They're Not Just for Floors Anymore

A local designer’s rugs look and feel great underfoot, and they sure can dress up a wall.

John Kurtz with daughter Josephine and family pooch Dutch, in their Trolley Square showroom. John’s traditional and contemporary designs are woven via time-honored methods in Nepal. Photograph by Phil FlynnYou won’t find sheep at the JD Kurtz Gallery—unless you count the Tibetan wool in the one-of-a-kind rugs sold there.

Founder and designer John Kurtz has cultivated a following among those who don’t want to follow the flock.

“Once you’ve lived with wonderful things, you never want to go back,” he says. “Somehow, you can feel the difference.”

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Kurtz grew up with antique rugs only a few blocks from the gallery on Delaware Avenue in Wilmington’s Trolley Square neighborhood. When he was a boy, contemporary rugs were threadbare shadows of their illustrious predecessors. Those awful things were marked by unstable chemical dyes and undistinguished designs—“copies of copies of copies,” he says.

About 25 years ago, a great rug renaissance was born in Turkey, where weavers began working with natural vegetable dyes developed by a German chemist who loved beautiful carpets.

“Collectors began to realize these rugs were really good—and you could walk on them instead of hanging them on the wall,” Kurtz says. “They filled an important gap.”

Kurtz, who had been collecting and dealing antique rugs, began designing his own rugs, pieces meant to be handed down through generations as antique carpets are. He partnered with Sulochana Shah, a human rights activist and businesswoman in Nepal, who put together a team of artisans who would work in a large, airy compound at her home in the Asian mountains rather than at home, where conditions are typically dark and cramped.

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The company, New Moon, includes a new generation, Kurtz’s daughters Erika and Josephine. The business provides stunning, meticulously crafted rugs for the Kurtz Gallery and more than 60 other upscale retailers nationwide, in addition to interior designers and commercial clients, who can order custom rugs.

New Moon is a founding member of the RUGMARK foundation, which works to abolish child labor. The workforce is comprised mostly of women, and mothers can take their children to a daycare center in the compound, a frequently harrowing 45-minute drive from the airport at Katmandu, the teeming capital city of Nepal where 2 million souls live 4,344 feet above sea level.

“The traffic can be crazy,” says Josephine, a recent art grad. “It’s like New York—but without traffic lights.”

With roots on both sides of the globe, the connection between Delaware and Nepal is still being woven between the family that produces the rugs and the family that designs and sells them.

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“When I go over, I stay at their house and hang out with their kids,” Erika says. “We have a very close bond.”

The sheep who produce the wool for New Moon rugs live high in the Himalayas. Their fleece is prized for its unique long fibers, which enable dyes to penetrate deeply, and for its high content of lanolin, a natural oil often used in moisturizers.

In the Wilmington warehouse, the Kurtzes’ hands glisten with lanolin after an hour of unpacking the latest shipment. The rugs, too, develop a sheen over time.

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“A good rug is one of the rare things in life that gets better and better the longer you live with it,” Kurtz says.

After more than 20 years in the business, he has not lost his enthusiasm for workmanship and artistry and looks forward to each shipment. Over the years, Kurtz has built a following for both his contemporary designs and his interpretations of traditional patterns. From 1988 to 1992 he was host of “Art Underfoot,” a PBS series that examined the intellectual and artistic aspects of rug making.

Beneath the dining room table in the home Kurtz shares with his wife, Ellen, is a Serapi, a Persian form characterized by geometric forms and bold colors. He reckons the rug is about 125 years old—the Kurtzes have owned it for about 30 years—and the brick red and clear blues and greens are still vivid.

“The artistry of a really good rug is sublime,” he says.

As a designer, Kurtz reinterprets such classics as the swooping cream, brown and blue florals of the Polonaise pattern. Orange lilies and hot pink chrysanthemums are artfully scattered across the pale blue field in Avignon, a fresh twist on the French Modern look. In the Cherry Blossom pattern, the silhouette of the Japanese tree is highlighted in coral against a soft green background. In Fade, colors subtly grow in intensity, from silver to pale blue to black.

New Moon rugs can be found in homes, offices and other commercial buildings. The company’s largest commission ever was for a luxury hotel in Arizona—which requested delivery of three rugs in only five months.

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“Fortunately, Erika was in Nepal when the order came through and we did some hustling,” recalls sales and marketing manager Ned Baker.

The rug for the hotel’s banquet hall is 22 feet by 122 feet—New Moon’s biggest to date—and patterned in broad stripes reminiscent of a Navaho blanket. It was woven in three sections, each so heavy it took 40 people to lift it.

As Nepal has grown as a rug-making center, many artisans have switched to a cheaper, faster method of uncrossed weaving, in which they skip crossing the warps between the rows of knots.

New Moon weavers maintain the old tradition of crossed weaving, in which each successive row of knots is locked into place by pulling alternate rows of warps forward on the loom, passing the weft between the separated warps, then pounding down tightly to form a solid, interlocked foundation. (Picture the strings on a tennis racket.)

The company also has developed a blend known as the Mirage weave, which is made from wool, silk and exotic natural fibers. “It’s a living fabric, like an animal skin,” Kurtz says.

The starting point for an heirloom-quality rug is about $70 per square foot, or $3,570 for a 3-by-5 foot rug, to $130 per square foot or higher at the upper end.

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The gallery also offers art for the walls and throughout the room. Kurtz has combined his passion for travel with his penchant for beautiful things, shipping home a hand-painted antique chest from Burma and other pieces from past and present artisans in Asia.

Witness the subtle sheen and texture of the silk covering plump pillows. “These are from Thailand,” he says. “A friend who has a high-end weaving workshop there that benefits her native village.”

Mirrors and lamp bases are whimsically wrapped in elaborately twisted threads of brass in a fusion of art and pragmatism. “I found those in the middle of Mexico,” Kurtz says.

A gifted painter, he shows the work of other artists in the gallery, most recently the work of William Spiker, who exhibited metal sculptures of such larger-than-life creatures as a lobster and a horseshoe crab.

“I think that more people are discovering that the things they have in their homes can make a statement,” Kurtz says. “That’s why you see more people tearing up the wall-to-wall carpet, fixing up the hardwood floors and collecting good rugs.” 

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