Jorgen Evil Ekvoll and Can Sayinli's hand-woven silk rug -- a design called War, depicting a baby surrounded by bleeding bodies, hand grenades and guns -- sold for $60,000 at the Art Basel Miami Beach exhibition in December.
Dan Golden's wry cartoons of cigarette-smoking canines, psycho-babbling infants and the Red Cross symbol with the tag line "Morphine Is the Best Medicine" on hand-tufted wool sell for $6,750 each at Eccola Imports in L.A.
And at Design Within Reach, the $3,300 Manuscrit Rug reproduces a handwritten Joaquim Ruiz Millet poem, an erotic work whose translation from Catalan might make some shoppers blush.
Pay attention where you're stepping these day. A trend may be underfoot. A new category of high-end contemporary rugs is emerging: graphic illustrations of sex, drugs and other not-so-PG themes rendered by designers who look to the floor as an uncensored canvas.
"It's hard to create difference without being bold," said the London-based Ekvoll, whose provocative War rug was on display in Miami Beach alongside two others: Drugs, which shows spiraling mushrooms, tablets and capsules; and Sex, which features larger-than-life female genitalia. Not to be outdone, the nearby F.A.M.E. Collective gallery space showcased a large floor covering by graffiti artist Mark Dean Veca featuring sexual references interlaced with an apple pie.
New York artist Golden's rug collection is subversive, but in a lighter, comic-strip way. His New Zealand wool rugs include a design showing two smoking mutts loitering on a lawn, next to a sign that reads, "Keep Dogs Off Grass." In another, the line touting morphine is preceded with: "Some one once said laughter is the best medicine -- they're wrong."
"There are drug references and things that are there to shock, but I hope to get across that it's not gratuitous," Golden said. "I think there's something more behind it."
To dress up the wood floor in her San Francisco living room, therapist Maurita Carter bought one of Golden's rugs -- a design that shows a fork in the road and humorous, expletive-laden street signs that can be viewed at www.dangolden.com.
"It's a talk piece for first-time guests," said Carter, who was attracted to the rug's playfulness. "It's edgier than our other furnishings."
Reality TV director Brian Harris Krinsky thought the smoking dogs were funny, so he brought them into his downtown Los Angeles loft. He likes the rug's originality and plans to keep it -- unless, he said, "my cats do something to it."
Two months ago Buffy Thom -- a self-described conservative stay-at-home mom in Beverly Hills -- brought home Golden's Morphine rug, though it has nothing in common with her Cape Cod furnishings.
"I went to find a Federal runner and came home with this," she said, amused. "I liked the colors, the big red cross, the soft texture and that it's so unlike me. It has shock value. I should break out of the box more often."
Golden admitted that his work is not suitable for everyone, but he sees an opportunity to explore new ground.
"The line between art and design has been erased, and now there is the freedom to create in whatever medium suits the artist," he said. "And there's absolutely a move for people living in a modern, minimalist setting to want to loosen up and make a statement with rugs, to express something more individual, a certain attitude, playfulness."
Indeed, more artists as well as fashion and interior designers are sketching for rug manufacturers these days. Rugs that come with designer names attached or in limited editions are treated like pieces of art, and even renters are seeing these pricey pieces as portable trophies, said Chris Davis of the World Floor Covering Assn. in Anaheim.
"There are more varieties of rugs, more custom ones being made and more outlets selling them today," Davis said, standing in the middle of his industry's annual trade show in Las Vegas last week. "Rug designers -- some new to the industry -- are experimenting because they can."
Sophisticated computers now can translate intricate images into a rug, he said. Manufacturers also have more color combinations and fiber selections at their disposal.
Although graffiti-inspired rugs may not cut into the market for a classic Persian or antique, long-established companies are rethinking what imagery is appropriate.
Imagine a floor runner with a drawing of an outstretched bare arm? Or an 8-foot-long rug with giant ruby lips? For the first time, artist Piero Fornasetti's famous works have been translated into silk by Roubini Rugs, a 25-year-old New York manufacturer. At around $12,000, the rugs often go underneath glass tables, company vice president Jonathan Roubini said, or buyers use them to fill large walls.
"Rugs are three-dimensional," Roubini said, citing Fornasetti's Ortensia rug -- a hydrangea leaf with carved lines and a raised butterfly. "If you put it on the floor or the wall, it's not flat. It's alive."
Amanda Price of the Rug Co. in Los Angeles said Angelenos are adventurous when it comes to floor art.
"We sell much bigger rugs here, say 10-feet-by-14-feet, and they're busy, spirited rugs," she said. "People here aren't scared. They want to show off how individual they are."
The Rug Co. courts interior design and fashion standouts such as Kelly Wearstler, Vivienne Westwood and Paul Smith. When working with these designers, Price said, the company doesn't impose any restrictions beyond manufacturing constraints. "You never know what they will come back with," she said. "Designers we thought would do something typical of their fashion have come back with wildly creative and different pieces."
Christopher Farr, the London painter who in the early '80s turned to designing rugs, also has represented Andree Putman, John Pawson and Kate Blee in their breakout creations.
"We have seen the advent of the rug as an accessory," Farr said. "The rug with a fancy name attached to it has quickly become like a Marc Jacobs or Hermes handbag. It's perpetual novelty."
It's a notion Farr dislikes, and at his Los Angeles showroom he advises clients to complement their fine art and furniture, not compete with it.
"If they paid $4 million for a Lucian Freud, they want the attention to go there. That's the hierarchy," Farr said.
Yes, sometimes the rug gets to be the star. But most of the time it's a piece of a larger picture.
"Our rugs don't scream at you," he said. "We're English, we can't avoid it."