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From the Ground Up

Rugs are a key design element of any room—but they can be confusing to buy. Here’s how to choose the right size, style, and pattern.

Timothy Paul Carpets & Textiles is a designer favorite for its selection of handmade rugs. Photograph courtesy of Timothy Paul Carpets & Textiles.

Shopping for a rug isn’t always easy. It can be expensive, and there’s a lot to consider–size, color, pattern.

“It’s the foundation of any room,” says Paul Morgan Sherrill of Solís Betancourt & Sherrill, an interior-design firm in DC. A rug needs to “make sense with the architecture of the space and the palette of the home and, most importantly, be something we love and want to live with for years to come.”

A common mistake people make when shopping is to look at a rug as an isolated item. “It’s not about just picking the one we like most on its own,” says DC interior designer Nestor Santa-Cruz. “One has to concentrate on the big concept for the room. “

Unless you’re starting with a bare room and choosing all new furniture, you’ll want to pick a rug that fits into your current design scheme. You might bring along fabric samples and photos of the room.

We asked interior designers and rug experts for other tips.

Knowing The Basics

It helps to understand how rugs are made. Rugs are either handwoven–sometimes called hand-knotted–or partially or fully machine-made, also known as hand-tufted or broadloom. “The main difference is that the handmade rug will have, to some degree, variation in weave and color,” says Timothy Paul Worrell of Timothy Paul Carpets & Textiles in DC. “A machine-made rug will have few flaws, and the color will be very consistent.” Although there’s no difference in wearability between handmade and machine-made, handmade ones are usually more expensive because of the labor involved.

Wool is the most common material used in rugs, followed by plant-based materials such as sisal, jute, hemp, and cotton. A room’s foot traffic and its function, plus whether you have kids or pets, are factors to consider. “The most important thing to remember is that wool will clean best due to the natural lanolin oil found in the animal,” Worrell says. “Plant-based materials lack this oil, making them hard to clean.”

Adds Sherrill: “If you are sensitive to foot imprints, avoid carpets with a high silk or linen content, which has less resilience than a wool fiber.”

Sherrill also suggests looking at the density of the weave, meaning how close together the strands of yarn are–think knots per square inch: “Density affects the rug’s appearance and performance. For a high-traffic area, consider a more dense weave so that the rug will wear better and last longer.”

If it’s an antique rug, look for any wear and tear and any restoration that may have been done. Sometimes rugs are dyed or painted to disguise wear. “A good restoration involves actually reweaving the worn area, which is more evident from the back of the carpet,” Sherrill says. The restoration will affect the value, so it’s important to know what you’re looking at to ensure you’re getting a fair price.

Deciding on a Size

The next consideration is size. You’ll want to think about traffic patterns, the room’s layout, your budget–and what you want the rug to do. “Rugs can define areas within a room, be the whole field of the room, or be art pieces,” says Santa-Cruz.

To cover an entire room, the general guideline is to allow for 12 to 15 inches of flooring, or a consistent margin, to be exposed to frame your rug, says Old Town interior designer Barbara Franceski.

Furniture placement is key, she says: “If your desire is to ground a seating area in a larger room, at least the front legs of the larger upholstered pieces should sit on the rug. For under dining tables, the rug should be large enough to allow guests to push their chairs back and stand up without the back legs of the chair going over the rug edge.”

Says Sherrill: “Make sure the rug will not cover any HVAC registers and that doors are cut to clear the thickness of rug and padding.”

Choosing a Style

There’s no right answer when it comes to whether patterns are better than solids. It’s a matter of preference. “Rugs can be a lot like picking a piece of art,” says Sherrill.

An abstract rug pairs well with minimalist decor, while one with a small floral motif might be more suited to a formal interior. A solid, one-color or small-patterned rug can help unify a room that has several patterns and elements, says Santa-Cruz. Patterned rugs tend to hide stains and dirt better, but solids can be more peaceful, says Sherrill.

If you have a room with an asymmetrical furniture layout, Sherrill recommends a patterned rug without a central medallion. If you do opt for a rug with a medallion, make sure it’s positioned where the design can be appreciated, not under a table, says Franceski.

Saving Money

There’s no way around it–rugs are a big purchase. Here are a few ways to save:

• Go to a place such as Carpet One Floor & Home in Alexandria and have an area rug made out of a remnant, suggests Franceski.

• Sherrill recommends using a smaller, more special rug to define the main seating area of a room, then placing it over a larger sisal rug: “This is more economical in that the rare rug is smaller.”

• Buy an inexpensive broadloom carpet and dress it up with an interesting border.

Good Local Stores

The following are rug and carpet shops recommended by interior designers.

Alexandria Carpet One Floor & Home. You can save money at this national chain. 430 S. Pickett St., Alexandria; 571-350-8617.

C.G. Coe & Son. Known for its outstanding service, this shop specializes in Oriental rugs and broadloom carpets. 4905 Del Ray Ave., Bethesda; 301-986-5800.

Classic Floor Designs. A showroom filled with luxurious area rugs and carpets, from Oriental to hand-knotted Tibetan. The company outfitted the Oval Office. 2120 L St., NW; 202-872-9860.

Flor. This store, which opened last month in Georgetown, offers modular floor coverings and carpet squares that can be pieced together to create one-of-a-kind rugs and wall-to-wall designs. 1037 33rd St., NW; 202-944-5057.

La Musa. Specializes in handmade custom wool rugs, natural-fiber broadloom carpets, and Couristan and other fine rugs. 5345 Wisconsin Ave., NW; 202-537-5000.

Timothy Paul Carpets & Textiles. A favorite among interior designers, this shop offers beautiful handmade rugs. 1404 14th St., NW; 202-319-1100.

Vastu. A large selection in solids and patterns. Custom rugs are available. 1829 14th St., NW; 202-234-8344.

If you’re working with an interior designer who has access to trade-only showrooms at the Washington Design Center (300 D St., SW), these are favorites there:

Galleria Carpets & Rugs. An assortment of designer rugs, from brands such as Carter, New Moon, and Tamarian. 202-863-0106.

Patterson, Flynn & Martin. From contemporary to classic, this custom boutique includes historic reproductions, Oriental carpets, broadlooms, and hand-tufted rugs. It will even handcraft rugs based on fabrics, patterns, and colors. 202-646-0993.

Stark Carpet, Fabric, Wallcovering & Furniture. Everything from patchwork to needlepoints, Orientals to Moroccan, flat-weaves to Tibetans. 202-484-4566.

This article appears in the May 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.