In her new book The Elements of a Home, design historian Amy Azzarito explores the stories behind 60 common household objects. The following chapter on flokati rugs is reprinted with permission from the publisher, Chronicle Books.
David Hockney’s Mr and Mrs Clark and Percy is one of the most celebrated portraits in London’s Tate Gallery. In the iconic painting, Britain’s 1970s “it” couple—textile designer Celia Birtwell and fashion designer Ossie Clark, along with their cat—are pictured in their living room. Clark’s bare feetare buried in a shaggy white rug. And not just any white rug, this is one of history’s fluffiest: the flokati. Flokati fluffiness is fluffiness on steroids: The average pile is 3 inches [7.5 cm] high, while the best-quality version, tightly woven with the finest wool, can have a pile up to 5 inches [12 cm] high. (If you drop an earring in a flokati, you might as well forget about seeing it again.)
While that carpet may seem like it belonged to the era of sunken living rooms, harvest gold kitchens, and lava lamps, it actually comes with an ancient pedigree. Alexander the Great used flokati, the original shag carpet, to warm his campaign tents as he swept across Egypt and Asia Minor in the fourth century. The rug was created by shepherds living in the highest villages of the Pindus mountain range in Greece. Raising goats and sheep primarily for dairy products, the herders made use of the sheep’s wool in clothing and floor coverings.
After weaving the wool into a rug, the shepherds would wash them in the rivers that ran through the mountains. They soon discovered that when the rugs were rinsed beneath a waterfall, the rushing water caused the backing of the rug to tighten and the pile to become even loftier.
It took so much time and effort to make flokati that they were considered too precious to use on the floor; instead, they were used to cover beds and walls to keep out drafts. Prized in both humble huts and wealthy homes, these rugs were an integral part of a bride’s dowry, or prika. In Trikala, a town in northern Greece at the center of flokati production, every traditional wedding featured a bridal flokati with a colorful border, designed to the young woman’s taste and woven as a saddle blanket for the horse or donkey that carried her from her home to the church.
The flokati is one of the rare domestic objects that has been relatively unchanged from its original use and form. The international popularity of flokati has ebbed and flowed, but it reached a crescendo in the early 1970s, largely thanks to Jackie Kennedy Onassis.
After her wedding to Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis, she spent the first years of their marriage redecorating the Pink House on Skorpios, their private island in the Ionian Sea. In a nod to traditional Greek design, she layered beige and white flokati rugs throughout the house to soften the terra-cotta tiled floors. What was good enough for Jackie was good enough for everyone else, and the popularity of flokati exploded.
Throughout the 1960s and into the early ’80s, the handmade Greek flokati was joined on the market by wall-to-wall synthetic shag carpeting.
Materials like polyester and acrylic had the benefit of being less expensive and available in any size imaginable.
Perhaps the most extreme use of shag carpeting was in actress Jayne Mansfield’s forty-room Beverly Hills mansion, where nearly every space was covered in it—including a Pepto-Bismol-pink bathroom—from floor to ceiling. That over-the-top use of the synthetic may have sounded the death knell for the real thing.
In the 1990s, designers of uber-hip spaces like The Standard hotel in Los Angeles rediscovered the flokati. The modern-day versions are still made in the mountains of Greece. (In the same way that Champagne in France owns the title of “champagne” for its sparkling wine, a rug must be made of sheep’s wool and produced in Greece to be called a flokati.) The process has been modernized: The rugs are made on automated looms, rather than handwoven, and the wool usually comes from New Zealand, rather than Greek sheep. The final production step, however, is essentially the same. Called the waterfall process, it takes place outdoors. For traditionally white rugs, the water must be crystal clear, so if a heavy rain has washed mud and debris into the rivers, the process cannot take place until the water is clean again.
As the ice-cold water streams down the mountain, it is diverted into chutes that funnel into huge vats containing the rugs. The water pressure creates a whirlpool effect, which transforms the rugs into a thick fluff. The rugs are hung out to dry and then shipped out to warm bare feet all over the world.
The Elements of a Home: Curious Histories behind Everyday Household Objects from Pillows to Forks is available from chroniclebooks.com for $19.95.