Take a walk on the wild side

Times Staff Writer

BELIEVE it or not, there is a case being made for using certain animal skins as rugs. They are gaining favor as floor decor to the dismay of those who believe neither hide nor hair of any animal should be used in the home by anyone other than its original owner.

But interior designers and retailers say there is new acceptance of cowhide and sheepskin rugs, especially in exotic patterns, unusual colors and different shapes.

“It’s organic. People like the texture and feel of it. In the past, the skins were only available in the shape of the animal,” says Charles Infante, a film set and interior designer in Los Angeles, who finds clients more open to the use of cowhides these days.

“Now the best rug designers stitch hides together into fabulous patterns and give them traditional shapes,” Infante says, “so you have something elegant and beautifully detailed -- something quite different than a silk or wool rug. I don’t use cowhide everywhere and anywhere, only when it’s called for. A cowhide rug can dress up or dress down a room. It has a modern, eclectic vibe. It may be a trend right now, but it’s not really trendy. It’s a classic.”


Cowhide can be stenciled to look like leopard, zebra or tiger. Almost anything that walks the Earth can be simulated on cowhide for use on the floor. “We use hair dye to get the exotic animal patterns we want. It’s permanent color. You could use a high-power hose on it and the color wouldn’t come off,” says Frank Conn, of Hollywood Love Rugs, whose sales of sheepskin and cowhide rugs have risen markedly in the last year. “We sell tons of cowhide -- to everyone from cowboys who want a rugged look to design-savvy homeowners with elegant modern furniture.”

Amanda Price of the Rug Company in West Hollywood says her firm has sold about 100 finely detailed cowhide designer rugs in the last six months, compared with the dozen sold in the previous six months.

Exotic animal prints stenciled onto cowhide is the specialty of Earl Ward, owner of Fur Rugs & Mink Blankets International near Tulsa, Okla. “Right now cowhide is a fad. My importer says his business has tripled in the past year. My own business has doubled, with sales rising mostly in California and New York. I don’t know why they’re so popular.”

Although most sales are in natural animal colors, Ward says he sells blue, green, fuchsia, red. Any color of the rainbow. “You name it, I’ve had orders for it.”


Still, Ward and Conn agree there’s great sensitivity about the subject. “I know many people hate the idea of animal skins as decoration,” Conn says. “But the truth is, these are products that many of those same people eat and wear. They eat lamb chops, hamburgers and steaks. What are we going to do with the byproducts of the animals we eat?”

Betsy Burnham, an interior designer in Los Angeles, admits it’s a touchy subject. “But it’s never been a conflict for me. I’m a huge animal lover, and I also love the look and feel of animal skin rugs. They’re classic. Using animal skins on the floor has been around since the cavemen. It’s very basic and warm and practical. You can’t stain them. If something spills, you wipe it right off. They have a unique look and texture.

“Of course, it’s a very personal kind of thing. I have a vintage zebra skin that I bought from a private party on EBay. It’s in the entry of my own home, and I entertain a lot. You should see the number of people who walk in and walk around it instead of on it.” She can tell they are uncomfortable with it.

“I wouldn’t stand on the hide of my worst enemy, whether it had two or four legs,” says Judie Stein of Agoura, a writer and animal rights advocate. “People justify fur rugs by saying we eat the meat of dead animals. But we don’t have to. Tofu has higher protein and less fat content than meat. Maybe the popularity of animal hides underfoot is emblematic of society’s growing disrespect for any form of life, whether it be human or animal.”


There are some restrictions on the use of animal skins, and consumers may (rightly or wrongly) feel a bit more secure about those being offered as rugs because so much attention has been paid in the last few years to preventing animal abuse.

“People know that endangered species are more protected now, and that legitimate retailers and wholesalers will not sell any animal that has been harvested for its hide,” Conn says.

It’s sometimes difficult, however, to tell what’s legitimate and what isn’t. Zebra rugs, for example, recently were offered in California by one retailer as skins that had been “culled from African animal reserves run by the government, which uses all proceeds to help the survival of endangered species.”

When asked for proof of that claim, the retailer could not confirm it and later called back to say the company no longer sells zebra in this state because it is illegal.


The California Penal Code makes it unlawful to import for commercial purposes, or to possess with intent to sell, any part of a zebra (or alligator, crocodile, polar bear, leopard, ocelot, tiger, cheetah, jaguar, sable antelope, wolf, whale, cobra, python, sea turtle, colobus monkey, kangaroo, vicuna, sea otter, feral horse, dolphin, Spanish lynx or elephant). Cowhide and sheepskin, however, are under no such restriction.

And because many home decorating magazines recently have been showing animal-pattern cowhide, wool or fake fur rugs in their pages, the public is more aware of how such rugs can enhance a room. Jim Muller, manager of Pacific Hide & Leather in L.A., whose firm sells only to retailers, says, “This is no trend for us; it’s a steady business that’s important to high-end designers who want an exotic look. We consistently do well with zebra-stenciled cowhide pieces that look like the real deal.”

Sheepskin is less of a design-oriented purchase and more of an emotional one, Ward says, speaking at a frantic pace in the midst of his busiest selling season. “Cow looks great. It’s decorative. But sheepskin is just plain fun,” he adds.

“Sheepskin is 3 inches thick -- it’s soft beyond belief. You can put it on concrete and sleep comfortably on it. It’s that soothing,” he says, suddenly sounding almost dreamy. “It’s comforting, relaxing. You literally, when you stand on a sheepskin rug, can feel the stress leaving.”


Much of the cowhide sold for rugs is imported from Brazil, the sheepskin from New Zealand. Prices range from about $100 to a few thousand, depending on the quality and the amount of work involved in the design.

Aaron Harberts, a Los Angeles TV writer and producer, has two cowhide rugs in his home, which he says his guests often bend down to touch. One is stitched together into a flower pattern, the other is a natural skin.

“People are interested to see how they feel, to know that liquid beads up and doesn’t penetrate through the skins. I haven’t gotten any negative response,” he says. “But they are conversation pieces. When the topic of using animal hide comes up, and it often does, people tend to look down at their shoes and realize they are wearing leather. So they don’t dare throw stones.”




Fakes underfoot

If you’re in the market for the zing of a zebra (or other animal-print) rug, there’s an ample supply in wool and synthetic fabrics, as well as cowhide and sheepskin stenciled to look like other animal skins. Here are a few websites with rugs to view:

Advertisement Zebra and leopard-patterned wool rugs designed by Diane von Furstenberg, along with cowhide designer rugs. Area rug of llama wool that looks like zebra. Sepia and ivory wool zebra print rug. New Zealand and Australian sheepskin rugs and other decorative animal hide patterns.

Advertisement Zebra, tiger and leopard printed on cowhide rugs.

-- Bettijane Levine