lawyer Lawrence Rose spends his days fighting for his clients, and
at night he retreats home to be watched over by nine dancing Yei-be-cheis.
The figures, woven into a Navajo rug in the entryway, represent
the protective grandparents of Native American gods.
"There's a calming quality
about the Southwest style and a spirit to Navajo rugs," said
Rose from his Adobe Revival house, which overlooks Beverly Hills,
Calif. "People in my business need a peaceful place to inhabit,
a vacation house in the city. Once I'm here, I can forget what happens
That's the power of Navajo
rugs, a 300-year-old art form inspired by nature and the supernatural,
created one line at a time by weavers using upright looms.
With the rugs' ordered patterns
of zigzags, arrows and hooks in burnt red, cream and black, they
capture attention in every home, from rough-hewn cabins and Arts
and Crafts bungalows to ranch styles and white-walled moderns. Ralph
Lauren, Kevin Costner and Harrison Ford have Navajo rugs in their
Great Plains estates.
The head of Design Within Reach,
a contemporary furniture chain, displays his collection in a minimalist
house outside Sonoma, Calif.
"People are interested
in the rugs' decorative qualities, aesthetic value and emotional
connection to the life and traditions of a distinct and fascinating
culture," said David Roche, Sotheby's specialist in American
Indian art. "There's an excitement to these textiles and a
Sales of new rugs have jumped about 15
percent a year since the Southwestern design boom in the 1980s,
rug experts say. The price of a 4- by 6-foot new rug, which might
take months to weave, starts at a few thousand dollars.
The value of old rugs has
zoomed, too. A diamond-patterned Navajo weaving from the 19th century
sold to a private collector at a Sotheby's auction for $401,000
three years ago, eight times more than the highest bidder paid for
a comparable one a year before.
Web sites are heating up
interest and making the rugs easier to find outside art galleries,
museum gift shops, craft fairs and auctions. Rose bought his rugs
through www.navajorug.com, which is run by Steve Getzwiller, a leader
in preserving traditional Navajo weaving. Getzwiller's gallery is
on his Nizhoni Ranch near Sonoita, Ariz., southeast of Tucson. Clients
who can't visit in person are e-mailed images of rugs. They select
the ones they want delivered to their home, where they make a final
Getzwiller works only with
weavers on the Navajo reservation who use soft wool from Churro
sheep that is then naturally dyed, a laborious process that hadn't
been used in this area for a century until Getzwiller helped reintroduce
The Spanish brought herds
of Churro sheep to the Southwest in the 1500s, and Navajos used
the long, straight wool fibers to make tightly woven, water-resistant
saddle and shoulder blankets prized by other American Indians, Mexicans
and U.S. traders. Larger blankets later were used as rugs.
Dyes for yarn were created
by boiling plants and rocks. Secret recipes to make brownish reds
from prickly pear cactus fruit, juniper root and red rock were passed
from mother to daughter. Some wool was left undyed to make creamy
white, light brown, gray or black backgrounds. Black wool comes
from a lamb's first shearing, before the wool is bleached by the
In the early 1900s, tourists
hopped on trains headed to reservations in Utah, Arizona and New
Mexico and took home rugs as souvenirs. To keep up with the demand,
profit-minded trading post owners gave weavers synthetic dyes and
commercially processed yarns that cut down on time and expense.
Today, Navajo rugs made the
traditional way with hand-spun wool are valued more than quickly
made imitations because they have a smoother texture and are heavier
because of the residual lanolin in the wool. Some of the finest
rugs are considered tapestries because they have more than 80 threads
per inch, compared with a good-quality rug with 30 threads per inch
or a cheap knockoff with six per inch.
Well-made rugs lie flat without
puckering, have straight edges and corners and, when folded, have
a balanced pattern. They aren't exactly uniform, however, because
they're not machine-made. Some weavers even add imperfections. A
break in the border could be a "spirit line," a tiny line
of yarn that is said to allow the spirit of the artisan of the rug
to be free.
Over the years, regions on the Navajo reservation
developed distinct styles. The Two Grey Hills area in New Mexico
is known for its complex geometrical designs woven from undyed black,
gray and brown wool. Rugs from Teec Nos Pos in Arizona have bold
borders, and those from Ganado, Ariz., have red backgrounds.
The weaving on Rose's entryway
wall shows Yei-be-cheis performing a Night Way ceremony, in which
illness is driven away over nine nights. Some people believe rugs
depicting sacred ceremonies shouldn't be walked on. Rose has a practical
reason for keeping his rugs off the floor: His four dogs "would
ruin anything in two seconds."
Rose's rugs also are draped
over furniture. There is one with a storm pattern design on a couch
in the den, as well as a gray, blue and brown weaving on top of
a dresser in the master bedroom.
"I wish I had more places
to put the rugs," Rose said. "I appreciate the colors,
design and craftsmanship, but there's only so much space."