower cost.

Rugs feature traditional designs (such as "Vesilahti IV B," a geometric pattern of variously shaped crosses arranged symmetrically, in white, deep green, orange, brown and gold tones) or contemporary designs (such as Jorma Hautala's lovely "Morning and Evening," in which broad stripes of green, blue and red are overlaid with orange and pink rectangles to create an array of colors on a white field).

Designer Raiha Rastas' work is particularly impressive, especially "First Snow Fall" (it costs about $10,800 ready-made or $3,000 in kit form), with a white triangular shape pointed down into a pale yellow triangular shape, and the background around the triangles filled with pale lilac, pink, orange and brown tones. "Prism" (about $18,000 ready-made) is a more experimental work that uses different yarn lengths to create varying densities of color and requires a special loom because it is diamond shaped.

Friends of Finnish Handicraft offers limited numbers of artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela's famous "Flame Red" and "Flame Blue" designs (kits cost about $5,200 each). Traditional patterns (from about $1,500 and up in kit form and about $4,000 and up ready-made) tend to be somewhat less expensive because the wool pile is usually shorter than that of contemporary designs, and because no "designer fee" is calculated into the price.

Contemporary designs in kit form generally cost from about $2,500 and up, or ready-made from about $6,000 and up.

More Than 100 Designs

Prices are somewhat less expensive at Ryijypalvelu, at Kasarmik 34A, but rugs here are smaller and coloration has less subtlety or greater bravura, depending on your point of view. Rugs are also made in larger editions. Nevertheless, this shop, run by the Women's Organization for the Disabled War Veteran's Assn., has exclusive contracts with many contemporary Finnish designers. The current collection features more than 100 designs, available ready-made and in kits, including traditional patterns.

Ryijypalvelu produces a catalogue and does extensive mail order. The shop offers various do-it-yourself packages ranging from fully equipped looms to kits with yarn only.

It is advisable to visit both shops for variety, and to absorb lore and fact surrounding the ryijy tradition.

Basically, historians believe ryijys originated during Viking times; the rugs were more practical, warmer and more durable than animal pelts. The rugs retained heat even when wet and repeated soakings didn't destroy them. This made rugs useful aboard ship. Historians believe that Viking seafarers carried them over great distances.

The modern ryijy era dates from the late 17th Century when rug making had become a genuine folk art and rural industry. Most of the weavers during that period were women. In older rugs, wool or hemp were usually used to make the warp. More recent rugs have a warp of heavy linen thread or tow.

Family Heirlooms

Ryijys made in central Finland during the late 1700s and early 1800s are considered to have the most beautiful traditional patterns.

For sleigh rugs, half the pattern was upside down, to look pretty when draped over the back of the sleigh. Special ryijys for celebrating weddings became family heirlooms. Examples of folk ryijys are in the Finnish National Museum in Helsinki.

Modern appreciation for ryijys began at the turn of the century during an upsurge of Finnish nationalism. Finns took great pride in celebrating their culture. Ryijy rug-making was honored as a national art. Famous artists, including Gallen-Kallela, developed still-famous patterns and architect Eliel Saarinen used the rugs in interior designs.

The design influence of Gallen-Kallela and Saarinen, two founders of the Finnish Modern School of Design, is still felt around the world. Their involvement with ryijys helped the rugs achieve their high status as collectibles.

Prices quoted in this article reflect currency exchange rates at the time of writing.

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