That a rug is not simply a floor covering is a basic tenet of Elena Marquina—known as Nani—and her namesake Barcelona-based brand. In the 64-year-old’s mind, a rug can both define and insulate a space; it’s a visual and tactile canvas that morphs when viewed vertically or horizontally. It recedes or pops. Often, it invites lounging. It can have the transformative ability to serve multiple purposes: Once, recalls Marquina, in an Afghan home, she ate atop a kilim, and then, upon the meal’s conclusion, she used the same rug as a folded seat—“after shaking a few grains of rice off it, of course,” she says with a laugh.
A rug, in other words, is the ultimate blank slate. “Functionally speaking, a rug would work equally well without a design,” says designer Nipa Doshi, whose London-based firm, Doshi Levien, collaborated with the Nanimarquina brand a few years ago. “If you can do anything, functionally, where do you start?”
Over the past 30 years, Marquina’s responses to this question and other particularities of rug design have vaulted her company to the top of the pile, so to speak. The brand, which Marquina founded in 1987, now has a catalogue of 250 models, with rugs in more than 80,000 homes around the world, and an impressive roster of collaborators.
Marquina, whose father was the lauded industrial designer Rafael Marquina, grew up immersed in the field. After studying industrial design at the Escola Massana, she began to design textiles in the early ’80s. When she observed how limited the selection of contemporary rugs was, she founded Nanimarquina, hoping to bring cutting-edge design to rugs. In the years since, she’s been recognized as one of Spain’s most successful female entrepreneurs and honored with a National Culture Award from the government of Catalonia, and her company’s creations have won a slew of top design prizes.
Key to all this recognition was a shift in fabrication. At first, the brand’s rugs were made in Catalonia; in 1993, Marquina moved production to India. Over time, her designs grew beyond the limitations of local European know-how, which allowed for few colors, only straight lines, small quantities, and no prototypes. Upon the transition to India, the company grew quickly. “In reality,” Marquina says, “from the moment we began to produce in India, we were already thinking about a global reach.”
Looking back over the past three decades reveals four waves of Nanimarquina’s development. The first, which lasted through the very early aughts, involved continual experimentation on a two-dimensional surface: Marquina cites Javier Mariscal’s Estambul (1987), an abstracted simplification of an archetypal Persian rug and Nanimarquina’s first bestseller, as well as her own initial designs, including the Begonia collection (1989), the company’s first to be sold in the MoMA Design Store. This phase also established standards of quality in India: Each rug takes between 50 and 90 days to complete; Nanimarquina artisans make an average of 8,500 knots a day.
In the second period, from the early to mid-2000s, Marquina and the designers she hired focused on the possibilities of a rug’s materiality, pushing technical constraints and stretching expectations. Even as Marquina’s daughter, María Piera Marquina, took over as CEO in 2005, Nanimarquina’s rugs moved into three dimensions with collections like the Flying Carpet (2002), by Ana Mir and Emili Padrós, which sneaks a gently sloping wool-covered foam wedge under a carpet’s edge just high enough to transform it into a lounge area. Such playfulness appealed to a new wave of designers, such as Ron Arad, whose Do-Lo-Rez (2009), a pixelated, irregular field of squares, was created in coordination with his Moroso modular sofa of the same name; with one atop the other, the individual, video-game-like pixels of the carpet bursting out of the two-dimensional floor and into the entire space.
Marquina’s own Topissimo (2002) and Roses (2006)—which wove, respectively, cylindrical balls of wool and thousands of flat circles of wool-dyed felt onto the rug’s surface—paved a technical path for Tord Boontje’s Little Field of Flowers (2007). “That’s when we really started to talk about innovation, this obsession that we had with doing things that were totally different,” Marquina says.“How can we transform what we have, something that’s been done forever in the same way? How can we, with the same methods and techniques, give a sense that something is new? We put these questions in front of designers.”
A third phase, from the late 2000s to 2012, saw the brand, now with name recognition and awards, being approached by designers rather than the other way around. The techniques with which each designer or firm—including Doshi Levien, Ronan and Erwan Bouroullec, and Milton Glaser—chose to work ranged from traditional flat-woven kilims, to hand-tufted, to hand-knotted, to hand-loomed. Projects extended into the contract market—Nanimarquina produced 600 square meters of rugs to cover the walls of the United Nations headquarters in Geneva, for example.
For some, certain approaches to rug design presented a historic appeal. “I like working on techniques that have been used for thousands of years,” says Ronan Bouroullec. “I’m interested in finding new perspective and new techniques with a way [of production] that has existed a long time. I think it’s more complex than using new techniques.” The Bouroullecs’ Losanges (2011) takes the familiar diamond shapes of a kilim and, as if exploding the potential of a hallowed genre, splits them into seemingly random yet harmonic clusters of color. To Ronan, the irregular colors of a kilim presented an opportunity to create something with soul, or what he classifies as an almost pointillist aspect. “The imperfection in a kilim is moving,” he says. “The greens are never the greens you want. Each carpet is a bit different.”
Which marks the fourth phase: 2013 to the present. “In this moment,” Marquina says, “the value of design is in recuperating origins—in simple things, things that are a certain way for a given reason. It’s not change for the sake of change. Now is a moment when the computer isn’t such a valid tool for us; rather, we’re immersing ourselves in the world of weaving.” Take last year’s Mélange, by Spanish fashion designer Sybilla, a series of 20 kilims depicting a mosaic of basic geometric shapes in primarily black, white, and red. Or Tres, Marquina’s own design, a flat-weave dhurrie that knits together cotton, wool, and felt in a series of panels that vary in weight and feeling, a horizontal landscape that shifts underfoot.
Nanimarquina’s current work is more about the tradition of fibers than technological innovation, a fact that’s evident in the three collections that launched last month at the Salone del Mobile design and furniture fair in Milan. One of them, Mía, is a customizable three-panel rug that invites buyers to pick from among a matrix of colors and finishes. A series of four square ottomans upholstered in the same material sit atop the rugs. Another, developed from a drawing Spanish designer Jaime Hayon made on an airplane, presents an exuberant, hand-tufted tangle of shapes and slim black outlines against a white background. More painting than floor covering—indeed, it’s produced in an unusual 1.2-by-1.3-meter iteration intended for wall-hanging—the carpet reveals animals, faces, and a hand upon further inspection.
When it comes to Nanimarquina’s rugs, the line between finished and unfinished is blurry. A rug’s design isn’t done until elements of sight and touch come together; or, conversely, a design may be more finished than it initially appears. “For me, they were sketches, but [Nani] looked at it very much like a design, and that was great fun—she spotted the idea in the sketch itself,” says Doshi, whose design, Rabari (2012), places multicolored, multitextured geometric shapes on a white or gray background. In white, the landscape recalls a garden—though there’s not an organic shape in sight—as much as a Constructivist canvas might.
“[As a designer] it’s a balance between running a commercial company and yet being adventurous enough to do new things,” Ron Arad says. “I think I’d describe Nanimarquina that way. They’re interested in new ideas.”
Put another way, the company embraces an ethos that’s both individual and collaborative. “I always wanted to collaborate with others,” Marquina says. “It’s not about, ‘This is yours, this is mine.’ Through collaboration I always want to improve.”