The Making Of
Amy Helfand’s Garland Rugs

Even though Brooklyn-based artist Amy Helfand has been designing rugs on commission from her Red Hook studio since 2004 — hand-knotted wool rugs, it should be mentioned, that sell for at least $125 a square foot — she still has trouble defining herself in those terms. “Up until recently, I never really thought about rugs,” she says. “I thought about making my artwork, and some of that artwork I’d make into rugs. But it was never like ‘Ok, this one comes in 5×7 and 6×9.’” Ironic, considering that she graduated from a studio art program at Chicago’s School of the Art Institute called Fiber. “It was a catch-all term,” she swears. “Those people were not necessarily textile people.”

So how did it all come together? In 2004, Helfand was working on what she calls “sculptural installation work — grand-schemey sort of stuff” — when she was asked to put together a show at Wave Hill, a public garden and cultural center in the Bronx where the galleries are actually the domestic spaces of a 19th-century mansion. “I had been doing all of this collage work, and I thought a rug would be a good match for my imagery. It could sit in front of this fireplace in what would be the receiving room.” Helfand’s body of work for the show was inspired by the natural beauty of Wave Hill, and the rug she created was a map-like aerial view, based on the site plan of the gardens there. She lucked out on her first try finding a reputable manufacturer in Nepal, and from there, it was relatively simple: “I liked the rug, I sold it, and I tried to do more,” she says. Inspiration for subsequent series came mostly from her travels in the wilds of America, with one based on the Appalachian Trail, and another on Lewis and Clark and the museum at the St. Louis Arch. “My imagery has always been rooted in landscape and the natural world,” she says. “I like maps and that whole idea of having room to roam. I guess the idea of the journey must be compelling to me.”

In March of 2008, that journey took her all the way to Nepal, where she’d sent three rugs to be crafted in anticipation of that spring’s International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York. It was there she found the subject matter that would drive nearly all of the personal work she’s done since that time. Everywhere she went, everywhere she looked, there were colorful prayer flags strung along streets and cascading out in lines from temples. “It’s this very tiny country, and it’s full of faith, which isn’t something I’m really in touch with in my life. There are Hindus and Buddhists, and their religion is ever-present. I was inspired by the expression of these faiths, which coexist peacefully, and just graphically I liked the way they looked.”

In May, Helfand debuted Garland, her second series of rugs based on the prayer-flag motif, at an ICFF booth that brought the series to life in 3-D. Earlier this summer, on a swampy Wednesday afternoon, I visited her Red Hook studio to find out exactly how the rugs were made.

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Helfand’s Garland rugs, which debuted at this year’s ICFF, were inspired by Nepalese prayer flags. But the process by which she arrived at a final design was more complicated than simply basing the rugs on her original photographs. True to her multidisciplinary past, Helfand created this imagery by producing a series of sculptures, tracings, drawings, and photographs that all informed the final product.

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The prayer flags shown here are generally a Tibetan Buddhist product, in which each of the five colors represents an element of the natural world: blue symbolizes sky, white is air, red is fire, green is water, and yellow is earth.

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Flags weren’t the only color inspiration for the project. Helfand found influence all around Nepal in the bright hues of things like the dry pigment shown here, which is often used to mark Hindu shrines and statues.

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Another color inspiration.

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When Helfand first started researching rugs, she came across an organization called Rugmark — now known as Goodweave — which is a nonprofit working to end child labor in the rug industry. They sent her a list of manufacturers, among them the one she eventually ended up working with. Shown here is the organization’s headquarters. “If they find kids on the loom, they put them back with their family and support them to go to school,” Helfand says. “If that’s not an option, they have a location where kids can live and go to school.”

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Helfand does most of her work with the manufacturer via email. “There’s definitely a communication gap,” she says, and adding to the confusion is Nepal’s ongoing political strife. “My manufacturer has had to diversify its production because they’ve had this political situation with the Maoists. You’ll have a factory full of 100 people, and these guys will come in and everybody leaves work at once.” The factory shown here used to be the company’s headquarters but it’s since been abandoned and used for storage.

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Once she’s sent a jpeg or a package by DHL that contains a large print, the rug-making process from beginning to end takes about three months to complete. “It’s a pretty low-tech operation,” Helfand says. Shown here are the Swiss dyes the weaving company mixes to create any color. “A lot of the dyeing is still done over a wood fire, so pollution is an issue,” she says.

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When Helfand arrived in Nepal, she found a small notebook marked “Amy Colour Book.” Inside were formulas that indicated what percentage of each of color should be used to make a particular dye.

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The last step before the rug goes on the loom is graphing. “He’s done the graphing by hand and he’s using watercolor,” Helfand says of the worker in this picture, “but I’ve used another manufacturer where they just blow up a drawing on a Xerox machine.” The 1:1 graph is hung behind the yarn as a template for the workers.

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Helfand estimates that there’s typically one person on the loom for every two feet of rug. “You get four different hands in your rug, and four people’s way of interpreting this thing behind it. After all these steps, and sending it off to a factory halfway across the world, having somebody else add their input to it is an interesting step in the process.”

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Helfand produced an initial series of rugs last year, but this winter, she began creating a whole body of work that now fills her studio and served as inspiration for the Garland series. “I started with these little drawings,” she says. “Whenever I’m stuck, I always go back to black and white.”

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She then began creating these miniature sculptures, wire armatures covered with painted plaster. “I ended up using photographs that I’d taken of these sculptures to generate more imagery, which is then what I based the rug drawings on — drawings from photographs of my sculptures. This photographing my own work and using it as source material is definitely a new thing,” Helfand says.

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For ICFF, Helfand collaborated with Brooklyn woodworker and designer Palo Samko to create a large-scale version of her sculpture to use as storage during the fair. “On a practical level,” she says, “I needed somewhere to stash my stuff. But I've also often had this idea of trying to turn one of my 2-D images into a sculptural environment. This was the first step on that road.”

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Another sculpture that was blown up to larger-than-life proportions and used to decorate Helfand’s booth

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The final tracings that were used to create Garland's abstract imagery.

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Yarn samples in Helfand’s studio.

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The final rug, of which only one will likely ever be made. “I have a new friend who is a well-respected rug dealer in Milan encouraging me to try two-color rugs in a few different sizes and to get some samples and maybe try to approach a showroom,” Helfand says. “But to be honest, I enjoy working on commission. I don’t want to just run a business because then I won’t be interested in what I’m doing.”